3 Things Big People Do That Unintentionally Contribute to Small People Becoming Distressed

3 Things Big People Do That Unintentionally Contribute to Small People Becoming Distressed
Photo by Lex Melony / Unsplash

In crafting a fusion of therapy and education at the Enhancing Learning centre using a non-behavioural lens to view children, we adults are the ones learning in every single interaction in the space. It is a space where we use deep curiosity and a commitment to seeing only the actions being taken (not labelling it as “behaviour”).

Only then can we change perspectives and increase the adult's responsiveness and accuracy in interpreting these actions.

There are so many ways we bigger humans misinterpret the intentions behind a child’s actions. These are some common ones that I see and can still get caught out by too…

We underestimate the sheer effort a child has been putting into an activity

At the EL centre, children have their own agency so they explore and engage in activities that they prefer or want to explore.  Even within this child-led space, we can still sabotage the natural learning pattern of Work, Play, and Rest.

Learning new skills and concepts takes effort for all humans.  

Adults have less frequent periods of time where they truly are “working” at establishing a brand new idea or skill e.g learning the guitar if you have never played before, or starting a book on a topic you know very little about. It’s not a sustainable level of operation for too long a period.

But as we pace our learning we start to engage in a “play” phase - doing the same guitar action thing over and over, re-reading a tricky bit of information to better embed the new concepts with our past knowledge.

Then we take a rest. Grab a coffee, go for a walk, or mindlessly scroll on our phone. More importantly, if the new skill or learning remains too hard and we always feel like we are in the working phase when trying to master it, we can stop that learning effort. We can choose to opt-out.

Every child engages in the same cycle as they learn new skills and concepts.

The cycle can be seen most clearly in younger children as they explore their world and work hard to achieve new movements and ideas, spend time doing the same thing over and over again in their play phase and then move on to an activity requiring less brain power (cognitive effort).  They may even actually fall asleep.

Children who are developing at a different pace from their peers have the same essential need to have a work, a play and a rest cycle in their learning of any new skill or concept.

But their learning system may need more time in the work phase than their friends. More time in the play phase. And much more rest time!

If we impose a “catch up” mentality for these children we risk keeping the child in work mode and limiting the time they engage in play and rest modes which are critical for progress in learning and development.

Even in centres child-led environment, we see the results of underestimating how much effort the children are putting in at the work phase.  We can easily miss signs to support them to move to a play or rest action, especially when they appear to want to stay in the activity.

The outcome of spending too long in the work phase. Overexertion and for anyone who has experienced extreme fatigue - all of the horrible internal irritation, and even pain, that this induces.

A behaviour lens labels this as a tantrum, meltdown or aggression.

We know it is a need for an adult to facilitate the child to a rest phase to remove this horrible “fizz” of over-exertion.

It is even better if we manage to facilitate them to a play or rest phase before they have worked too hard. But the moment is hard to catch.

We try to show strength (but actually show fear)

Big actions by a child - throwing, running, screaming, hitting - trigger an instinctive reaction in big humans to try to take control and be in charge. We stand up, we come closer to the child, we make ourselves bigger (arms on hips,  shoulders swelling), and we make our voice louder.  In the moment, it important the child stop these actions AT ONCE.

But really there is an undercurrent of fear in the actions taken by the adult.

Fear, that if I don’t stamp this out now I lose respect.

I lose my power.

I need to stand my ground now while I still can (while this little human is still smaller than me). And because we are all just humans of different ages this fear breeds fear in the child we are responding to.

Counterintuitively, we can best show our strength as bigger people by respecting the surging stress and pumping adrenaline in that child.

We can make ourselves smaller, quieter and less of a threat.  

We can withdraw to a safer distance.

We can look for a strategy that helps burn that adrenaline up quickly and in a safer way than the actions the child is currently taking to try to achieve that outcome.

We forget how truly awful it feels when adrenaline is surging or fatigue is setting in

It can be confronting and hard for adults to reflect on how a child may be feeling, based on their outward demeanour.  That’s why it can catch us by surprise when a child suddenly takes big actions.

Adults don’t want to consider that a child may be feeling just like the way an adult feels after a near accident in their car or confrontation with another person - shaky, sick, angry (adrenaline surge).

We don’t enjoy thinking that a child may feel the irritation of extreme fatigue or extreme pain with no way for describing it (adrenaline ebb)

We really don’t want to think that this surge or ebb is occurring multiple times a day an hour or minute to minute.

But, if we can remember how horrible those internal feelings are for us as adults when they happen, we can embrace strategies that counteract the surge or ebb. Big movements, heavy work, rocking, pressure, silence, darkness - every adult soothes their uncomfortable feelings in lots of different ways - and we can use that knowledge with our curiosity to find the best option for the child.

Supporting children, especially children developing at a different pace to others of the same age, is a challenge and tainted by well-meaning advice and preconceived ideas adults have about children’s learning and development.  But, it is an important journey for any human to take to consider the actions they are seeing and the science behind why those actions are occurring.

We can catch ourselves before we further disturb the reaction of a child who is working so hard, and feeling so many intense internal responses.

We can be the calm that dampens this surge of distress if we see it for what it truly is, and not judge it as a behaviour.