It’s time to have a conversation about young people and all the things they do that are wonderful, inclusive, respectful, and responsible.
Unfortunately, these aspects are often overlooked. And when we do see them, we either don’t identify them as a choice or we are surprised that we “caught” children being good. Of course, even youngsters with severe misbehaviors spend a lot of time behaving well.
It is our job as adult caregivers to see as much of the good as we can; to spend time getting to know kids well enough to understand their choices in the context of who they are; and to give kids the support and resources they need to continue to make healthy choices.
Better than “catching” them doing something, we should become mindful of their individual strengths.
Right Here, Right Now Most adults spend their mental energy in one of two places—either in the past, thinking about what has happened, or in the future, thinking about what will happen. We definitely have to be responsible for learning from the past and making good choices for the future. However, focusing on the past or future gets in the way of where we actually spend our time—the present.
The first step in helping children develop more positive behavior is to see it happening, to actually notice the choices they are making while they are making them. We must be there with them, paying attention to what they are doing and following their train of thought and expression.
It means putting down the phone, minimizing other interactions, and doing only one thing at a time.
Being truly present can be challenging. My daughter is 3½ years old, which means she is fully and deeply into pretend play. My wife or I—along with princesses and rainbow unicorns—are almost always involved in her fictitious scenarios.
While totally fascinating on some level, these games are fairly boring when we are in the middle of them.
My daughter doesn’t have enough world experience to make up some great adventure. She plays either the mom going to work, a princess waving her wand, or a researcher studying rainbow unicorns. (Those are her words. We can sometimes be a bit nerdy in our house.)
It’s easy for me to mindlessly “play” in her game. But, of course, then I miss something critical. She becomes frustrated when I don’t hear something, or aggravated that I don’t follow along, and she consequently becomes disrespectful.
I could easily correct the “bad behavior,” but I would be missing a huge opportunity to see some of the unbelievably creative, inspired, and thoughtful behavior (all things I want her to do more of). That would also be an ineffective way to teach her better ways to handle negative feelings.
When was the last time you listened respectfully to someone who first ignored you, and then gave you critical feedback? Adults don’t do that. Why would kids?
The most important part of being present is using active listening. Staying focused on what is happening also gives other people an indication that you care and are aware of their behavior. Active listening forces you to follow along.
The Art Of Noticing It is easier to notice things we don’t like: food on a menu, clothes in a store, bad drivers on the freeway, the odd house on the block, etc. What we don’t like stands out.
It is really no different when dealing with kids’ behavior. What is unusual or not OK stands out.
It is time to retrain our brains. To begin, just ask some simple questions when with kids: “What am I looking for right now?” or “What do I want to see?” These questions prime our brains to be on the lookout. Noticing is an active process that requires effort.
Next, we need to put ourselves into the action. A dear friend of mine and a phenomenal camp counselor once said that to be a great youth leader, one has to repeatedly ask, “What can I do right now to improve this situation?” No matter what is happening, the situation can always be made better.
Comparative Advantage The economics principle of comparative advantage involves an individual being valuable to a group because, while not good at everything, the person is good at something. Economists discuss this in terms of trade between countries. Business leaders speak in terms of productivity, project management, and personnel.
In youth development, I use the principle of comparative advantage to identify each young person’s strengths.
The question is not “Are they good at something?” but “What are they good at?”
It is essential to start with the basic assumption that every young person is good at something. Indeed, many children and teens have several different strengths. It is our job as adult caregivers to find and celebrate those strengths.
Identifying strengths begins with being present and noticing positive behaviors. “Being interested” seems so easy but is actually quite difficult. It involves active listening and mindful participation, even when the activity or topic isn’t interesting or motivating to us. Still, we have to meet kids where they are.
Once we identify a young person’s interests, passions, and strengths, it is easier to create an environment—a set of supports and opportunities—for him or her to be successful.
I can create an environment for my daughter to be creative. I can hide jewels that her rainbow unicorns have left, or I can entice the princess fairy to make a magic potion in the bathtub. These are opportunities for her to be creative, to express herself, and to use her imagination, which anyone who has met her will say are some of her strengths.
It All Adds Up To Better Behavior Adult caregivers, especially parents and camp staff, play a huge part in helping young people develop positive behavior. This promotion depends, in part, on how we spend our mental and emotional time, what we notice, and how we can look for every kid’s strength or comparative advantage.
In combination, these techniques bolster the tried-and-true behavior-management strategies most of us use. Being in the present, active noticing, and identifying strengths make strategies such as “specific and clear praise” more accurate and genuine. These strategies help make “rewards and consequences” more meaningful and poignant, and give “enhanced responsibility” more power and credibility.
Best of all, this new approach brings more positive behavior, which feels good to everyone.
Scott Arizala is the leading expert, trainer, and consultant in summer camp. He is the Camp Director for Camp Tall Tree, a resident camp for children with unique challenges; for Dragonfly Forest, a camp for kids with serious illnesses; and for Camp Kesem, a national organization for children whose parents have cancer. Scott is also on the faculty of ExpertOnlineTraining.com and the author of the best-selling book, S’more Than Camp.