About Judith Pitlick, MA, LPCC

Judith L. Pitlick, MA, LPCC is a child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She works with individuals, couples, parents and families.
As a licensed teacher in regular and special education, she previously taught at a therapeutic school as well as at area colleges and universities.
She is on the faculty at The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development, where her work includes consultation with directors, teachers and parents at area schools and child care centers.
Pitlick is on the Faculty of the Cleveland Psychoanalytical Center and is a clinical Instructor in the Case Western Reserve Medical School Department of Psychiatry.

Understanding students’ behavior as communication

The Situation: While coloring, Sara turned to Elena and said, “I guess you don’t know what color dogs are, because you colored them purple.”

Elena was crestfallen. “My mommy told me I can use any color I want,” said Elena.

“Well, I guess its OK at your house, but we use dog colors at my house,” commented Sara.

Miss Toth was standing nearby and heard the interchange. As she approached the girls, she noticed that Elena stopped coloring and was tearful. “Elena you look like you had your feelings hurt,” she said.

“Sara hurt my feelings and said I was stupid!” whined Elena.

“I did not!” argued Sara.

Miss Toth spoke with Sara privately. She knew that admonishing Sara would not solve anything. Instead, she wondered out loud, “I heard what you said to Elena and you did not sound like the kind Sara I know. Is there something on your mind today? Did someone else hurt your feelings?”

Sara was silent and thought, “Does my teacher know what happened this morning?”

“Sara, I wonder what would make you unkind to your friend Elena? Sometimes people are unkind to someone they like, because someone else was unkind to them. Did that happen to you?” prompted Miss Toth. Sara froze. “My big sister said I was stupid because I didn’t know the name of my street. Now I know it so I’m not stupid anymore.” Miss Toth talked with Sara about her sister’s unkind words and her hurt feelings, saying “I’m so sorry your sister hurt your feelings, but it won’t help you feel better to hurt someone else. You are a very smart girl who can be proud of what you know and what you learn.” Miss Toth’s empathy helped Sara understand why she was unkind to Elena, and find a way to repair the situation.

The Lesson: What looks like bad behavior often is an expression of some deeper feeling. Miss Toth knew Sara as a kind girl and used that knowledge to help Sara know herself better. In an attempt to ease her own hurt, Sara had made someone else feel as she felt—little and stupid. We want to make things right when a child is unkind by admonishing or reprimanding, but those responses only result in greater hurt. By being kind in the face of unkindness, Miss Toth helped Sara know and express her feelings, resulting in a step toward mastery.

When we find meaning in behavior, the behavior makes sense. With that understanding we can figure out the best solution to promote learning and progressive development. For example, we can help Sara find relief by using words to express her feelings, and then help her make things right with Elena.

In her comments to Elena, Sara took the position of the seemingly stronger person, her sister, and then repeated her sister’s behavior. This is a typical, human response for children and adults alike. Miss Toth knew this dynamic with young children and was able to help Sara feel understood. Then Sara could manage her feelings and be a kind girl again. It is so helpful to Sara that she is learning about her emotional life at a young age and in a safe place.

Learning Points:

  • When children cannot find the right words, they tell us their thoughts and feelings through their behavior.
  • Behavior almost always has meaning. Inappropriate behavior can mean that children are struggling with feelings: sad, mad, jealous, worried or scared.
  • Children and adults can work together to figure out the meaning of behavior.
  • Young children often have trouble answering questions like:  “What’s wrong?” or “Why are you upset?” or “Why are you crying?” They may not always know how to connect a feeling to its cause. So they respond better to questions like: “How are you feeling about what happened? or “How can I help you?” or “You look very upset.”
  • Children who are not behaving appropriately might be scared or worried about something.
  • Children who seem angry might really be scared, worried or sad about something.
  • Children who behave inappropriately to get adult attention might need attention.
  • Children calm down faster and behave better when they are helped by calm, understanding, loving adults.
  • Think about times in your life when you were upset and needed help from someone; what helped you?

The importance of talking with children about feelings

The situation: Four-year-old Michael was misbehaving. The teacher, Mr. Carpenter, was speaking quietly to him, helping with feelings the young boy could not express verbally.

caring-teacher-1622554-1280x960_freeimages_Heriberto Herrera“Michael, if you are missing mommy and feeling sad, we can talk about her, think about her and make her a picture,” Mr. C said. “You can miss mommy and still feel like a big schoolboy who can manage and be safe.”

Nearby, Alex had been watching this interaction out of the corner of his eye while building with blocks. Unexpectedly he lashed out at Julia, who was working next to him, knocking over her building. Julia yelled,” Alex is mean and being bad!” Alex appeared unconcerned about what he had done and continued building.

The assistant teacher, Ms. Dowd, approached Alex and Julia, hoping to find out what happened. Frustrated, Julia described the incident. Ms. Dowd turned to Alex, wondering why he would do such a thing and not apologize.

She asked, “Are you angry at Julia?” Alex refused to speak, then teared up and put his head down. It was only when Mr. Carpenter approached that he looked up, longingly, ready to speak.

He reached out to Mr. Carpenter and sighed, “I wanted you to help me with my missing-mommy feelings the way you helped Michael.”

The lesson: Every early childhood classroom should include the “language of feelings.” Addressing behavior (what a child is actively doing) is different from addressing feeling (what a child is experiencing on the inside).

As adults, we tend to focus on the doing instead of the feeling, because it seems easier. It takes a little extra time to help a child listen to the feeling voice inside, and find a constructive way to express that feeling voice.

We might think we know how a child feels, but often the child surprises us.

Alex’s actions seemed angry and unfeeling, but inside he was longing and hurting. His teachers might have thought he acted out because he wanted “attention,” but Alex needed some kindness and compassion.

He did not know how to express his lonely, missing feelings. He saw Michael receive comfort and consolation from Mr. C, and Alex wanted the same for himself. What a good idea to want to feel comfort from a compassionate person you trust.

Learning points

  • Help the child figure out ways to express feelings safely: Use words, get a hug, take a walk,
  • spend some time calming down.
  • Praise the child for using words instead of acting out (yelling, tantrums, hurting others).
  • Help the child with difficult feelings while you are calm.
  • Use the “language of feelings” in your classroom.
  • Label specific feelings: happy, sad, jealous, mad, excited, surprised, lonely, hurt, scared…
  • Trust that when the child knows the words for feelings, he or she will use them – though it may take practice.
  • Upset and anger directed at a child creates more upset and anger.
  • Remember, the adult is always the model for the child; you are the model for your student.

Image courtesy of Freeimages.com/Heriberto Herrera

The ‘inside helper’: Helping young children make good decisions and use their conscience

training wheels_1431529-639x745_ned horton_freeimagesThe situation: Five-year-old Abby pushed her way into the preschool line. She had been waiting all day to show her teacher how well she could ride a bike with training wheels.

“Hey, you’re pushing in front of me and that’s not fair,” cried Jack. “I want to get outside too!”

Abby started to cry: “Now I’ll never be able to show Mr. Martin how I ride a bike, because they’ll all be taken!”

Mr. Martin approached the children and asked what was going on.

“Abby pushed me so she could get a bike, but I was here first,” Jack complained.

“I just wanted to show you that yesterday I learned to ride a bike with training wheels,” Abby confessed.

“Abby, what a wonderful new skill you learned. I would like to see it.” Abby sighed with relief that her teacher knew what she wanted. “But Abby”, he added, “you know the rule about waiting your turn and not pushing in line.”

Mr. Martin turned to the class and thanked them for waiting while he and Abby figured out what to do.

“Abby, how do you think you could solve this problem?” he asked.

“Don’t let her go outside,” said Jack; Megan chimed in, “Make her apologize!”

“Well, those are not kind ways to help Abby,” Mr. Martin responded, “and I think she can decide what to do, because she knows about good choices. Abby can listen to her inside helper.”

Abby looked at Mr. Martin and said, “I know what to do; I need to go to the end of the line. But I want a bike. Can you save time for a turn on one for me?”

“Now you are listening to yourself and you are making some good choices,” Mr. Martin responded. “Of course we can save some time for you on a bike. OK, let’s straighten out this line and get outside!”

When they were outside Abby approached Jack and told him she would work hard to make a better choice next time and not cut in line again. “Thanks,” replied Jack as he ran off to play.

The Lesson: Abby knew how to use her conscience and needed the opportunity to use it to help her with problem-solving. She just needed a little time and the kindness of her teacher to look inside herself and find a kind solution.

Reprimanding her or depriving her of privileges would not help her listen to the kindness of her conscience. When children receive primarily harsh or punitive consequences, they develop a harsh conscience, which they turn away from in times of trouble.

Given the opportunity and adult support, Abby came up with good ideas. If her teacher had given in to the temptation to just take over, she might have been deprived of this opportunity for further conscience development, increased self-esteem, greater confidence, and a feeling of mastery. Lucky Abby; she had a teacher who understands that children need to develop this important skill – and who made it his job to give her the chance, even while juggling the busy transition to outside time.

Learning points

  • Children ages 3-5 (and older, too) want to do the right thing – even though sometimes their behavior seems otherwise.
  • Adults need to help young children make good choices and use their conscience – or inside helper. Children are not born with this ability.
  • Adults model good decision-making by using love, kindness and understanding.
  • Teaching children to make good decisions by yelling, punishing or humiliating is ineffective. These approaches make them feel angry, unsure of themselves, and develop a lack of confidence and low self-esteem.
  • We all want to be treated well and to feel good about ourselves. We want the same for children.
  • Modeling kindness, support for learning, appropriate behavior, clear expectations and loving
  • praise for good decisions will help children achieve a feeling of well-being.
  • Modeling good decisions will also help achieve a feeling of well-being.
  • When children have a feeling of confidence and well-being, they can use their conscience to make good choices.

Image courtesy of Freeimages.com/Ned Horton

A strategy for talking with children so they’ll listen

preschool-class-activities2-1-1439482-639x958_freeimages_anissa thompsonThe situation: Mrs. Parker called out to her preschool class, “It’s almost time to clean up and go outside to play.”

It was a cold snowy day and the children needed to put on warm clothes.

Laura looked up and said, “No, I’m not going.” Paul screamed, “I didn’t get my turn on the easel.” Rebecca ignored the direction, and two boys, Jason and Robbie, started running around the room chasing each other.

Mrs. P raised her voice. “It’s time to finish what you are doing and put on your coats!”

William, who was struggling to put on his snow pants, fell backwards, crying that he needed help, while Jennifer teased him that he was a baby to cry about his pants.

Mrs. P’s pleasant, productive classroom had suddenly turned to chaos.

The lesson: As every preschool teacher knows, at any given moment there is a great deal going on in the classroom. Early childhood teachers feel pulled in many directions at once. The most skillful teacher seems to have the ability to attend to the needs and desires of each child. What an amazing skill to have naturally or to acquire.

On this day, the activity that created trouble was to transition to outside play. It was tempting and seemed most efficient to give verbal direction to the whole class. Sometimes early childhood teachers miss the idea that the transition itself – in this case to put on outdoor clothing – can be an activity worthy of note on a lesson plan.

If she had thought about it this way, Mrs. Parker might have given an alert or direction about the transition individually to each student – just as she would when working on any other challenge or skill.

This allows each child an opportunity to respond with anything that might be on the child’s mind – possibly uncovering obstacles to a smooth transition. She might hear, “I need to finish my puzzle,” or “Mrs. P, my coat is hard for me to zip by myself,” or “Oh, I can’t wait to go outside and show you how I can shovel snow!”

Children can listen better and respond more appropriately when they have a connection with the teacher, even a momentary one. This approach takes time, but what a good use of a few minutes in a preschooler’s day.

Learning points

  • Look directly at the child.
  • Encourage the child to look at you, rather than demanding it.
  • Use a gentle, quiet voice.
  • Use an understanding voice.
  • Make some physical contact: Hold a hand, touch an arm, offer a hug.
  • Model good listening by paying attention to what the child wants to say, even if you do not agree. It always feels respectful.
  • Use feeling words with the child.
  • Praise the child as much as you can even for doing simple things that are expected, such as hanging up a coat, cleaning up, getting dressed and following rules.
  • Smile at the child; it’s contagious!

Image courtesy of Freeimages.com/Anissa Thompson