What We Do When Behavior Is Getting Out of Control
Six kids can be crazy.
Children in groups have this special way of amplifying one another’s attitudes or behaviors, and when one kid starts getting amped up, things can spiral fast. The key is to recognize the circumstances that lend to crazy and interrupt them as early as possible, before things get out of hand.
As a former kindergarten teacher, I typically combat crazy with classroom management strategies. I recognize that this does sometimes make us look more like a freak show than we already do, but fortunately the kids haven’t seemed to catch on yet. I’m hoping that I have a few more years before they realize that none of their friends’ moms say, “1, 2, 3, eyes on me” to their kids when they’re loading up the car. For now, the classroom strategies in my back pocket from years of classroom experience are serving us well. Here are some of my favorite tactics:
A lot of times things can get crazy when we’re in the middle of a transition, like coming home or cleaning up from a meal. Without a clearly defined task, kids are left to their own resources and will do whatever strikes them as most fun, which probably includes some form of running and/or screaming. When you’re winding up one activity and getting ready to change gears, think ahead. What do you want kids to be doing next? Where can you direct them that will give them a productive outlet for their energy? Make these directions as clear and specific as possible. “When you get out of the car, stand on the white line.” or “When you finish your breakfast, you can play outside or color at the art table.”
Routines are like clear directions, but built in. You don’t have to define the task each time, because everyone already knows what’s coming next and where they’re supposed to be. The important part about routines is making sure that they’re, well, routine. The expectation has to be that we always do it the same way, and the incentive or consequence is always the same for doing or not doing things the expected way. For example, in our morning routine, kids are expected to finish their chores in a certain amount of time, and there’s an incentive for finishing on time. If one day this week I don’t hold to the time limit, the rest of the days this week kids think that maybe there’s a chance they can get away with not finishing on time, and the chaos of off-task kiddos ensues.
Sometimes the energy in the room is just high. Kids are all where they belong but the noise or the motion is escalating and it’s time to re-direct. You need a signal. This can be anything, like turning off the lights, clapping three times, or a phrase like “1, 2, 3, eyes on me.” I use a song to the tune of Happy And You Know It:
If you can hear my voice, touch your nose
If you can hear my voice, touch your ears
If you can hear my voice, pat your head, pat your head
If you can hear my voice, say shhhhh
Whatever you use, use it consistently and reinforce the expectation. I use the same song each time, and my kids know that their will be incentives for the first person to start singing with me, or consequences for anyone who is not singing along by the time I get to the end. And then as soon as the song is finished…
The best way to reduce the noise level is by lowering the volume of whatever they want to hear. When I finish the attention song and have all eyes, my next instructions are in a whisper. Everyone has to lean in to hear, and they stop talking.
This also works in situations where the volume is too loud for the setting. So often it happens that we’re all at the dinner table, and everyone has something to share, and they’re all excited and talking over one another, and before you know it, everyone is shouting. But when I lean in and start to whisper my response, their desire to know what’s being said usually inspires them to either stop talking or at least speak more quietly.
Find the Source
Often times, there’s one or two kiddos who are having a rough time with self control, and they’re the ones instigating the crazy in the room. Rather than forcing everyone else to stop what they’re doing, if I can help redirect that one child, I can lower the chaos level. Take 30 seconds or so to pause and watch. Could you change the tone of the room by removing just one person? If so, pull that person from the group and help them choose a new activity, or set more appropriate guidelines for the game that they’re playing.
Finally, when things are just going downhill and you’re having trouble stopping the crazy train, have some easy go-to activities that you can jump to to re-direct attention or energy. We stop what we’re doing and have a dance party, read a book (make sure it’s an easy favorite, not that hefty classic that you’re reading for history), or go spend five minutes on the trampoline. Usually by the time we’re done, people are ready to calm down and head in to the next thing on our agenda with more focused energy.
JAMIN RESPONDS: Yeah, except I think you’re cheating. A lot of what you wrote is preventing crazy, which, I agree, really is the key to keeping sanity. But this all sounds familiar with the exception of the silly songs. But you do you. Whatever works. I’m just bummed you didn’t mention mommy’s crying pillow that you scream into when things get too crazy and you just need to curl up in a ball in the corner.
tldr: Prevent, don’t fix. Focus on someone else.
This is the wrong blog post. We don’t have a crazy household. You shouldn’t either. We work hard to prevent a crazy household. Go check out some of the parenting posts to learn how to not need the following information.
Unfortunately, our preventative advice is not anywhere near perfect, plus we don’t even follow our own advice perfectly (take for example, our upcoming posts: “You Should Save More Money”, “Diet and Exercise are Important”, or “If You Stay Up So Late, You’re Going to Be Tired All Day Tomorrow and It’s Just Not Worth It Even Though You Think It Will Be Fine Just This Once”). So the following advice is necessary sometimes (As you probably know, most of my advice to my kids is also great advice for me, so this stuff mostly works on adults too)…
It might just be me.
The baby kept me up. I had to work late. I’ve been making bad food choices recently. I’m frustrated with my spouse about an ongoing fight. Finances are really tight and the check engine light is on. My kid is using a really annoying voice to ask really annoying questions, but both are a normal phase that I need to not squash. There’s a reasonable chance that no one else in the house is feeling the funky vibe but me. I’ll sometimes take a look at a situation and tell myself, “Let’s assume I’m the only one who’s wrong here. Maybe all their complaints and frustrations are legit. What things absolutely can’t match that explanation?” I often find that some or all of their complaints are legitimate. It might be frustrating that I have to deal with those complaints, but the fact that they are frustrated is legitimate and they have presented them in perfectly acceptable ways. Or sometimes I find that they haven’t actually complained. I have complained in my head about how things feel even though they all seem to be pretty happy, now that I think about it. They might be a little wound up, but they’re all having fun and actually have pretty decent attitudes. Maybe I should stop thinking about my external stresses and enjoy the beautiful kids in front of me. SMUD hasn’t turned off the power yet, no one is actually starving (except me, but I could stand to lose a few), none of them are in the hospital at the moment, and the cops haven’t caught up with me. This could be a totally kick-ass few minutes if I were as crazy as they are.
Change the environment.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration that half of our attitudes have to do with our environment. And like the frog in the boiling water, the environment can change without anyone noticing. Sometimes I’ll come in the house from working and people are in a funky mood, but I can smell the diapers or the house is too warm/cold or the TV that no one is watching is way too loud. That stuff all can happen slowly and increase chaos. So clean up. Take a walk. Spray some air freshener. Turn on the lights. Turn off the lights. Open the windows. Turn off the TV and background music. Turn on some TV or background music. Everyone can help with this. Everyone gets a task. If I give each person 2 simple tasks, we just changed 16 things in our environment. So five minutes later the atmosphere has changed and everyone feels different.
Note the situation.
This probably won’t help in the moment, but might be the single greatest tool for preventing this in the future. If 50% of attitude is environment, the other 50% is habit. Make a calendar (for yourself, not with the kids) of bad attitudes and all the surrounding factors/schedules you can think of. If every day at 6:30 the baby gets fussy, we need to have to plan for it. If every Friday morning I fight with the kids about the morning routine, maybe their Thursday nights they’re up too late. If every time I’m working hard on a predictable recurring work project (presentation, school program, Christmas shopping), my spouse and I fight about sex, we need to plan for that and set expectations going into the next big project.
Create a more immediate problem.
Kids usually throw a fit when there is room for a fit. Parents usually fight when they have time to fight. A kid who is mad at mom and then falls and scrapes their knee, suddenly wants her help. And parents in the middle of a fight can often come together when the baby has to be rushed to the ER for inexplicable sudden illness. That doesn’t mean that the original, real problem is solved (having a baby is a horrible way to try to save a marriage). If the problem is real, it will likely fester when repeatedly ignored. But in our marriage and our family, a lot of times we fight over problems that aren’t real. If we can find a significant distraction, the fake problems die. It helps when Wendy and I are on the same team fighting against the world. And it works the same for families. And teams. And workplaces.
So what kind of problem can I create for my kids? Me. The other parent. The wild card. That kid has been reading mom and playing her, but I just walked in and all I see is a screaming kid and we’re not dealing with your complaint until we deal with how you’re complaining. Another problem I can create is a consequence, but as we state in our other parenting posts: no threatening consequences that might not be enforced. And an out of control kid may not have the mental bandwidth to consider a consequence. A 3 year old without a nap may not be deterred by even the threat of death, so at some point you’re not offering helpful discipline, you’re just abusing your kids.
Another problem I can create is a sudden, wild change of direction. “Oh my goodness! There is a giant spider in our bathtub! You have to come see this!!!” Or “Who’s going with me to the donut store?” Of course, you don’t want to reward bad behavior, so any inappropriate decisions will still have to be dealt with, and sooner rather than later. But sometimes you have to snap everyone out of their mental state so issues can be dealt with in a rational and humane manner.
It’s hard for a kid (or adult) to be caught up in a bad/selfish attitude while focusing on solving someone else’s problems. If I catch a kid throwing a fit at mom, we’re both going to unload the groceries together. Afterward we can talk about the thing with mom or write an apology letter. But for now, we’re moving our feet and using our minds.
Research Behavior Modification
Read books about decision making and behavioral economics like Nudge or 48 Laws Of Power or The Game (NSFW) or zillions of others. The gooey software in your head hasn’t changed much in the course of human history. While there’s still a lot to learn, a lot of behavior and decision making is pretty much a solved game. Not all of the ways you win the game are ethical, so you’ll have to make some decisions about what you are and aren’t willing to do, but getting a group of people to do what you want is usually an accomplishable task. When you learn more about how the brain makes decisions you can set better triggers for your kids. When you explain to them how to set better triggers for themselves, I think that’s called parenting.
WENDY RESPONDS: Great stuff. You are the pro at helping kids turn attitudes around. I’m glad we’re on the same team for this thing!
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