It always makes me smile when I hear people doing positive reinforcement techniques with children in groups like in a classroom. When you hear an adult say “wow Jenny’s sitting really nicely – thank you Jenny” – when what they’re really trying to say is “Harry sit still like Jenny”! Of course Harry hasn’t joined those dots in his head. He doesn’t know we’re actually trying to get him to understand how to sit in our classroom – just like Jenny. We use this method quite often. By implying something to the whole group we assume that the person who needs to hear it and who we are really talking to has understood, when many times they couldn’t care less about sitting still – or more likely they’ve just not made the very subtle connection in what we’re saying.
This is also the case as children get older. We still continue to talk in mysterious riddles sometimes. What on earth are we trying to say when we make these throw away comments that we expect young people to pick up on and join the dots? I know for vulnerable children particularly but also lots of children who’ve had a nurturing environment in their early years may struggle with these ambiguous ways of communicating. They need us to be straight with them. If we want them to sit in a certain way – then tell them. If we want them to understand what is expected of them – then tell them in terms they can understand.
The other element to this of course is that even when we do speak in plain English for some children they still can’t make the connections in their brain. They may have trouble with cause and effect thinking – understanding that actions have consequences. They may not realise that bashing someone on the head is going to result in getting in trouble. I know that sounds ridiculous to us – “of course they would know that”, I hear you cry. But maybe they don’t. They may have signed the code of conduct that says they will abide by the rules but when they are in the heat of the moment and someone pushes into them they just lash out with no thought to the consequences.
Part of early brain development is about our brain cells making connections around the brain through repetitive, patterned experiences with other people. For children who haven’t had those stimulating and nurturing moments with adults their brains haven’t joined the dots so to speak. They don’t understand empathy, self-regulation and impulse control. They’ve lived with a sense of shame not a sense of guilt. In other words they feel bad about who they are not about what they do. As a result they are very often misunderstood. We think they know what they are doing and have control over their actions, when many times they are not making the necessary connections in their brain that would help them to be in control of their responses.
Dr Daniel Siegel talks of the flipped lid. This is when the sensible parts of our brain are overrun by the instinctive elements that cause us to react without thought and pre-meditation. Click on the video below to hear Dr Siegel explain this concept and I’m sure it will ring true with those of you who work closely with vulnerable children.
So when you’re talking with children – think about joining those dots for them – if they can’t understand the language we use then be more explicit in what we are asking of them. And then remember that the connections around their brain may not be connected properly – even if they do understand what we ask they may not be in the right space in their brain to listen, understand and act in the way we wish – they may be about to flip their lid and they need us to help them to regulate.