Don’t Get Mad; Get Creative.

Margaret had a classic class clown in her second grade one year. Ruben was smart, active, inquisitive, and made the class laugh several times a day, disrupting Margaret’s lessons. She found him infuriating, but fury was not recognized as an acceptable professional approach. By the third week of the year, she was sending him into the hallway for a “timeout” as a regular practice. That Friday, she lost her temper and sent Ruben to the principal’s office.

Over the weekend Margaret worried, thought, wondered, pondered, stewed, and talked to a friend about what she should do to fix this problem. Only three weeks of school! It just couldn’t go on like this. Nonetheless, Monday morning she arrived at school without a plan.

Luckily, Ruben was the first student into the classroom that morning. She stopped her class preparations, and gave him her usual big smile that accompanied her usual friendly, “Good morning, Ruben.”

A happy “Good morning,” was Ruben’s reply.

“Did you have a nice weekend?”

“Yes, Ms. Prior”

“What did you do?”

“I watched ‘Princess Bride.”

“Did you like it?”

“It was hilarious! I loved it.”

“I know. I love that movie. I have watched it a hundred times.”

Then, Margaret suddenly had an inspiration. “You are a comedian, aren’t you?”

“YES!” He said with his biggest grin ever and even a little embarrassment.

“I know. I see that in you.” And just then another student came in.  Margaret greeted him and then went back to preparing for class.

Now, Margaret had an idea. She lay in wait for Ruben as she and the class went through her planned activities. Her moment came sooner than expected.

As one student was leading the calendar-based math activity, another one piped up: “The red ones are all odd numbers.”

Ruben jumped in with “That’s odd.” Everybody laughed, including Margaret. “That’s funny,” she said. “You made a pun.”

The lesson continued, and Margaret kept her ears open.

A few minutes later, Ruben responded to another student’s observation with a sarcastic remark. The student slumped.

“That’s not funny, “ said Margaret. Ruben’s face fell. He participated constructively with no more jokes until recess. In his reading group after recess Ruben made another joke and Margaret laughed, “That’s another good one.”

For the rest of the day Margaret pointed out good jokes, and simply said: “That’s not funny” to ones that were distracting, hurtful or disruptive. Before long Ruben was working with her instead of against her, and Margaret had her best teaching year yet.

When I told this story to a parent, she said, “Brilliant. But when I get mad, I can’t think of anything creative on the spot. How can I be this brilliant in the heat of the moment?”

We all have this challenge, but we can rise to it if we commit to several things:

1) Don’t react.

2) Buy time. One parent I know says: “This is such an important issue. I am going to have to give this some thought.” (This works as a response to misdeeds, and to challenging questions as well.)

3) Stay on the side of the child. (Don’t make him the enemy.)

4) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. (We can all get better with practice.)

It is a lifelong challenge and necessary for success in all our relationships, not just with children.

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10 thoughts on “Don’t Get Mad; Get Creative.

  1. Hi Rick,

    I’d love to have you expand more on #3 – Stay on the side of the child. (Don’t make him the enemy.)

    thank you.

  2. Glad you asked. Good topic, because when we get mad, a child can feel like the enemy. It might be good for you to give a specific example, but here is a general elaboration on the concept of staying on the child’s side no matter what.
    Another mother asked me: “How can I stay on the kid’s side? If it looks like they are picking a fight, then I have to win. That makes her my enemy, no? It certainly feels like it.”

    If it feels like they are picking a fight, you are not looking at it properly. It is not a fight; they are testing your authority. Don’t take it personally. They are doing their job of strengthening their reality testing mechanism to see if a line that you drew in the sand is a hard and fast boundary, or just an opening bid. You simply have to do your job of being the authority and confirming that 8 o’clock bedtime means 8 o’clock bedtime. They are not taking YOU on, they are reconfirming that no means no–they need it for their sense of security in the world. The good king is on the throne; all’s right with the world.

    Also, the opposite of enemy is friend. A parent should be neither a friend nor an enemy. We are all counting on a parent to be the parent.

    So, when we find that our child is our enemy, we must stop and ponder what we did to make it this way. “This is my child, whom I love. How did I allow myself to get into a battle or a war? It is not about beating an enemy, it is about being the authority.” The question I have not answered is: HOW to be the authority that our children need us to be. Another good question is how to exercise that authority in such a way that it increases our children’s authority. See: “Parenting as Leading” below.

  3. 2) Buy time. One parent I know says: “This is such an important issue. I am going to have to give this some thought.” (This works as a response to misdeeds, and to challenging questions as well.)


    Interestingly, this is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in my non-teaching working life recently. I find that it’s tempting to answer an email immediately (rather than leave it waiting in the inbox) or feel like I need to know the answer to any question in a meeting. But, often it’s better to create the time to think about the important questions longer. I like to “fix” things immediately, so it’s a tough lesson to learn to leave the space to step back. I remember knowing this as a teacher (and had found it challenging then too), so now I have to remember to apply it outside of the classroom as well.

  4. Yes. Thank you, Suzanne. Also, I bet as a teacher you learned the art of giving a look that said: “I can’t believe I saw what I think I saw! I bet you can fix that on your own without me having to tell you what you know I am about to tell you.”

    Then there’s the: “Would you like to show me that you know better than that? Or would you like me to embarrass you by correcting you in front of your classmate.”

  5. Any advice for Reuban’s parents? My son will be entering Kindergarten and I’m certain that the behaviors you described are inevitable. He’s very smart and also very high energy. His preschool has hinted that medication might be the answer, which I’m against at such a young age. Yes, he probably has ADHD, but he has lots of friends and we don’t have difficulty with his behavior at home- but then again the 2adult:1child ratio is certainly in our favor. In preschool, though they’d never admit it, I can tell teachers either love and totally “get” him or can’t stand him. A small classroom is unfortunately not an option. UGH! How do I prepare a teacher without labeling him? How do I support and work with a teacher who doesn’t “get” him? He’s not a bad kid; he wants to please. But he’s impulsive, extroverted, high energy and because of all that, certainly disruptive. To support teachers, I’ve gotten OT for him, parenting classes for me – I’m willing to do anything I can to help, just not meds. TIA!

  6. You are certainly in good company. Every teacher almost every year has one or more children they find difficult. There is more than one thing to do.
    1) Be open-minded about a pill. See an ADHD professional, and if he/she recommends a pill, do it. It could be a simple answer if the problem is a malfunction of the reticular activating system of the brain. There are no negative side effects. (Check out Dr. Edward Hallowell. He is quite the pro.) If the pill doesn’t work, then you also know something: it’s not ADHD, you then can instruct his other educators not to use that label anymore and to work together with you to think creatively and to collectively find approaches that work for this unique individual. Attention problems can be caused by a wider variety of interactive factors.
    2) Either way, you will still need a partnership with the teacher. The conditions for a partnership are: a) nobody is expected to know it all, b) nobody gets defensive about their ignorance, frustrations or incompetence (If any member of the group is so super competent they could tell us the right answer, then we don’t have a problem, do we?) c) each person takes full responsibility; nobody blames anyone else, least of all the child. d) this collective (the little village that is raising Ruben) meets often, shares anecdotes, especially anecdotes of things that work, and increasingly Ruben is educated to be the leader of this Ruben Success Committee. Unless his behavior is something a pill can fix, everyone is going to have to work together–a really high functioning team–in order to get the best results. Unless a pill does it, there is no magic wand, just patience, perseverence, teamwork, clear boundaries well defended, empowerment of Ruben, and unconditional love through it all–unconditional love by all!!!
    3) As you point out his behavior depends on circumstances, so analyzing the circumstances is an important focus. What conditions bring on what behavior. Be precise. Don’t deal in generalizations. Describe as if on video, make sure the whole team agrees on all of this. If the child is in the wrong environment (maybe he needs a very small class) everyone needs to be open to that, and if it is true, you will all come to a consensus about it.
    4) Everyone on the Ruben Success Committee needs to be open to how they might have to change his or her own behavior. (Each member has to ask—without guilt—openly “How am I causing this?”) Failure in this department gets you kicked off the RSC.
    5) Ask teachers who have been successful with Ruben to join the RSC as experts, or at least come in as guest speakers or advisors.
    Some advantages you have are: a) Some teachers have been successful with him. b) you are open to learning.
    Hope this is helpful.

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