Dan St. Romain has released a new book, and in it, he shares revelational lessons about behavior that came from an unexpected place. Different than the usual book heavy on concepts and light on connection and strategies, this book draws you in, makes you smile, and helps you think about behavior from a new perspective. The kids in your life are going to be glad you got this one.
We knew we were in the market for a new furry family member, but we were not expecting it to happen so fast. My wife loves dachshunds, and I wanted a Weimaraner. So, we took it as a sign from heaven when a dog popped up on a rescue site in Louisiana that looked like a combination of these two breeds.
I called to inquire about the pup and was directed to complete an online application. My wife did so, but we genuinely thought the dog would be adopted by some caring family who lived much closer to the shelter than our home in Texas.
Though a dozen others wanted to give the dog a new home, we were the first ones on the list. We had passed the background check, so if we wanted her, the puppy was ours. Fast-forward twenty-four hours, including a twelve-hour round-trip car ride, and LaRoux (Lah-roo) arrived at our home.
My wife and I were excited to spend quality time with our new dog after we had both recently retired from the school system. In doing so, we realized LaRoux needed some behavior modification, so we enrolled her in a puppy class. Our main goal was to get her into good habits while she was still young and open to instruction.
The class instructors had good strategies for shaping the pups’ behaviors, but what stood out to me more was their ability to help us, the dog owners, look at behaviors differently. That’s when it hit me: This class isn’t for the dogs; it’s for the humans.
I noticed a distinct pattern during the classes between how the instructors and the owners viewed the dogs’ behaviors. I, for one, was guilty of explaining misbehavior through the lens of judgment:
“LaRoux, you know what you are supposed to do.”
“You’re being a little toot! Stop that.”
“You refuse to listen—and you think this is funny. Don’t you?”
However, the instructors always reframed comments in a way that took judgment out, providing rational explanations for the behaviors:
“She’s probably confused. We’ve been throwing a lot of directions at her.”
“LaRoux just wants to play with her friends.”
“Take your dogs for a short walk. They need to get out some energy.”
I understood why the instructors took this view; after all, we were working with puppies. However, as I moved through the intermediate and advanced classes, I noticed their perspective didn’t change as the dogs got older. They always looked at behaviors through a lens of understanding rather than judgment.
These ladies aren’t supernatural dog whisperers, I thought. They are simply good behavior detectives with kind hearts. When problems arose, rather than getting frustrated and chastising the animals, they assumed positive intent and, thus, looked for logical reasons which could explain the dogs’ behaviors.
They looked beyond raw behaviors and tried to identify the needs driving them. Once the needs were determined, they focused on getting them met in natural ways that built positive habits and kept misbehavior at bay. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if we took this same approach when working with children.
Understanding human behavior is tough, which makes changing it even more difficult. Trust me; I’ve worked with teachers and parents to improve kids’ behaviors for several decades.
Though I have provided support at all levels, for the past several years, the number of inquiries I’ve received from early childhood centers, childcare providers, and the younger grades of elementary schools has
increased dramatically. The requests usually sound something like this:
“Do you provide staff development on behavior management? We are an elementary campus that services kids through fifth grade, and our teachers are begging for support. Though all the teachers could benefit from some training, our real problems are with the younger students. The lower the grade, the more behavior concerns we see. Our staff is spending all their time putting out fires. I’m not sure what it is, but we’ve never had so many problems like this.”
These calls predictably started rolling in the year after the pandemic. After kids had stayed home for an extended period, providers and teachers faced the reality of what I call “Covid behavioral regression.” In other words, kids were not acting their ages.
Adults expected to see some academic deficits when the pandemic settled out and kids returned to their regular settings, but the behavioral lags caught everyone off guard. Children were demonstrating behaviors typical at much earlier stages of development. One teacher told me, “I have a room full of two-and-a-half-year-old children. But the poor things! They’re trapped in four-year-old pre-kindergarten bodies!”
It makes sense that we would see more significant concerns and gaps in younger children simply based on development. The difference between a 38- and 39-year-old adult is not that noticeable. However, the differences are vast when comparing a 12- and 24-month-old child. This is why we’ve seen more significant lags in younger children. Their lack of experiences and exposure during the pandemic adversely impacted their social and emotional development, which we see through their behaviors.
In these post-pandemic years, kids need support as they work to catch up and acquire the behavioral skills required for healthy development. This book aims to meet this need.
I hear it all the time: “You work with young children? That must be so much easier than with the older ones!” My response is always the same, “Clearly, you have never seen the old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Kindergarten Cop.” Easy is not the first word that comes to mind.
Whether or not the work is harder or easier is a matter of opinion. What is important to note is that working with young children is different. Different is an important distinction because when trying to support the needs of young children, we can’t just modify strategies appropriate for older ones; we must view tasks differently. As adults who successfully work with this population can tell you, development has to be the first lens through which we look when approaching situations.
As LaRoux was working her way through the various puppy classes, the instructors would make a point, and I would find myself thinking the same thing: That’s not about dog behaviors; that’s not about kids’ behaviors; it’s just about what young developing brains need for healthy development. And that, I discovered, was the key to their successful outcomes. The instructors focused on developmental needs rather than outward behaviors. Puppy training has helped me see how adults often get into the trap of focusing on children’s external behaviors rather than the developmental needs which drive them. In doing so, we look at the behaviors with an adult lens of judgment rather than one of understanding and empathy.
This book is designed to look beyond outward behaviors and, instead, at what young developing brains need to survive and thrive.
Click here to continue reading Chapter One.
Written by Dan St. Romain.
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