Some years ago, I received a tearful phone call from a young mom whose son had been “expelled” from preschool. Her son – a precocious, intelligent builder of large block structures – exploded in anger when a teacher dismantled his tower to make room for a new class project. Frustration escalated…and a chair was thrown. Mom was called at work and asked to pick up her son – and not return. It’s every mom’s nightmare, and it’s all-too-common. “Young children are being expelled from preschool and child care programs at an astonishing rate, often because of challenging behaviors such as aggression…”

This distraught mom of an expelled three-year- old carries a heavy burden. She is frantic about finding another preschool that will enroll him. She desperately hopes there is a teacher who will “like” her child and see his goodness. And she worries that her son may have behavior issues that will label him as “bad.”

Let’s define the difference between anger and aggression. Anger is a feeling. From time-to-time, young children will experience frustration and anger as they discover the boundaries that exist in their world. On the other hand, throwing a chair when angry is an aggressive behavior that is inappropriate.

Perhaps, restoring hope to children with challenging behaviors lies in helping them deal with frustration, stress, and anger…before it results in aggression.

Here are a few strategies for teachers and families that can help children manage their stress and anger before chairs are thrown and challenging behaviors run rampant:

  •  Encourage children to play outdoors. It’s long been recognized that outdoor play and nature
    experiences can help alleviate stress. A 2014 research study by the University of Colorado shows that green schoolyards are havens for classroom stress. By lowering children’s stress levels, anger becomes more manageable. An old Zen saying states: You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day…unless you’re busy, then you should sit for an hour.”
  •  Teach mindful breathing to children. From a child’s perspective, anger can feel like a headache
    in the brain. Mindful breathing exercises can help children feel calmer, more relaxed, and less
    stressed out. One such exercise is the Flower Breath: Imagine smelling a flower. Breathe in
    through your nose, out through your mouth.
  • Make a calming glitter jar. Calm-down jars are great for helping young children work through
    emotions such as frustration and anger. They’re not only beautiful to look at, they can bring
    peace to a stressful situation.
  • Give a heads-up when there will be a change. Sudden change, without any warning or transition, is frustrating for young children and will often result in challenging behaviors. Create
    predictable routines and consistent environments for children to play and explore.
  • Catch children being awesome! Intentionally look for positive behaviors in children. Instead of
    thinking of a child as your “challenging kid,” call out the amazing qualities you see: “You have a
    talent for building awesome block structures! Let’s put the blocks over here so you can build
    without any interruption.”

The mom who tearfully called me 11 years ago was my daughter. The expelled 3-year- old was my grandson who is now 14. We found him a wonderful new preschool where he was validated for his amazing building skills and was taught how to appropriately redirect his anger. He now states that someday… he wants to be an engineer.

About the author

Cheryl Flanders, M.Ed.

Cheryl is a seasoned educator and writer, having worked in the field of education for over 25 years. Cheryl has taught high school and college courses and has also served as an elementary school principal. Most recently, Cheryl retired from her full-time position as Manager of Teacher Preparation for the corporate offices of KinderCare Education in Portland, Oregon. There she developed training for over 25,000 early childhood teachers that KinderCare employs nationwide.

Cheryl and her husband now reside in Boise, Idaho, where she is a mom; a grandma; and an active author, speaker, and early childhood consultant. Having suffered the loss of a child three years ago, Cheryl’s passion is to use both her personal and professional experiences to provide hope and inspiration to families and teachers working with young children. She believes that the best vehicle for helping children… is to look through their eyes.

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