Olive and Impulses

That was surprising!

In Olive, children begin to learn to recognize emotions and physical needs and use strategies to lessen impulsive behavior.

Remember a time when you found you’d done something, and you don’t know why like locking the bottom lock when you know it sticks or more emotionally charged, you found yourself yelling even though you’re not okay with this. You might have found yourself saying “good job” or “so cute” while simultaneously trying to reach for those words and stuff them back in your mouth so as not to impose your own judgement. Even grown-ups act impulsively. Our growing awareness of these behaviors, a lot of practice and a good dose of self-forgiveness, go a long way towards mastering these impulses. Admonition, “That’s not okay,” for example, may not be that helpful. After all, we already know this. The same is true for our children in Olive.

When they were two, they might not have known hitting, pushing, or grabbing a toy from another’s hands were not okay or had the empathy to understand why, but our Olive children know it's not okay. Like me learning “good job” does more to diminish an internal sense of self worth than build it, they are new to “hitting is not okay” and need lots of practice and chances to learn from their mistakes with knowledge that next time they’ll do better. Unlike me, the part of their brain that helps in impulse control is undeveloped and will not be fully developed until their twenties. They need our support to develop empathy, to practice recognizing the emotions and physical needs behind their impulses, and to identify other strategies to employ. In addition to emotions and physical needs like tiredness or hunger, children may have communication and other developmental challenges and or sensory needs that might also trigger impulsive behavior, and we might not understand why a child is acting out aggressively. This can be scary for both the parent and child and requires empathy from our community as we work together to discover the triggers in order to better support the child. As adults, we can help the children in our care develop this empathy too while we continue to build an inclusive community.

What does this work look like in the yard? In a game of pretend chase, children working through insecurities such as “I don’t know how to predict my peers’ behavior or even my own,” might take on power roles like a superhero and a dragon. Sometimes the play can feel real, and the pretend and often physical conflict between these two characters can become real. We narrate what is happening, pointing out the play and the pretend. We position ourselves between the dragon and the heroine to deflect any physical situation. We might say, for example, “I am going to make sure you're safe. Did that feel too scary? Do you want to keep playing this game?” We will also join the play to provide a more predictable and secure element to the game. Taking on the role of pretending to be scared, we might say in a sing song play way, “Oh no your dragon flames nearly got my cape. I’m going to spray on my special ice coat to stay safe.” Pretend spray, and call, “Run.” Or as we see children gain play skills ask them how we can stay safe or what rules we should add to the game.

We will also see impulsive behavior we did not predict or understand the trigger because something we don't see is going on for the child. It can be something physical, emotional or developmental. For example, two children are playing next to each other, and one throws sand or a toy at the other. In this situation, we want to work together. A parent teacher can check in with the hurt child asking what happened? What hurts? Empathizing, “That was surprising,” or, “you look angry, I would feel angry too if I got hit by a block. That would really hurt.” Once the child feels heard and validated, we can work to build empathy for the aggressor, “I bet they were really surprised too and don’t know why they threw that block. I bet they feel bad. What do you think?” And understanding, “They are still learning the words to tell you what they need.” Or, “They are still learning what to do when they feel angry.” If any first aide is needed, grab a teacher.

Meanwhile, the other teacher will work with the aggressor, first providing empathy. The aggressor acted on impulse, an impulse triggered in the subconscious fight/flight center of the brain which has just received a double whammy. The child may feel bad to have caused someone else pain and expects this act will be met with disapproval, scolding or possibly punishment. And remember the child could not control their impulse and does not know why they did what they did. How scary. The child’s emotions are roiling.

To empathize, recognize the impulse, “That was really surprising. I know you know throwing a block at a friend is not okay. Something must be happening in your body. That must be scary. I’m going to stay with you to keep us safe.” Speak softly and just sit with them in the emotion. They may run away, flight after fight. Follow slowly and position yourself so as to block the path in order to provide the time and space to regulate and process what happened. Breathe. Relax. Some children respond to counting and breathing, some to gentle touch or squeezes, some to firm. Once the child calms, work to problem solve.

To problem solve, narrate what you saw happen. Use cues from looking at the child, the time of day, any information you have about the child’s morning or other information, to ask questions to try to uncover with the child what was happening in their body. “Let's see if we can figure out what happened when you lost your cool and threw the block. Sometimes we make mistakes, but we get to try again. How does your body feel? Hungry? Tired?” “I notice you like hats. Did you want the hat?” “Did you need space? A break? Did you get scared by the game?” Excited?” By identifying the circumstances leading up to the impulsive behavior, the teacher and the child will be able to work together to come up with better strategies to regulate.

Finally, we want to work to build empathy with the child that was injured. “I bet it really hurt to get hit by a block. I’d feel angry (scared, sad) if I got hit by a block. Let's go check on them to see if they’re ok and if there is anything we can do to make it better.” Then, we go with the child to make amends.

This work requires strong relationships and trust, so as we do the work, we focus on being empathetic first, simply being with the child and these big difficult emotions. As the child trusts they are accepted, understood and validated, they become willing to work with us to go through the challenges of figuring out what happened, how to do something differently and to grow empathetically and emotionally. This is the work of Olive and will even continue into The Big Yard. They will carry these skills — impulse control, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and empathy — with them for a lifetime.

MichelleMichelle Barrera