Many parents and teachers of small children would be
surprised and relieved to learn that undesirable behaviors
can often be prevented by asking ourselves, "Has this child
slept enough, eaten well, and had enough to drink?" Or even,
"Is s/he dressed appropriately for the weather?" Let's look
more closely at ways to create positive experiences with the
children around us.
SLEEP is critical in determining how well a child behaves.
Often, the younger children in large families do not get the
sleep they need because they want to be part of all the
evening activities. These curious youngsters benefit from an
afternoon nap or learning to submit to a soothing bedtime
routine at an age-appropriate hour. One set of parents I know
solves this problem by having one parent settle the younger
child(ren) down to sleep at six or seven while the other
parent looks after the older set. If an overtired child
misbehaves in a preschool setting, letting him rest is
often the most effective discipline technique.
Some children need to EAT at frequent intervals -- more
frequent than their household or school schedule allows for.
Try to arrange for an extra-nutritious snack about half an
hour to an hour before the regular meal times. I have seen
this simple trick make drastic improvements in a child's
behavior! The same goes for DRINKING, especially in warm
weather or dry climates. Children often do not feel thirsty.
However, if you offer a drink of water or juice in between
regular meal times on a hot or dry day, you will notice that
everyone is more relaxed and agreeable than usual! Being
OVER-or UNDERDRESSED is also a cause of uneasiness and
irritability. Even children who are old enough to speak
cannot always articulate their needs and it's our job to
assess the situation. So don't just wait for a toddler or
preschooler to tell you he's hot or chilly. Count the layers
he's wearing and think how you would feel. Then ask if he
wants a layer added or removed.
Having considered these relatively easy ways to help children
behave their best, we must consider that sometimes children
suffer EMOTIONAL STRESS. New siblings, new homes, absence of
a loved one, conflict within the family or divorce all take
their toll on children. Many people underestimate children's
ability to perceive the emotional tenor of their environment.
This is a mistake, for children are affected by every nuance.
Bear this in mind when assessing a child's behavior and
deciding how to respond. It is appropriate to overlook a
certain amount of misbehavior if a child is in an adjustment
phase. In addition, and equally important, remember to
give extra attention and affection to a child who is
undergoing any kind of stress! More frequent smiles, pats on
the head, eye contact and quick hugs can smooth over the
bumps of childhood, and these ways of giving take almost no
time at all. If you can work it into your schedule, giving
your child or student `time alone' with a beloved can work
wonders. Just taking your little one into a closed room alone
and having a chat or sharing an activity or treat for five
minutes or even three are effective. Try it!
If you think or know a child is pressured or troubled in some
way, sometimes it's extremely helpful to discuss the
situation with the child. Usually, it's enough to just state
the problem in a simple way, such as, "It's hard to get used
to a new group of friends, isn't it?" and then provide some
kind of reassurance that things will be alright. "Some things
take a little time! A sweet child like you is sure to have
If you bring up the stress subject, your child may feel
tremendous relief in being able to share his worries. One
girl, whose father travels frequently, was not looking
forward to his next absence. Her mother casually mentioned
that it was hard for the family to be apart, and immediately,
her daughter asked, "Who will make Kiddush for us?" After the
discussion, everyone felt better.
Another common cause of misbehavior is BOREDOM. We should
always ask ourselves if a child's difficult phase is due to
lack of stimulation. Presenting the child with more
challenging books, puzzles, household chores or playmates can
prevent problems from arising.
Interestingly enough, when a child does not act as we would
like, our own inner state and thoughts are critical in
determining the outcome of the situation. Even if you can
manage to control what you say and do not lash out verbally,
if you are angry or feel hostile towards your children or
students, they will know it. Do not deceive yourself!
Angry and hostile thoughts in themselves hurt our child
and damage our relationship with him!
Instead, it is critical to follow the advice of the Mishna,
"Judge the whole person (including all the extenuating
circumstances as discussed above) favorably." Then, you can
avoid the pitfall of anger and remain calm. Remember; if you
are calm, outwardly and inwardly, your charges will be calm,
also. Speak softly, as the Rambam recommends. This sets a
loving tone. In such an atmosphere, children will be able to
hear your words of guidance and gentle rebuke and remain calm
On the other hand, children spoken to out of anger react
negatively. Either they become incapacitated by anxiety or
turn a deaf ear out of boredom or disrespect. If you still
feel your anger rising, remember: this is a test from Hashem
. Recall your list of extenuating circumstances. Imagine your
child or student as a tender newborn, or imagine that your
actions right now are determining the future of the world. On
a more mundane level, simply turn your tape deck on to
`Record' during your most difficult time of day. Just knowing
that your words are being recorded (even in this world) can
have a very powerful effect.
We must bear in mind that if we vent our anger upon our
children or students, they will learn to do just the same to
us! Is this what we wish to accomplish? Of course not! True
discipline should convey to our children that we believe in
their abilities to be good, to improve and grow. They must
believe that we object to inappropriate behaviors, but we
love them. True discipline means helping children
develop self discipline and problem solving techniques that
will stay with them throughout their lives.
Bearing these thoughts in mind, here are some techniques that
will help you guide your child's behavior in a most
* REPHRASE IT! If your child/student demands something in a
less than mannerly fashion such as "WATER!" when he is
thirsty, try rephrasing the request or comment immediately,
as you would have liked to have heard it. "Please may I have
a drink?" This can work between children also. If you hear an
angry, "It's MY turn," chime in, "Please could I have a turn
with that, too, soon?" in your sweetest voice, as if you were
the child. This works because it keeps you from using a harsh
tone of voice in reprimand, doesn't put the child on the
spot, and at the same time, teaches the right way for the
child to get what he needs. Try it!
* Sometimes you can adapt this technique by getting the
children to `rerun' the scenario using polite expressions and
effective problem solving methods. You might have to provide
the script by saying, "H-m-m! How could we say that nicely?"
Or suggesting enthusiastically, "Let's ask nicely for that
toy instead of grabbing."
* VERBALIZE IT. If you can tune in to what an angry or upset
child is feeling, verbalize what you think the child is
trying to express through his bad behavior. This relieves
tension and makes the child feel understood. For instance,
"If I had lost my favorite book, I would also be upset. Maybe
instead of sulking, we could write that incident down and
make a story out of it."
* Speaking of WRITING, writing things down is a wonderful way
to alleviate unhappiness of all sorts. If your children are
too young to write, offer to let them dictate their thoughts
to you. Watching you write distracts them from disruptive
behavior. This gives you relief and a chance to reestablish a
positive tone. Continue this by reading the story back to the
children, and then letting them `read' it whenever the need
arises. Perhaps your group could illustrate the story! Make
copies for all interested parties.
* Don't forget to use the mildest forms of discipline first.
Establish EYE CONTACT with the mischief maker. Sometimes a
sensitive child needs merely a raised eyebrow to bring him
back into line. Physical proximity to parent or teacher can
help many children remember to behave. Avoid calling out
commands from a distance; get close and speak softly instead.
"You forgot!" is so much kinder and less accusatory than,
"How many times..." "Haven't I told you..." etc.
* One of the best mild forms of discipline is PREEMPTIVE
DISCIPLINE. If you know a certain child has a regular pattern
of misbehavior, find a quiet moment before the pattern sets
in for that day and discuss your expectations in a friendly
manner with your child or student. This works wonders! By
saying something like, "Today, when you feel like teasing
your sister, try getting some attention by saying, `Please
could you read me a book?' or something like that. O.K.?" As
you speak, smile and put your arm around his shoulder. You
are programming him for good behavior.
* Follow up! After all the effort you've put in to improving
your interactions with the children in your life, always
remember to compliment positive behavior, even if it only
lasts for five minutes. The more you notice good behavior,
the more it will recur.