Category Archives: Parenting Skills

“Tricky People” vs. “Stranger Danger”

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Why Not Teach Stranger Danger?

For decades, parents and educators have taught the idea of stranger danger. There are several flaws to this message:

  • It creates a culture of fear. It can be frightening to a child to be out in public when they’ve been told that all the strangers around them are people to be feared.
  • Talking about “bad people” means that our children are on the lookout for people who look and act evil: the mustache-twirling, black-clad villain. Most people who perpetrate crimes against children are nice looking and quite charming.
  • Talking about “odd looking” or “dangerous looking” people or “people who don’t look like us” can lead to racial profiling and prejudiced attitudes.
  • Creating fear of strangers might mean that our children are afraid to seek help from adults when needed – such as a lost child who is too frightened to approach a security guard to help find their parents, or a lost child who evades rescuers because they are strangers to him.
  • Crimes against children are relatively rare. When they do happen, it is much more likely that they are committed by someone the child knows than by a stranger.
    • For child sexual abuse, only 10% of perpetrators are strangers, 60% are non-family members who are known to the child and family, 30% are family members. Source. In 23% of reported cases the perpetrator was under the age of 18.  (Stats for Canada here.)
    • We may worry about the stereotypical kidnapping where a stranger abducts a child. There are only about 105 of those a year in the US, where there are 17 million children. In 90% of kidnapping cases, the kidnappers are family members, usually non-custodial parents. Source.
    • If our children have been taught that strangers are always bad, but that the people they know are always “safe”, then we have not protected them.

I don’t want my children to be frightened of all the new people they encounter. I want my children, and the children I work with, to feel safe in their world. Children are happiest and learn best when they feel safe. I tell children, through my words, my body language, and my interactions, that the vast majority of people are good people. Even a stranger who looks very different from the people I interact with every day is most likely a good person.

But, when children are around three years old is a good time to start talking about “tricky people.” They’re not a certain kind of people (like strangers, or like people whose skin is a different color from my own) but they are any person who displays certain odd behaviors. Those behaviors should raise red flags for a child, and let them know they should check in with a trusted adult for advice on how to respond.

What are Tricky People?

Here are some things to tell your child to watch out for. Tricky people may:

  • ask kids for help (such as help finding a lost puppy or pretending to be hurt)
    • If safe grown-ups really need help, they’ll ask other grown-ups. Your child should know that if an adult asks them for help, they should go speak to a trusted adult.
  • try to arrange for alone time with a child
    • Let your child know that it’s best not to go somewhere alone with one adult unless a trusted adult has told them it’s OK.
  • try to make one particular kid feel special, lavishing praise and gifts
    • Tell your child if someone offers to give them something (candy, money, a kitten), they shouldn’t take it and say they need to ask their parents if that is OK.
  • ask kids to do something that breaks the family rules, or just doesn’t feel right
    • Teach your child to think about whether an interaction feels fine or gives them an uncomfortable “uh-oh” feeling. Encourage them to trust their instincts.
  • ask kids to keep a secret from their parents or their teacher, or threatens something like “if you tell, you’ll be in big trouble”
    • Any time this happens, a child should tell their parent or a teacher.
  • touches a child a lot (tickling, wrestling, asking for hugs), especially if they get angry or unhappy if the child says no to the touch
  • touches a child in a private area, asks a child to touch their private parts, asks to see a child’s private areas, asks to take pictures of private area, or shows a child their private areas
  • tells the child “there’s an emergency. You need to come with me right now.” Note: For children over 5, it can be a good idea to establish a password (see below).

How to Help Your Child be “Street Smart”

Here are some things we can do to help our kids be safe:

For a child age 1 and up

  • Teach them their name and their parents’ name(s)
  • Under three years old, I don’t talk about “tricky people” or “bad people.” But, if I am in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I show it with my body language, and I tell my child “I don’t like being here… I don’t feel safe right now. We’re going to leave.” Even at this age, I want to start teaching them to trust their instincts.
  • Tell them they need to stay near you when you’re out in public, set boundaries – tell them where it’s OK to go and what’s not OK. If they step outside those limits, or refuse to hold your hand in a parking lot, or whatever guidelines you have set, then there should be consequences (e.g. you need to leave the park, or you need to carry them in the parking lot.)
  • When going anyplace where you might become separated, put your contact info somewhere on them (e.g. on a card in their pocket, on a bracelet, etc.). Also, take a picture of them that day with your phone so if you become separated you have a photo of what they look like and they are wearing.
  • Teach healthy touch: high fives and fist bumps, patting on the back, brief hugs, etc. Don’t force your child to give a hug to someone if they are not comfortable.
  • Teach them names for their body parts, including private parts. It is best to use commonly used terms (e.g. penis or vagina), not family euphemisms. Feeling comfortable with these words makes it possible for a child to explain if something inappropriate happens. (Learn more.)

For a child age 3 and up

Everything listed above, plus:

  • Be sure they know their address, parents’ names, and parents’ phone numbers.
  • Help them know what adults you trust. Tell them: “if you ever feel scared or need help, then ____ and _____ are adults you can talk to.”
    • Talk to them about how to find a trustworthy stranger if they somehow become separated from you and need help. Some parents teach to look for a police officer, but they’re not always around. So, I also tell my children to look for a person who is working there – I help them identify workers – they’re standing behind the check-out counter, or they’re wearing a uniform. I also tell them they could go to another parent – someone who has a child with them. From time to time, we practice this – I ask my child to look around and identify two people who they could ask for help if needed. Also, point out “safe spots” – the places they are most likely to find helpful people.
    • Talk to them about “tricky people” and what behaviors are red flags. Don’t try to cover it all in one big “talk” – it should be an on-going dialogue.
    • If your child is uncomfortable around someone and wants to avoid that person, don’t dismiss this. Respect your child’s instincts.
  • If you go somewhere you might get separated (the zoo, an amusement park, a large event), talk to them on the way there about the importance of staying close to you the whole time. Tell them that if they look around and can’t find you, they should stop where they are and you will find them.
  • By the time they are three, teach them that the parts of their body that are covered by a swimsuit are private. They should be kept covered around other people, and other people should not touch them there, except for parents or caregivers who are briefly helping to clean them, or a doctor, when the parents are in the room.
  • Don’t label your child’s clothes or backpacks with their name in big, visible letters. “Tricky” adults often use a child’s name to convince the child they are safe.

As your child gets older, and more independent:

Everything listed above, plus

  • They should know contact info for multiple trusted adults, and have a plan for how they could contact them. (For a younger child who doesn’t have a cell phone, they should know how to seek adult help. For older kids with phones, they need plans for what to do if their phone battery dies.)
  • If going someplace  you may get separated, have a plan in advance for where you would meet up again. Make sure they can describe it to you, and from time to time, ask them “do you remember where our meet-up place is? Can you point to where it is?”
  • A responsible adult should always know where they are. Set boundaries on where they can go, ask that they check in with you from time to time, and require that they check in if their plans change.
  • In the places they frequent, they should be able to list “safe spots” where they could go for help if they were feeling worried – for example, if someone at the park was making them uncomfortable, they could go into the nearby convenience store. They should also know to avoid unsafe spots – isolated areas with no one around.
  • They should know how and in what circumstances to call 9-1-1.
  • They should know never to answer the door when they are home alone.
  • They should know never to approach a stranger’s car. If someone calls them over to a car, they should not go.
  • When out and about, they should use the buddy system, not go places alone.
  • If someone offers them money, or an easy job, they should be wary.
  • Consider a family password so that if you ever could need to send an unexpected adult to pick them up in case of emergency, your child could ask that adult for the password to be sure it’s really someone you sent. You could also use that code word or another one for your child to communicate to you “I’m feeling unsafe and I need your help.”
  • Tell them to trust their instincts. If they’re worried about something, they should talk to you or another trusted adult who can help them problem-solve. If they’re very frightened, they should call 9-1-1 or shout for help. Tell them it is better to seek help and find out that everything is actually OK than it is to not seek help when things really are bad.
  • Give kids examples of “tricky behavior”; have them describe how they would respond.
  • Don’t talk about “bad touch” because sometimes sexual touch can feel good or can “tickle.” Instead, talk about “secret touch” that the other person wants you to hide from people, or touch that makes them feel wrong after it happened. Let children know that if anyone ever touches them in an inappropriate way (or makes the child touch them), that it’s not the child’s fault and they will not be in trouble with you. Perpetrators may first involve children by showing them pornography – let your child know that if someone shows them pornography, they should let you know.
  • Explain that you’re teaching safety rules because they are more mature and ready to be responsible. You want to give them more freedom, but you also need to be reassured that they know how to stay safe.

Letting Your Children Out of Your Sight

Here’s an example of how this could play out: My six year old wanted to be able to sit on the front porch and read while I was inside making dinner. We set boundaries: “you can sit on the porch swing. You may not leave the porch or step onto the driveway or the path to the sidewalk.” We reminded him of tricky people ideas: “we have lots of people walk by the house. Remember, that most people are good people. If they wave or say hi, you can say hi back. However, if they ask you to leave the porch, they’re being tricky and you need to come inside and get us. If they step off the sidewalk onto our driveway or path, you need to come in right away. Even if it’s someone you know from church or school, I would still want you to come inside and get me.” We let him know that as long as he could follow the rules, he could have porch-sitting privileges. But if he ever violated those rules, he would lose those privileges.

Deciding to let a child play outside unsupervised, or let an older child go places without you, requires a leap of faith on your part. It can be scary to take that risk. But remember that keeping them at home and in sight at all times also creates risks – it limits their potential to be active, independent, decision-making people.

Part of parenting is teaching our kids the skills they need to know so that later on, they don’t need us so much any more. This is just one of many things that we do to prepare them to be out in the world on their own.

Handouts: If you’re a parent educator who would like to share this information with families, I’ve created a 4 page handout and 2 page handout of this information.

Related Topics: Check out my posts on Better You Than YouTube – Having the Hard Conversations, Talking to Children about Sexuality; Talking to Children about Touch, Consent and Bodily Autonomy; and Talking about Scary Topics (e.g. violence, natural disasters, accidents, etc.)

More Resources

Picture Books about Touch and Consent

These books are aimed at children age 3 – 8, and teach many aspects of consent, types of touch, the right to bodily autonomy, and prevention of sexual abuse. You can also check out my post on how to talk to your child about touch and consent.

Most Recommended

If I had to choose just one, I might start with one of these two.

My Body Belongs to Me from My Head to My Toes by Pro Familia and Geisler. (Video) Age 3 – 6. A girl talks about the touch she likes – sitting with friends, hug from Dad, sitting on Grandma’s lap. Then about how she sometimes doesn’t like to be touched. Or touched in certain ways: tickled too much, sloppy kisses. So she says “Stop. Don’t Touch Me. I don’t want you to.” It says if someone doesn’t stop, then tell a trusted person. Ends with “your body belongs only to you.” This book probably has the clearest, most complete message about bodily autonomy. It’s long for a three year old, and not quite as fun a read as some of the books below. [Note this is different than the other “My Body Belongs to Me” by Starishevsky – see below.]

Let’s Talk about Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect by Sanders and Jennings. (Video) Ages 5 – 8. Starts with the idea of body boundaries – draw an imaginary bubble around yourself – no one should come inside that boundary without asking. If someone wants to hug someone, they should ask. The person might say yes – it’s OK to hug because both people are happy about it. The person might say no – respect that. If they say they’re not sure or don’t answer, that’s not a yes, so don’t hug. It’s OK to say no to others – it’s your body and what you say goes. If someone doesn’t respect that, tell a trusted adult. Excellent – but too long – you would want to spread it over multiple readings.

More Recommendations

Here are lots of other ideas, in order from those appropriate for the youngest audience on up. Also check out the table at the bottom which compares them.

Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It) by Finison and Wiseman. (Video) Age 3 – 6. “You can hug a pug. You can hug a bug… but don’t hug Doug. He doesn’t like it.” Shows a friendly, smiling Doug spending time with lots of people, having fun, shaking hands, fist bumping, high fiving, but turning down hugs. “Can you hug these people… There’s only one way to find out. Ask!” Very positive book about all the ways we can connect while respecting people’s personal preference about what types of touch they like.

How to Hug a Pufferfish. By Peterson. (No video available. Pictures are super cute, and text is very engaging.) Age 3 – 6. “So you want to hug a pufferfish. Who could blame you?” Shows a super cute pufferfish, talks about all the reasons you might want to give someone a hug – but you don’t want to make a pufferfish puff! “Pufferfish might welcome a hug, under the right conditions.” Pufferfish would like to see you coming, be asked for a hug first, and prefers a slow and gentle hug, or a fin shake. “And you never know, Pufferfish might show you a different way to say I love you.” [Disclaimer: the author is a friend of mine.]

Can I Give You a Squish. By Nelson. (Video.) Age 3 – 6. Kai the mer-boy loves hugs (squishes). He hugs everyone and everything till he tries to give a pufferfish a squish – it puffs, saying it doesn’t like to be squished. Kai feels bad. His friends suggest he tries offering a fin bump, which it likes. Kai learns his friends like tail claps, tentacle shakes and other forms of touch. “Every fish likes their own kind of squish.”

Miles is the Boss of His Body. By Schiller and Kurtzman-Counter. (Video) Age 3 – 6. It’s Miles’ birthday. Grandpa pinches his cheek, his brother gives him noogies, his mom gives him a super tight hug, etc. Even the birthday chicken wants to tickle him. Mile yells ‘I’m tired of being touched in ways I don’t like, and I’m the boss of my body.” The family respects and validates that.

Rissy No Kissies. By Howes and Engle. (Video) Age 3 – 6. Rissy is a baby lovebird. Others try to give Rissy kissies. Each time – “‘No kisses!’ Rissy chirruped with a most emphatic squeak.” Her parents worry something is wrong with her – “we know all lovebirds love kisses.” When the chicks at school squeeze too close and she squeaks “no kissies” it hurts their feelings. Rissy worries there is something wrong with her. Her mother says “there is nothing wrong with you. Your body and your heart are yours and you choose how to share.” Rissy says to the others “some birds share their love with kissies but they’re not my favorite things.” She offers that she likes to sing songs, sit close, give / get cards, and high fives. Others respect her wishes.

We Say What’s OK Series by Bowers and Munoz. (I can’t find video read-alouds, but here is an interesting companion video) Age 4 – 6. This series is on consent. The author says there are five key concepts to teach about consent: I listen to my body, I am in charge of my body, I ask permission, I check in, and I accept no. These engaging books feature characters of diverse age, race, and ability. We Listen to Our Bodies talks about tuning into cues in your body that signal that you might be scared, sad, or angry. We Ask Permission is about asking people before we touch them and tuning into body language (of people and of animals) to know if the touch is a positive experience. We Check in with Each Other is about not assuming that just because someone wanted to do something yesterday doesn’t mean they want to do it OK, and about stopping in the middle of something (like a tickle fight) to be sure that they are still OK with it.

No Means No! by Sanders and Zamazing. (Video) Age 4 – 6. Shows people asking to touch (aunt give a kiss, parents offering to help wash her private parts, cousin wrestling, friend asking to hold hands) and girl politely turning things down, and everyone happily moving on to other options, because “if I don’t want a hug or a kiss, No Means No!” “I am strong and I have a voice that is loud and clear. So when I say ‘no’, No Means No.” This is a fine book, but it feels like a lesson-teaching book, and some kids don’t engage with those as well as they engage with more story based books.

Hands Off, Harry by Wells. (Video) Age 4 – 6. Harry the Alligator likes to act silly in ways that are physically wild, bumping into other kids, sometimes making them spill paint or glue. Despite being given time outs, he keeps bumping into others. They have him wear an inflatable donut ring so he can’t touch others and he learns to respect other’s space and use his hands to help, not hurt. I don’t love this one, because there’s a punitive aspect to how his behavior is handled. It’s gentle, but still…

My Body: What I Say Goes by Sanders and Hancock. (Video) Ages 5 – 8. Talks about kinds of touch that make them feel safe, what makes them feel unsafe. Early Warning Signs that tell you something is wrong (racing heart, etc.) Have a safety network of adults, including one that’s not in your family, that you can talk to. Private parts – those covered by bathing suit and mouths – includes the vocabulary penis, vulva, etc. If someone touches those, asks you to touch theirs or shows you pictures of private parts, say “stop” and tell a trusted adults. No secrets. Book ends with 5 body safety rules. If you’re looking for a book that explicitly teaches sexual abuse prevention, this does so.

Teach Your Dragon Body Safety by Herman. (Video) Age 5- 8. A dragon shares with his human friend that a girl at school likes to hug him and he doesn’t like it. His friend says it’s OK to say no or ask for a high five. The book then goes on to talk about touches that don’t feel right, private parts, not keeping secrets and having a safety team of people you can tell if someone is touching you in a way you don’t like.

Additional Books on Topic

My Body Belongs to Me by Starishevsky and Padron. (Video) A story of a girl whose uncle’s friend sits down next to her and “touched me in that place that no one else can see.” He tells her to keep a secret. She tells her parents, who say they are proud of her for telling them, and say she could have also told a teacher. She says it’s not her fault that it happened and moves on. I wish there had been a message from the parents that the man’s behavior was wrong and unacceptable – that doesn’t really get addressed. Personally, I would not read this book to my students or to my child because of the discomfort it might cause. But your needs and values may differ.

Hug? by Chua. (Video) A girl hugs a sick cat to make it feel better. Then a dog asks her for a hug. Then LOTS of other animals want to hug her till she’s totally overwhelmed and yells STOP! She says she doesn’t feel well, so the cat asks her if she wants a hug and it makes her feel better. Then lots of animals are shown hugging, and it says hugs are great. The book is fun and silly with great illustrations. But the book description says “There are character education connections here to compassion, tolerance and empathy, and a terrific opportunity for discussions about boundaries.” I don’t see that message come through clearly.

I said no! by King and Rama. This is really lengthy – almost a textbook for a child age 7 – 10. Good content, but too much. The read-aloud video is about 20 minutes long. It could be helpful for a parent to read, just to build a collection of ideas to teach at teachable moments spread over time, not all at once.

TitleCharactersMessageAgeEngaging
My Body Belongs… by Pro FamiliaHumans, mostly whiteSome touch is nice, some is not as nice. You can tell people ‘don’t touch me.’4 – 6Yes
Let’s Talk AboutDiverse humansConsent – ask before touching. You can say no. Tell adult if uncomfortable.5 – 8Yes, but long
Don’t Hug DougHumans, diverse age, race, ability, sizeNot everyone likes to be hugged. Ask first.3 – 6Yes!
How to Hug aSea creaturesRespect that some people only like touch under certain conditions3 – 6Yes!
Can I GiveMerpeople, sea creaturesAsk others how they like to be touched3 – 6Yes!
Miles is the…Human family, diverse skin tone, ageYou can tell people you don’t want them to touch you3 – 6Yes
Rissy No KissLovebirdsSome people don’t like kisses, and it’s OK for them to say how they like to connect3 – 6Yes
No Means NoHuman (white family, diverse classmates)If someone wants to touch you, you can say no thanks4 – 6OK
Hands OffAlligatorsDon’t bump into, poke or push others – learn personal space4 – 6Yes
My Body – What I sayHumans, white girl protagonist, diverse others5 body safety rules – early warning system, private parts, safety net5 – 8OK
Teach Your DragonDragon protagonist, humansIt’s OK to say no to hugs and other touches. If someone touches you in a way you don’t like, tell5 – 8Yes
My Body Belongs by StarishevskyHumans. Bi-racial child, white abuserWhen someone else touches your private parts, you should tell someone3 – 6Worrisome
Hug?Human girl and animalsSometimes too many friends want hugs and that’s overwhelming3 – 4Yes
I said noHumans – white boy protagonist, diverse othersTextbook on keeping private parts private7 – 10Too long

Learning More

For each book, I include an Amazon affiliate link that takes you to that book on Amazon so that you can read all the details about it and read other reviews. I do get a small referral fee if you click on those links and then purchase something on Amazon. However, I encourage you to use your local library – encourage them to have books like these in their collection! Or to purchase from local, independent booksellers. Learn more about where to find great kids’ books.

For each, I also give a link to a YouTube video of a read-aloud of the book so that you can preview the book in detail. (Note: I don’t know whether the creators of these videos had permission, or if they were violating copyright. So I tried to choose videos without ads, so the video creators don’t gain financial benefit.)

You might also be interested in these posts: Talking with Children about Touch and Consent; Books for Children about Sexuality; Talking with Children about Gender Identity (includes links to recommended children’s books on that topic) and Teaching about Tricky People, vs. Stranger Danger.

The Race Car Brain

There are some children whose brains and bodies always seem to be racing. The parent may feel like they start playing with blocks with the child and then the child runs off to paint and while the parent is still putting blocks away and cleaning up paint, the child has already flipped through a few pages of five different books and is climbing the bookshelf.

Talking to them may also feel like this – they ask a question, and as you start to answer it, they ask another question, and before you can answer that one, they tell you what they had for breakfast. Parents (or teachers) may feel like they can never quite catch up.

It’s easy to fall into patterns of continuously scolding them to “stop!” or “pay attention!” It’s easy to see them as problem kids. However, they have a lot of important strengths, like curiosity, enthusiasm and energy.

Dr. Ned Hallowell* would say to these kids: “Your brain is very powerful.  Your brain is like a Ferrari, a race car.  You have the power to win races and become a champion. However, you do have one problem.  You have bicycle brakes.  Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control the powerful brain you’ve got.  So, you can’t slow down or stop when you need to.  Your mind goes off wherever it wants to go, instead of staying on track.  But not to worry… we can strengthen your brakes.”

Strengthening their Brakes

We can do several things to help them slow down and learn new skills, like a longer attention span, persistence, and impulse control:

  • Routines: having predictable schedules, where they know what to expect and know what is expected of them. Visual schedules may help.
  • Break it down: they may have a very hard time doing a big task, but find it easier if you break it down into small specific tasks. So instead of saying “clean up this mess”, say “we have four steps – the first step is to put the Legos in the basket – when you’re done with that, let me know and I’ll tell you step two.”
  • Practice sticking with a task: try setting a timer and say “we’re going to do this activity together for at least five minutes. When we give persistence muscles a workout, they get stronger.” (Before you do this, try to get a baseline of how long they typically stick to a task. If they typically can do 3 minutes, you don’t want to set a timer for fifteen… that would be too much of a stretch.)
    • Use a timer they can read and see the progress on (like an hourglass where they can see that their time is halfway up, or a kitchen timer, where they can see that the dial is halfway toward zero are both easier to understand than a digital countdown)
  • Tell them what to focus on. Instead of just saying “focus” or “pay attention” tell them exactly what to pay attention to: “I’m going to tell you the three things we need to do today, so I want you to listen till you hear all three things.” Or “right now the priority is eating breakfast – can you focus on counting each bite you take till you get to ten?”
  • Physical supports: Some children focus better in a class when they sit on a ball where their body can wiggle or they spin a fidget spinner while their brain pays attention. My child could focus better when he wore a weighted vest because the pressure gave his brain some tactile stimulation. Some children focus better if there’s some white noise or quiet background music. (It’s over-stimulating for others.) Experiment to see what helps your child.
  • De-clutter. Too much stimuli can over-activate these kids. If they’re in a room with just a few toys, they do fine. If they’re in a room full of toys and decorations, they flit from one to the next non-stop. (Read about “How Many Toys is Enough.”)
    • These kids LOVE novelty! But instead of buying more toys, I like providing new experiences outside the home – taking classes or going on field trips gives their brain the novelty it craves while still keeping a home environment that helps to settle them with familiar items to explore in depth.
    • You can also mix up existing toys without having to add new – like putting the toy dinosaurs with the blocks, or using toy cars with the paint.
  • Connect to their interests. If there’s something they have to do, but it doesn’t capture their attention, find a way to make it more engaging. For example, if they need to practice writing their letters and they are dinosaur fans, you don’t have to practice writing the words a teacher assigns – they could practice writing pachycephalosaurus.
  • Brain and body breaks: Make sure they do have plenty of opportunities to play and burn off lots of energy.
  • Spend more time outdoors. Nature can be very calming to people whose brains are always racing.

Discipline and Race Car Brains

It’s important to know that some discipline techniques that work well with other kids don’t work well with these kids. Parenting advice is not one size fits all.

Check out: 8 practical tips for parents of children with challenging behaviors. For my racecar kid, I found the book Incredible Years by Stratton had the most helpful discipline tools. I wrote several posts on discipline based on these techniques. Find links to them here.

I also find neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s writing on brain development to be very helpful. He says the “downstairs brain” is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. These take years to develop. When a child is very upset, extreme emotions block their ability to use
their upstairs brain. They “flip their lid” and regress back to the downstairs brain. When they’re in this state, you can’t reason with them, you can’t ask them to make choices, you can’t expect them to “use their words.” Learn more: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_upstairs_and_downstairs_brain.

So, if you have a racecar kid in the middle of a meltdown, you’re not going to be able to reason with them or have long discussions about the implications of their choices. They can’t pay attention to a deep discussion when they’re at their best, and especially not if they’ve flipped their lid. They’ll do better with clear rules, concrete statements of what behavior you want to see, and quick consequences for misbehavior. See more tips in the Discipline Toolbox.

Is it ADHD?

*Note: Hallowell, who coined this metaphor, specializes in ADHD, so he is using race car brain to describe the ADHD brain. I am using it more broadly.

Many toddlers or preschoolers who may seem like racecar kids may slow down as they get older and develop better brakes, so may not ever be considered ADHD. They still benefit from this early learning of skills to slow themselves down and you’ll benefit from using these tools to keep those early years a little calmer

However, many race car brain kids do get diagnosed eventually as ADHD. About 9% of children do have ADHD. Learn about criteria for an ADHD diagnosis and deciding whether to have your child assessed for ADHD, and how to access testing.

Types of Preschools

When you start looking at preschools, you discover a whole world of jargon you never knew: play-based, emergent, teacher led, benchmarks, coop, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so on. It can be overwhelming. And to make it more confusing, different people use words differently.. two schools that both call themselves “child-led” or “play-based” may look very different in practice.

A couple big picture ideas:

Structured vs. Play-Based: A structured preschool might use group time, worksheets, and individual projects to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. All the children are expected to be engaged in the same activity at the same time – they are all working on a craft project together or it’s math time for everyone. (Think of your elementary school education – structured preschools are using similar methods moved down to a younger group).

A play-based preschool typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose, spending as long as they want at an activity. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations to further the learning. (Here is a research summary about play-based learning: https://www.easternct.edu/center-for-early-childhood-education/about-us/publications-documents/science-in-support-of-play.pdf) Most play-based preschools include circle time to provide some balance between structure and free play. Learn more about play-based preschool and activity stations at a play-based preschool, and how play-based compares to academic.

Teacher-Led vs. Child-Led: A teacher-led curriculum (may also be called didactic or standards-based) means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (it might be their own creation or they may use a curriculum written by someone else) and sticks to it. The teacher is active, the children are passive.

A child-led curriculum (may also be called emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests. So, for example, the teacher may know the math concept of the week is more than/less than. But instead of teaching that in a formal scheduled way, she asks the children playing with trains whether there are more blue trains or red trains, then asks the children playing with blocks which tower has more blocks in it, and asks the child who loves dinosaurs whether they think velociraptors ate more than T-rexes or less.

Brand Name Teaching Methods

Here is my summary of the methods. You can find many more descriptions online, including helpful comparisons at https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/comparing-preschool-philosophies-montessori-waldorf-and-more and www.privateschoolreview.com/articles/180. But remember that the actual practice of a school may differ from the theory of “the brand”.

  • Classic Montessori: The teacher sets up learning centers around the room, with “self-correcting” materials (e.g. a puzzle where the child can tell if they’ve done it right or wrong and thus can work to fix it themselves if it’s wrong.) Children work independently at their own pace, and are in a multi-age classroom.
    • Note: Montessori schools can range in quality and in how tightly they adhere to Montessori methods. The word Montessori is not tightly controlled, and anyone can use it, no matter what teaching methods they use. Some schools use it because it’s a known brand name that “sells” well, but the classroom experience may only have a very loose connection to Montessori practices.
  • Rudolf Steiner/ Waldorf – Nurturing, predictable structure and routines. Natural materials, with time outdoors, baking bread, working with wool, wood, and wax materials, no plastic. Lots of imagination and oral story-telling, but no electronic media (families are discouraged from having any screen time at home). Reading is not taught until age 7. Learn more www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoW0pCIG-FM and www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmAX5adCl0 and www.movementforchildhood.com/uploads/2/1/6/7/21671438/heardaboutwaldorf.pdf
    Note: Waldorf requires all teachers and schools to be certified, so there’s much more consistency between schools with the Waldorf name.
  • Reggio Emilia. Child-led investigations. Project-based: when the children come up with an idea for a project, the class focuses for a few weeks on it, finding out together what they need to know to make it happen (including pre-reading and math.) They document projects with photos and journals. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVv5ZL9nlgs
  • Nature-based or “forest kindergartens“. Common in northern Europe, they are newer to the States. There are several available on the Eastside of Seattle (My son attended Tiny Treks). Children spend most, or all of their time outdoors (yes, even in the winter). Child-led, play-based, emergent curriculum where teachers respond to children’s interests, rolling in math and science where it fits logically, often doing story-time, snack, and circle outdoors. To learn more, search for “forest kindergarten” on YouTube or check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBoXaQKoWL0
  • Academic preschools. There are preschools that have an academic focus that are taught in developmentally appropriate ways. But there are also schools which drill rote facts into children. That may mean the children will in fact learn to read words younger than they might otherwise have done, but this doesn’t appear to give them a long-term advantage. An occasional worksheet is a good experience for kids as preparation for future school experiences, but a worksheet-based curriculum is not appropriate for a 3 year old. (Read more: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/01/07/academic-preschools/)
  • Cooperative preschools. Most  are balanced programs with time split between play-based learning at learning centers (e.g. dress-up area, block area, art, sensory), circle time (includes story time, literacy skills, and concepts like days, seasons, colors, etc.) and outdoor or big motor play. There is a professional teacher who plans the curriculum and leads structured activities. What distinguishes co-ops is parent involvement. For a 3 year old, they might attend preschool three mornings a week. On some of those days, the parent drops off. On one morning, the parent stays and works in the classroom with the children. This means there is a very high adult to student ratio. Co-op isn’t the best answer for a parent who needs child care so they can work or do other activities. However, for parents who have the time available, many report that they enjoy the time spent in the classroom, and like knowing more about what their child does at preschool and who the other children are in the class. Parents also have the opportunity to build friendships with other parents. Note: Cooperative preschools tend to be much lower cost than other options.
  • Head Start. For families whose income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level (i.e. less than $25,000 in 2013). Provides preschool for child, but also: medical, dental and mental health screenings, meals for the children, and support for the parents. Fact sheet: http://wsa.iescentral.com/fileLibrary/file_71.pdf. To register for Head Start: http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family/for-families/Inside%20Head%20Start/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%20%28FAQs%29/HowdoIapplyfo.htm

When considering which method you prefer, it’s worth keeping in mind what we know about brain development (see this post): Children learn best through hands-on experiences with tangible materials, through interaction with engaged human beings, and in environments where they feel safe and happy.

Taking the Negativity out of Conflict

Last month, we had a guest speaker at my church – Tim Dawes, an author, consultant and TEDx speaker – who offered a powerful approach to conflict based in compassion and respect.

Drop-Shift-Give

When you find yourself in a conflict you can’t see a way out of:

  1. Drop whatever approach is putting you at odds. (Arguing, accusing, making threats, trying to change their mind or change their behavior.)
  2. Shift your focus to the other person’s perspective. What is their experience / how are they feeling?
  3. Give – Acknowledge what they want, validate their experience. You really need to accept and respect that this is their experience. (Note, this is not necessarily saying that they’re “right”, just acknowledging their view.)

This creates a connection between you and the other person. After you do these three steps, it is as if you have set a place at the table for their needs. Then you can bring your needs to the table and can sit down and have a real conversation about how to move forward. You may see new options you didn’t see before, and may be able to quickly negotiate solutions that work for both of you.

If you are feeling wronged or hurt, it can be hard to let go of arguing. If you’re a parent, it’s hard to let go of teaching and correcting. If you have strong opinions, it can be hard to let go of trying to convince someone you’re right and they’re wrong. But arguing, correcting and convincing can prolong an argument.

Examples

My oldest child resisted putting toys away. It was an on-going conflict where I battled him again and again. At one point, I dropped my usual tactics for a moment and asked him to explain things from his perspective. He said that when all the toys were put away, the house looked like a place where no one was allowed to have fun. I acknowledged that this was his truth. Then we sat down and negotiated some compromises we could both live with.

My youngest got into a battle at school today. He was upset at getting tagged out in gaga ball. When someone else tried to get him to calm down by saying “it’s just a game”, that upset him more. Rather than try to convince him that he should relax and that a game is not worth getting upset over, I dropped that approach and shifted to curiosity – asking him to explain his perspective. He shared that games are really important to him, whether that’s gaga ball or video games or a board game, and he doesn’t like that people trivialize them all the time. Spending some time talking about his thoughts on this and validating them “brought him to the table” to where we could have a conversation about how he could have reacted differently today.

I appreciated learning this new tool for approaching conflict and look forward to exploring it more.