Community News: March, 2015-2016

The Zen of Challenging Behaviors

By Mika L McAfee, M.A. Ed.

In Zen tradition there is a story about a student who asks her teacher what one must do to become enlightened. The Zen master responds, “Chop wood, carry water”. The student leaves to follow the teacher’s guidance. After ten years the student returns to the teacher – “I have chopped wood and carried water, and yet I still have not reached Enlightenment. What next, Teacher?” “Continue to chop wood and carry water.”

The student returns to her duties and more time passes. Finally she returns to the teacher and says with a small smile “I have reached enlightenment, Great Teacher – what should I do now?” The Zen master smiles broadly and responds with gusto: “Now you may begin chopping wood, and carrying water.” One of the overarching themes that arises while working with parents is the handling of specific, challenging behaviors that children present. Whether the child is 14 months or 14 years old, our attempts to address these behavior challenges are akin to the parental version of the Quest for Enlightenment. No matter how much we do, the essence of parenting remains the same. There are a number of tools parents can use when presented with challenging behavior, but every approach begins with an attempt to understand the root causes of the behavior. This helps to identify which approach will be most effective. It also provides a deeper understanding of the inner workings of a child’s mind. According to Child Development theorist James Hymes there are five basic issues that can influence a child’s difficult behavior: stage of development, temperament, environment (or lousy local conditions), “hasn’t been taught yet,” or unmet emotional needs. When faced with a new, challenging behavior from one’s child it is helpful to explore which of these potential causes is most likely at play.

Stage of Development

Often the first thing to consider when faced with a difficult behavior is whether or not it is developmental in nature. Is this something that is actually part of ‘normal’ human development and, while frustrating, is perhaps necessary for a child’s growth? Knowing this may not make the experience any less unpleasant for parents, but can help ease tension a bit and help find ways to tolerate and help a child practice a necessary developmental behavior. Human development occurs over a variety of realms – physical, social, emotional and intellectual – and is not necessarily a linear process. There can be great frustration and confusion in a child, whose developmental processes are occurring at different rates, leading to more difficult behavior.


All humans are different. And yet it is easy to fall into the trap of self-blame, thinking “What have I done wrong?” when another parent’s child is behaving ‘better’ than one’s own. The answer is usually nothing. Temperamental traits are those aspects of personality that are inborn and present at birth – part of what makes each person unique. How a child experiences the world from their own perspective can factor into how they react to their environment and the people around them. Knowing the child’s temperament (and our own) helps one adapt expectations for children, while appreciating their individual way of responding to the world.

Environment or ‘Lousy Local Conditions’

When my children were very young, I rarely took them to my father-in-law’s house. While he has a lovely home, it was a lousy local condition. Filled with antiques and large musical instruments practically begging to be played with, I often found myself negotiating and manhandling my children to keep them entertained and away from doing damage to valued belongings. It was exhausting for everyone involved. This was simply not an environment where my children could be successful at that stage of life. Conditions can also be related to time schedules as much as locality. Squeezing that last errand to the grocery store before your preschooler’s lunch me might seem like a good strategy until you are at the checkout struggling to control an ongoing temper-tantrum as you say “no” to the candy at the register. Another way of thinking about this is called “Environmental Control”. Ask yourself “Is my child in an environment that allows them to be successful?” If a toddler acts out 90% of the time that they are in a certain place or at a certain time– perhaps the environment needs to be changed to mitigate the behavior.

“Hasn’t been taught yet”

Inevitably our children will face a new task or situa on that we have not yet prepared them for. Challenging behavior is often simply a message to parents that their child has not yet learned how to handle themselves in a given situation or manage a new task. Letting the child know “The puppy likes when you pet it” tells the child exactly what to do, rather than “Don’t pull the puppy’s tail”. Without knowing what is expected of them, children may either act out due to frustration or rely on their own misguided resources to solve the task. This also might happen to look like challenging behavior.

Unmet Emotional Needs

Behavior is a form of communication, and when challenging behaviors arise that are not explained by the prior conditions, some times it can be due to a child’s emotional needs that have not been met. When this occurs, often the need intensifies rather than subsides. This is often challenging for parents to recognize and provide support for. The cause could be a temporary stress, such as a new school placement or more complex situation like a new sibling. It is said that when children feel well, they do well – and the converse is equally true. Responding to your child’s emotional needs and meeting them is not ‘giving in,’ but simply giving the support they need to be successful.

Alas, the Parents’ Path to Enlightenment is lined with paradoxes. Even as we begin to address the source of challenging behavior in our children, it does not mean that the behavior will necessarily stop, nor that another challenging behavior will not follow swiftly. This is our ‘Chop Wood, Carry Water’. It is through the daily practice of caring for and guiding our children through the multitude of these challenges, that we reach our parental enlightenment.

The PAC Newsletter

The PAC Newsletter is produced by parents working in the PAC Communication Committee. The aim of the newsletter is to help co-ops communicate among themselves, inform families about important dates, ideas, related classes and seminars, Cooperative Preschool solutions and techniques from other preschools. It also advertises teacher openings, and fundraising activities.

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