Sunday, April 10, 2011

Working With Children (and Parents) Individually

In the last post I opened the door to the idea that with children students, comes parent communication. Does this come easily to you? Have you tried any new ideas? I’d love to hear your comments. Something that happens to me on a regular basis is that a parent will come to me with an individual problem with their child. Some examples include: his or her grades are falling, the respect level around the house is becoming too relaxed, or maybe they are fighting in school. Do your parents ever approach you for help in an individual area?

The pattern for working through these requests is manageable, yet a little time consuming. First, I set up a meeting with the child. This can be before, during, or after class. The time I pick depends on how much time I think the meeting will take. My least favorite is during class. I will pick it if I have enough help and it is the best alternative given the circumstances. Before I call the child in, I mention to the parent that I am going to talk to the child. I say that I would appreciate it if they listen quietly and let me lead the conversation. I tell them that before we close, I’ll ask them if they have anything to add, but during the talk I’d like them to let the
child talk directly with me – without any interruptions. Most parents understand, agree, and comply.

I find a quiet spot for the three (or four if mom and dad are both there) of us to sit. I ask the student if they know why we’re meeting. Almost half say ‘yes’ and we get right to it. The other half like to say no and we have to identify the behavior we’re going to work on before we can talk about it. Three things I’ve noticed about the meeting are quite simple and repeatable:

1. Since the child loves karate, he (or she) will try to do what I ask.
2. The method for change in any of us is the same.
3. Finish with the part of the conversation where mom and dad can add what they want. They inevitably muddy the conversation with lots of emotion. I quietly wait. Then I reiterate the bullets I want in behavior and we all go back to class (or home).

The Child Loves Karate (1)
Parents are always enthralled at how well behaved their child is in class. They always want to take the concept of push-ups home to demand good behavior. We all know that doesn’t work. We also know that the reason the children do what we ask is because these children love having the strengthening outlet of a fighting art. It is a magnificent teacher and a great equalizer. When I’m working with kids to change their behavior I try to stay away for “if-then” demands. In other words I try to stay away from sentences like “If you want to become a green belt, then you will finish your homework on time.” What I like instead is to let the person come to the place where they think it is what they should do. It goes something like this:
Me” Do you know why we’re talking?”
Child” Mom is mad because I don’t ever want to do my homework?”
Me ”Way to go, saying it right up front. Do you have anything to add before I talk? Is your homework too hard for you? Is there a problem we don’t know about?”
(If there is a problem, we brainstorm ways to fix it – tutors, talking to the teacher, bringing the work into karate to get some help with the overwhelming parts)
Otherwise: Child “No, I just think it is boring.”
Me (smiling) “I know what you mean! Let’s talk about why you have to do it (and we do). Now let’s talk about how to make the time work for you (and we do). And finally, let’s talk about how a karate person thinks…..does a karate person quit when the work gets hard? Does the karateka whine and make excuses? “ At this point, I let the child talk and consider. Then we discuss the tools we’re going to use to change. I finish with “Can you give me your word as a karateka that you will TRY to do your best?” (I reiterate the “try your best” promise at the very end of our meeting.)

At this point I expect setbacks. It usually goes great for about two weeks and then we have a setback. I have a conversation with mom and dad where I mention to allow for setbacks and try not to overreact. Just remind, and I will too. (I have three or four children giving me weekly updates on how they’re doing with the parent’s requests even as I write this!)

Method of Change (2)
What I have observed over the years is that no matter what age, everyone needs motivation to change. Otherwise, a person really won’t consciously try to change. I have also observed that there are a few ways to actually change: you can replace one behavior with another, give yourself a reminder when you are about to do something you don’t want to do, or reward yourself when you get it right! These ‘methods of changing’ remain the same throughout life.

(Tangent): Think about it: When students are new, we demand they practice courtesy through the use of the words “Oos” and “Sensei” and we hope that that demand turns into a way of life for them. (It does, if they stay long enough.) We punish through pushups and eventually the new, courteous way takes over the old, unintentional, lack of courtesy (read here: Lack of awareness).

Anyway……One thing I think is very important is to give the child the tools to attempt the change. In the above example of homework, the obvious tool is to make the same time for homework each day. Have an alarm go off for starting and one go off if there are breaks scheduled etc. I would make sure the homework time wasn’t falling into the child’s favorite show or the time his friend was playing a game outside….in other words….look at it from their standpoint. I also believe in small rewards. This is controversial because I know you ‘old-schooler’s are talking to your computer screen right now and saying….”People should work and do without constant reward. Theoretically you are SO right. Realistically, animals and people learn faster and change more consistently when the reminders are in place. Rewards don’t have to be big or dramatic. I like to use things the kids are getting already: new games, favorite videos rented. I have used events like they could earn an archery lesson with me or I would let them earn patches….etc. It is very individual.)

Some other tools I have used include:
-Making lists when needed
-Reinforcing when the kids get it right and not just noticing when they get it wrong. (This is probably the most common mistake we make when we’re working to change ourselves or someone we care for. The successes become invisible to the eye. But the mistakes stand out. It is hard to notice when people do something right. But it is worth it to make an effort to notice; in ourselves and in our children.)
-Creating a way for the person to see disaster coming. One example is a “secret word” between the adult and the child to signal when the child is getting agitated. I like silly words that other people won’t recognize, like dinosaur or power puffs. That gives the person a chance to breath and think before all heck breaks loose.
-Making sure the children have an outlet to vent. Everyone needs that. Many people do it in a social network now. For a child it could be the parent, a teacher, a grandparent. We are a society that needs to be heard.
-Finally, a conversation I have regularly with kids includes the concept that we can’t lash out at everyone who gets on our nerve (even if we want to). When someone, or something, gets on our nerve, we need to choose between these alternatives: walk away from it, talk about it, ignore it, or tell someone who can help. I stress that physicality is only for emergencies. I also stress the idea that the four choices above travel with you throughout life, so get used to them!

Mom and Dad Talk and Listen (3)

When the meeting is about to close up, I ask moms and / or dads what they’d like to add. This is always laced with emotion. I sit quietly and observe. When it gets quiet, I ask the child to share. I will also reiterate the bullets from our conversation. We put this subject to rest and go about the rest of the evening.
After I send the child away, I mention to the parents that change is really challenging. I ask them to consider what it would be if THEY were the ones being expected to adapt. I try to finish on a note of win-win.

Here is a comprehensive list of subjects that have been brought before me. It is not complete, just ones I remember:
1. Hitting and bullying other kids.
2. Being hit and bullied.
3. Not respecting parents.
4. Acting up during divorce.
5. Not doing home chores.
6. Not doing homework.
7. Not wanting to spend weekends with the other parent because the child had to miss his / her regular weekend event.

Hopefully, this post is helpful when and if you find yourself in moment where a parent asks for your help. You all know how much I like hearing from you. Want to let me know what you think?