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How Teaching Music Has Taught Me How Children Think and Learn
How to positively handle almost any child throwing a tantrum and have them all smiles within 60 seconds.
To fully understand why tantrums occur and how to reslove them quickly you should read the entire article. 22 years of teaching guitar to children and adults has taught me far more than I would ever have imagined. Most of all I have learnt much about how both adults and children learn and interact. This article will cover some of my findings and will be focused on tantrums. To help present you with as much useful information as possible I would like to use as many examples of real life situations that I and teachers face every day. By using real life examples I believe you will be able to relate your situation and see how I and others overcome each challenge in a positive way.
Firstly let me say that working with children is a skill. Our knowledge of children comes mostly from our own experience which has been passed down from our own parents, relatives, friends and society at large. As with any skil if you were lucky enough to be surrounded by good teachers and mentors as a child might advice may be obvious to you but for the majority of us it is something we need to learn. Although the skill of parenting and teaching initially require the same skills teaching a child and parenting a child are not the same thing.
Children are not adults
Children are not that much different to adults but they are different. We need to understand the differences when working with children. If we treat children as little adults frustration may be the result. Would you give a 4 year old the keys to the car and expect them to know how to drive? Silly question I know yet many adults expect young children to respond and behave like an adult. We have all seen and perhaps been guilty of yelling at our child for not behaving while out and about. We say things like. “Stop that. How many times have I told you not to…..” We get frustrated because our 4 year old seems to be ignoring our requests. So we must firstly remember children are not adults.
Different yet the same
Of course there are differences between each individual child but we are of the same species. So as with any species there will be many responses to stimuli that are the same. There is also learned cultural and social behaviour along with genetic factors. Most of what I will talk about will apply to the large majority but may not work in certain situations with certain individuals. Some children have learning disabilities that are outside the scope of this article.
Adults are teachers
We are all good at teaching children to some degree. Children look to adults for information on how to act and respond to situations. So whether you like it or not if you are around children you are teaching them. Children learn from our behaviour more so than our words. You only have to see how little boys want to grow up to be like their Dad or little girls want to dress up like Mum. My 4 year old nephew expressed to me on a recent visit how he wants to be a truck shiner when he grows up. “A truck shiner” I said. What do you mean? It turns out his Dad is a truck detailer. But this act of following adult behaviour runs very deep. Children can and will adopt many of your behaviours. So here is my first suggestion.
Start with yourself.
Be the person you hope your child will grow up to be. Don’t tell them to be a certain kind of person. Be THAT person yourself. Live by example. Let me give some examples;
Diet – If you eat a certain diet your child will most likely follow you. How often do we hear people say “My Mother’s cooking is the best”.
Smoking/Drinking/Gambling – Children of parents who smoke, drink or gamble have a greater chance of adopting the same habits themselves.
Career – Children will often take up a similar career to a parent or in some cases will take up a career related to an interest or passion one parent has. I have played guitar professionally since I was a child and this stemmed from my Father’s passion for guitar even though he didn’t play himself until later in life.
Health – We often end up with similar levels of health as our parents not so much because of genetics which is of course a factor but largely because we follow the eating and lifestyle habits of our parents.
Stress – A great example I see so often is that of time and money issues that lead to high levels of stress. As adults we find ourselves often trying to make ends meet. This leads to stress.
I have been teaching guitar for more than 20 years and I often hear from parents that they would also like to learn guitar but they are simply too busy. This would be okay if they are busy doing what they love. The problem arises when they are busy doing what they apparently ‘have to’ to make ends meet. If you find yourself in this situation then it is important to realise you are teaching your children to follow. Ironically parents will often be working hard so their children don’t have to.
There is a famous song called ‘Cats in the cradle’. The song lyrics describe the life of the writer and his relationship with his father. There are basically two sections to the song. The first part describes how as a young boy his father was always too busy but promised him they would spend time together soon. Soon never came. When he grew up and his father had finally retired the father was ready to spend time with his adult son but the tables had turn. The son had become like the father and was now too busy to spend time with his father but always promising they would get together soon. This was a very sad account of a father and son but not uncommon.
The list goes on and the evidence is undeniable. The argument of nature verses nurture is not one that needs to be won because we are all aware that both play a role. The good news is the nurture side is in our hands.
The mind of a child
This is a tough one for most adults because we forget what it was like to be a child. We are not children and therefore cannot see the world from their perspective. Even if we could remember it is only a memory of our own childhood and not our present reality. Many adults try to teach children as if they were adults. Teaching a child as if they were an adult just doesn’t make sense to them. Teaching children requires an understanding of how children think and respond.
Children respond to repetition
The adult mind is looking for new experiences. Most adults will watch a movie or a TV show once maybe twice. A child can watch the same movie 100 times or more. I can have a running joke with a child for months. The same joke would not be funny to an adult after the third time. The trick is to use repetition to your advantage. Let me use an example. If you want to teach your child to count you only need to make up a game that involves counting and do it everyday for fun. Your child will learn to count in record time. The biggest challenge for music teachers of children is often parents. Teaching children music requires playing the same song hundreds of times. For parents this drives them crazy but children are happy to do it again and again. A common request from parents is ‘Can my child learn a new song?’
Children need rules
Everything is relative. The world seems to shrink as we get older. To a baby the world is not even comprehensible. Their world consists of their home, the car and maybe the local shopping center. As they grow their world expands. Perhaps as they begin to walk their street and the local park become their world. When they enter school the suburb becomes their world. As they age the city, country and beyond become their world. For this reason their imagination of the outside world begins to run wild. A child needs to know their world is in order and the adults in their world control the events for the most part. A child who lives in a world without limits and boundaries becomes insecure. This can be a difficult concept for adults to understand. Especially adults who feel there were too many rules during their own youth.
Children seek security
Children need to know who is who in a given situation. They work out who are the adults and who are the children. Their natural instinct is to seek security. This is perhaps nature at work. Children are the most vulnerable and need to be aware of all possible threats. The problem is they still don’t know the real world. Much of the world comes from their imagination. Adults have a much better understanding of what is real. Adults can defend themselves for the most part and their understanding of possible threats is reasonably clear. Children rely on adults to be their protectors and connection to the unknown outside world. Adults provide the security or not as the case may be.
Who is the boss?
Adults often seek approval from children so will often begin by befriending a child. This is fine if there is a protector present but if you are in charge of the child the situation will be very different. The child will at some point begin to test you. They want to see if you are in charge. They will use various strategies to see if you are up for the job of protector of their universe. Here are some examples;
Cheeky or rude comments – They know which words or phrases overstep the mark. By overstepping the mark they can see how you react. If they get away with it they will take it further.
Argumentative – They will debate you. Again testing the boundaries.
Tantrums – Many children know that tantrums will get them what they want because adults want to avoid a scene. If it works once they will do it again and again and again.
Children react to adults
Some adults like to believe that children are good or bad and we adults have no control over them. This is especially true when they are other people’s children. I often hear teachers say things like ‘That child is a nightmare and impossible to work with’. The teacher dismisses the child as a problem child and places them in the too hard basket.
Many teacher’s will claim that the student or parent is fully responsible for their behaviour. They do not realise that the child’s behaviour is very much in their control when in their care. This is not their fault because very few teachers or adults for that matter are trained in child behaviour. Teachers may know the information they wish to share but child behaviour is a very different subject. In effect a teacher of children must know two things. How to control child behaviour and of course the subject they are teaching. Being a guitar teacher in my case I began at age 19 years with a knowledge and skill of guitar but with no real understanding of how to control child behaviour.
Adults who were forced
This is a common issue for many adults. I use the example of the child who was forced to learn piano as a child and hated it. They grow up and look back on the whole experience as a very dark period in their childhood. But there is a misconception here. They believe the problem was being forced to learn something they did not want to learn. I believe the problem has nothing to do with the fact they were learning to play piano and has everything to do with the negative emotions attached to the events of that time. Their parents were most likely not presenting the whole experience in the right way. This resulted in family feuds and a lot of bad memories. The way it usually goes is parent decides to enrol child for piano lessons. Child is happy to go along for the ride at first. Parent is spending money and therefore wants results. Parent tells child to practice. Child doesn’t want to practice. Parent gets angry. Child gets upset. The rest is history.
So where did this all go wrong? There is a critical point in this process that makes all the difference between a child who practices and one who does not. When a child begins to learn the parent must set up the routine. A child will rarely establish routine practice by themselves. Think of it like teaching a child to take a bath or get dressed or clean their teeth or make their bed. The key is consistency. Parents are often not consistent about their child’s practice. As adults very few of us would allow our children to go a week with out cleaning their teeth or taking a bath. I cannot ever remember someone complaining about how their parent’s forced them to clean their teeth or take a bath. Reason being, they were consistent.
Human behaviour is predictable
Let me use dogs as an example. Put almost any dog in a car and wind down the window and they will stick their head out of the window. Why? Because that’s what dogs do. Go to a movie or a concert and most people will aim to sit about half way back and in the middle of the row. They are trying to get the best position of course but still it is predictable human behaviour. Fact is we humans as with all animals are predictable. Children are of course very predictable but what is even more predictable is the way parents or adults respond.
Predictable child behaviour
So children seek security. They do this by testing the adults who are protecting them. They test adults by pushing the limits. If a child is able to push the limits and get away with it they enter new often unexplored territory. This makes them feel insecure because there seems to be no boundary. They will continue to push the boundaries until they find the limit. Let me use crime as an example. What we class as crime is only a crime if society says so. In one country what is consider a crime may be regarded in another country as acceptable. If a child learns to steal at an early age without consequence it is likely they will continue. The reason most of us are not thieves is because our parents and society in general make it very clear that stealing is not acceptable. So with behaviour so predictable it is very easy to get children to act and behave in a positive way.
The magic of consistency
Humans thrive on consistency. Many of the most successful human endeavours are the result of consistency. Think of Olympic athletes who consistently turn up for training or students who consistently study or business people who consistently open their doors. The list goes on. Consistency is actually part of human survival. Consistency allows us to see what is predictable. Our chances of survival increase if we know what is predictable. Even animals respond to consistency. The behavioural scientist Pavlov show this with his famous experiment. He rang a bell just before giving the dog food. After several times the dog began to associate the bell with food and would salivate before the food even appeared. By creating a consistent relationship between the bell and food the dog would behave in a predictable way. Children respond to consistency. If you want a child to do anything then do it consistently. Set up the routine and their behaviour will become predictable.
Children with learning disabilities
There are of course always exceptions. Some children will have learning disabilities such as autism or ADD that are simply out of your control. In this case you should do as much as possible to research and learn about their condition so you can find the best strategy for teaching them.
Working with ADD – The most common challenge teachers will come up against is ADD . I have had many students over the years with varying degrees of ADD. I would go as far as to say we all have some degree of ADD. Children with serious ADD will not be able to focus for any length of time. This affects their ability to learn. If say their concentration span is 2 minutes any concept that takes more than 2 minutes to explain will be lost. I like to keep things simple. I use a two pronged approach.
Work at increasing their concentration span – Let’s say they have a 2 minute attention span. I set their goal at 3 minutes. I make a big deal of it. Clapping and shouting out “Hooray!” when they make it to 3 minutes. This slowly increases their concentration and in most cases works. If it fails you need to focus more on option 2.
Work within their concentration span – If it’s 2 minutes give them exercises or explanations that can completed in 2 minutes. Break everything down into bite size pieces.
Bringing out the best in children
What we want for any child first and foremost is a sense of security. All children come with a history but the end result if you use the correct strategies is a happy child who is more than willing to learn. It does not really matter what the history of a child is because you cannot change the past. You need to work at giving the child a sense of security when they are with you. I have a simple strategy that works almost every time. This strategy requires you to be patient, consistent and confident. The reason it works is simple. We are human and humans respond to certain situations much the same.
The strategy for optimum child learning
This strategy will be so simple you may find it difficult to believe but I guarantee you it will work on most children.
Be consistent – Let’s say you want a child to go to bed at 8pm on the dot every night. Do it every night at the same time. Have a set routine and DO NOT waver. Regardless of how much they fight and cry and scream at 8pm it’s off to bed.
Acknowledge good behaviour – All children want to be noticed. If you make a big deal and respond positively to good behaviour (E.g. going to bed at 8pm) they are more likely to want to do it again.
Time out – When children misbehave and resist your requests you need to give them time out. Time out is often necessary when a child is use to getting their way. In other words they are use to winning.
So far I have given you an understanding of how children think and respond to a range of situations. Now it is time to tackle the big one. Tantrums. A tantrum is just extreme behaviour. A young child is not physically capable of doing much else. Almost all children discover the tantrum at some point. For the child a tantrum is often initially a build up of emotions. They begin by wanting some control over their situation. When they are unable to get control they get frustrated. The frustration usually comes from the fact that they believe the object of their desire is just out of their reach. Imagine there was a cake sitting on a kitchen bench and it was just out of their reach. At first they try to stretch out their arm but once they realise it they cannot grab it they will become frustrated which leads eventually to an emotional outburst. Once you give them the cake they instantly stop and are all smiles. But this unfortunately is not the result we are looking for. What we want is for the child to stop instantly without receiving the cake. We want them to deal with this emotion in another way. If the cake becomes the diffuser they are heading for a difficult adulthood. So let us begin with the strategies for avoiding tantrums without the need for cake so to speak.
Time out is an interesting one. It is a very predictable human behaviour. Time out must be done correctly. In most cases it needs to be demonstrated because it is mostly in the delivery. If you are not serious about your delivery children will quickly pick up on the fact and it will be ineffecteive. The whole idea is the child must know they will not win so they may as well deal with it and play by the rules. If a child knows there is a boundary that cannot be crossed they will soon give up. Conversely if a child knows they have a good chance of winning the will persist to the point of a tantrum.
A typical example of a child tantrum
I will use a fictional child named Mary. Now Mary is out shopping with Mum and has spotted the ice cream shop. The conversation goes something like this.
Mary – “Mummy I want an ice cream”
Mum – “Not today. May be next time”
Mary – “No I want an ice cream now”
Mum – “I am sorry Mary but you can’t have an ice cream now. How about we have a look at the book shop”
Mary -“No! I hate books. I WANT an ice cream. If you don’t buy me an icecream I will get very angry”
Mary begins to get upset and angry. Mum does everything she can to try and distract her and calm her down but Mary is getting more and more worked up and begins to cry and even scream. Mum also is getting frustrated and even a little embarrassed.
Mum – “Stop it Mary. You are embarrassing me. I am sick of your screaming. You always do this. You always want to get your way missy. Well not his time. If you don’t stop it we are going home now”
Mary continues her crying and screaming and Mum realises the only way to stop Mary’s behaviour is to either give in and buy her an ice cream or drag her home kicking and screaming. Either way is a bad result.
There is a better way.
First of all remain calm. Depending on the age either pick them up or hold their hand and take them to any place where they can stand safely. Ask them to remain there until they are ready to behave. Walk away but stay within sight. Now just wait a few minutes. Keep your eye on them but avoid eye contact if they are looking at you. After about 2 minutes walk back and crouch down to their level and ask them “Are you ready to behave?” At this point they will either be ready to behave or they will need more time. If they need more time say “I will be over there when you are ready” and walk away again. Three times if necessary. Finally when they back down ask them if they understand what they did wrong and ask them to apologise.
The routine should be consistent each time. This is a time out process. Time out for a child gives them a chance to deal with their emotions. You are literally teaching a technique to calm themselves down when they get upset. You are also teaching them that throwing a tantrum will only ever result in them getting time out. You send them a clear message that when they are with you they need to act and behave with respect for your rules.
When you master the above technique children (especially young children) will literally go from a tantrum to a happy child within a minute or two. I will do this with children I am working with an their parents think I have performed some kind of magic. It’s no magic. A child’s behaviour is simply predictable most of the time.
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