CYC-Online 20 SEPTEMBER 2000
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Child Care Workers: Builders of Self Esteem

Kay Keating

Education therapist talks to child care workers about their crucial role in damage control when children and youth are in difficulties ...

Whether a child care worker serves children who have been abandoned, jailed, showing signs of emotional disturbance or retardation, one need is outstanding in all: these young people experience a crisis of self-esteem, and you, the child care worker, are called upon to be builders of self esteem. Because you have a significant role in the child's life, you have a direct impact on whether the child's self-concept develops with low self-esteem or adequate self-esteem. Consider the charts in the boxes below:

Negative cues from significant others Resulting behaviours and performance
Ridicule Aggression
Sarcasm Indifference
Annoyance Failure
Rejection Withdrawal
Anger Tension
Distrust Hostility
Discouragement Fear
Impatience Guilt
Result: A sense of failure, and low self-esteem

Positive cues from significant others Resulting behaviours and performance
Acceptance Success
Love Creativity
Concern Achievement
Encouragement Interest
Security Belonging
Empathy Identification
Sensitivity Co-operation
Understanding Curiosity and enthusiasm
Result: A sense of personal worth, and adequate self esteem

Managing the sources of behaviour
Suppose you have a child showing aggression, tension and hostility. Can you discern whether the ridicule, distrust and anger are coming from peers, staff or family? What balancing experiences can you bring about for the child if you have no power over the sources?

What works? is the $64000 question on the lips of therapeutic educators, clinicians and child care workers. The ideas that follow have been effective in my experience with pre-schoolers through teens, over the past ten years, among both the affluent and inner-city child. If you have already incorporated self-enhancing techniques in your work, affirm your self as a builder of self-esteem. Some ideas may be new and even viewed with scepticism; if so, give yourself “try out" time. If you find they contribute to your goals of building self-esteem, then incorporate them; a not, replace them with your own ideas “and consider sharing them with others in this journal.

Look at me: I'm bad
Children with inadequate self-esteem frequently perceive themselves as failures, bad or helpless. On contact with an adult new to them, they may do all in their power to get you to see them as badly as they see themselves. If you agree with this self-image, then they can employ the copout: “This is the way I am, therefore I can't or don't have to change." I will take some examples of this from a group of six to nine-year-olds with whom I've worked this past year. One looked for negative strokes through abusive language, another through playing the 'group clown' role, and a third through acting out destructive behaviour.

Andy spent the first three days writing obscene words at the top of his papers, knowing this is part of what helped remove him from public school, and expecting to repeat his negative image in his new situation. Each day I ignored the correctly spelled obscene words and affirmed Andy for his excellent work, asking him if he wanted “magnificent," “tremendous," “great", “super", “neat job", or “marvellous" at the top of his page. He chose and noticeably registered good feeling about his achievement. His game of hooking people into negative attention failed, and of his own initiative he changed. Consequently the self-image he articulated even on the first day I worked with him ("All I'm good for is hurting people!") was already needing revision. Next comes the group's 'clown'. It's music time. The children are singing to my guitar accompaniment. Edward scoots behind the chair, and gradually registering disbelief that his name is not called. Instead, I affirmed the other children for their contribution to the good sound. Since their enjoyment and esteem needs were met, they did not attend to the clown game. After the next song each child was given a cookie and a ticket to free time for helping the group have a good time. Edward immediately returned to his chair in anticipation of the same good consequences. Now that he's behaving appropriately, he is again attended to and informed of the reasons the others earned what they had. Of his own volition he states he didn't qualify for the reward. Immediately, I affirm him for his good thinking. Since he was never directly supported in his clown role, by being recognised, criticised or negatively stroked, power plays did not ensue, leaving Edward with energy to evaluate his own behaviour and decide for himself which behaviours bring more satisfaction. He also was left with the positive concept “l'm a good thinker", which builds support for a role opposite that of the clown.

Ignoring as a technique
At this point I would like to stress that the use of the “ignore technique" may be viewed by fellow staff as incompetency in handling situations, because no action is apparent. In workshops I've given I hear teachers express a fear that their principals will view them critically, even though the teacher is convinced of their long term capacity to diminish or extinguish inappropriate behaviours.

If you're convinced of your own expertise, try it, give feedback on the results and then if further evidence is needed, I suggest that critical staff members should read the book Developing observation skills by Cartwright, 1974, page 29, or The Hyperactive Child by Dennis P: Cantwell, M.D. 1975, page 167.

Disrupting the group
At times it's difficult to refrain from giving a negative stroke, as when a child walks into a room overturning furniture and materials while others are quietly concentrating on tasks. A simple, “Cool it, Richard, there are other ways to handle anger", might quickly reduce the demonstration. One more negative stroke, however, doesn't necessarily meet his development needs at this time. Instead, I said, “I'm feeling aggravated, because I can't hear Steven's reading. Is anyone else disturbed?" Andy said it was too noisy for him to think and the others raised their hands in agreement with my feelings. I then said to Richard, who had ceased acting out long enough to observe this dynamic, “We're your friends; did you really want us to feel this way?" He smiled and went to his place, after picking up the overturned items, with the awareness that he has friends and the affirmation about how thoughtful he was becoming about others' feelings. As soon as he was settled and again feeling good about himself, he was able to talk through the feelings that precipitated the destructive behaviour with which he had approached the group. (He was angry with a child who was not even in the room to experience his outrage.) In addition to what a child learns from each experience, he or she picks up the message, “Hey, she thinks I'm O.K. Maybe others do too. Maybe I am?" Also through your modeling the child learns the value of describing feelings in conflict, rather than acting them out, or judging or accusing another. Again in workshops I'm asked, “What if Richard continued to disrupt the group, not caring that he had friends?" If this had occurred, I would have affirmed the group, that is, each person displaying appropriate behaviour, mentioning they were using their time well and were likely to be ready in time for the swim to follow. Since swimming and art are two highly favoured activities for Richard, he generally will choose to change his own behaviour or delay gratification for something more desirable. Even in this exchange, he is not getting put-downs, but rather hearing about something that might motivate him to work through his feelings more directly and free him to get on with his task.

Realistic self-esteem levels
It should be apparent that styles of self-enhancing interaction, which break established self-image patterns, are inadequate without ongoing exchange at the need and feeling level. High self-esteem is not the goal, but rather adequate self-esteem. A child needs to be able to appraise himself realistically in terms of his strengths and weaknesses, his 'together' areas and his problem areas.

Dishing out free 'self-esteem' without giving the child the opportunity to earn it, is not helpful. Unless the two happen simultaneously, we might be promoting the kind of person who at the college level attends half the classes, scores B's and C's on tests, and then submits to the professor a request for an A when asked for a self-evaluation. Self-esteem unrealistically based is the same as delusions of grandeur and not what we advocate. I've mentioned “highly favoured activities" and “choices", about which I'd like to be more specific.

Facilitating choices
Early in our relationship with children, we try to become sensitive to their world of values. We play a 'values game' which consists of six cards which the children are free to arrange in order according to their preference, highest value on top.

The result may be: V.I.P., swimming, free time to be with friends, school double snacks and family. Knowing what it is that appeals to a child is precisely what can be offered in moments when a child needs to direct himself or herself toward more appropriate behaviour. Choices convey to the child his or her competence and a sense of being a person of consequence. Such trust frequently gives the child the opportunity to develop impulse control and offers recognition for decision-making ability. At the same time, the tendency to get hooked into power plays is reduced, for the child chooses what will bring him the most happiness, rather than deciding whether or not to “please" an adult by following their directives. If he or she finds their choice resulting in less happiness (which often happens, if they absent themselves from the stimulating programme you planned for the day), they have no one to be angry with but themselves. Taking the consequences will ultimately contribute to foresight in decision-making. Too early an intervention by an adult can say to the child “You're not competent to direct yourself; I'II do it for you." The values games that you play to discern highly favoured activities, is also valuable as a way to develop the child's perception and acceptance of individual differences, a trait of a healthy personality, moving him or her away from self-centred thinking.

Giving choices, scooting down to the child's level if needed, and encouraging them to describe and evaluate their own experiences, lessens our 'psychological size', as do our periodic expressions of needing a hug, or our admission of mistakes and fears. Our assuming the role of the helping person, rather than admonisher conveys to the child: “You can handle it; you're trusted, and I'm with you if you need me.

The V.I.P. of the day
Another technique that affords opportunity to change one's self-image is to have a 'Very Important Person' of the day. This V.I.P. position is earned by overall cooperation with staff and peers. The child is leader of group activities, stays up from rest time, earns double snacks, sits in the VI.P.'s' office' and has a V.I.P: walk or play with a staff member.

Periodically the staff deliberately forgets who the, so that the person can say, “I'm the Very Important Person." Behaviour on that day is generally 80 to 100% improved, because the child, through playing an esteemed role, has “try-out" time with frequently new patterns of behaviour. If a child should engage in person-hurting behaviour inconsistent with the dignity of V.I.P., he or she can be reminded that the loss of the position may result. This is usually sufficient to ward off the inappropriate actions. The children seem to treasure the positive strokes that come their way as they live the role, especially if they've been suffering from rejection by others “or themselves. Opportunity is essential if one is to see oneself differently and allow others to do the same.

How do the children view V.I.P.? Several have ranked it as their highest value of the six. Another said one day “Hooray, this is my thirteenth time of being the V.I.P.: When can I have my fourteenth?" Another child in his initial week was so jealous of other V.I.P.s that he referred to them as V.I.S.'s or Very Important Shit. The next time he was V.I.P., he found his name printed under “V.I.S.". He became very angry. I said, “You seem upset, I thought this is the title you wanted the V.I.P. to have." He said he didn't like it, and realised how the others must have felt, hearing it from him. This encounter ended further V.I.S. problems.

Helpful communication
It might be wise for us all periodically to evaluate the style of our verbal exchanges with children. If we only use the 'Dirty Dozen' (see box below) as labelled by Parent Effectiveness Training, rather than 'Door Openers', which attempt to discern the feelings as well as the meanings, the overall message the children get is “you're not O.K." The elimination or reduction of some of these styles of interacting may contribute to your development as a self-esteem builder.

Numbers 7 and 10 of the 'Dirty Dozen' may need some clarification. The reason why praising is included, is that it puts the adult in a judgemental position, as if only adults know. It would be better to encourage the child to recognise and name his own worth. As much as possible we try to have the child choose the word that they feel describes how well he or she did or reward themselves somehow. The children are also given the opportunity to state what was good about their day and why they earned this treat or that privilege.

The “Dirty Dozen”

  1. Ordering, directing, commanding: “You do what I said."
  2. Warning, admonishing, threatening: “If you do that, you'll be sorry."
  3. Exhorting, moralising, preaching: “You ought to do this."
  4. Advising, giving solutions or suggestions “Why don't you ... "
  5. Lecturing, teaching, giving logical arguments “Listen, it's time you learn something."
  6. Judging, criticising, disagreeing, blaming “That's not right."
  7. Praising, agreeing “I think that's good."
  8. Name calling, ridiculing, shaming: “See here Mr. Smarty."
  9. Interpreting, analysing, diagnosing: “You are just jealous of Sue."
  10. Reassuring, sympathising, consoling: “You'll feel better tomorrow."
  11. Probing, questioning, interrogating: “Why do you feel that way?"
  12. Withdrawing, distracting, humouring, diverting “Just forget about it."

Allowing feelings
The tendency to take away or deny feelings, as number 10 warns us against, with “You'll feel better tomorrow" statements, can conflict precisely with what it is a child most needs. I recall the day Rachel came in to me in a rage “crying, kicking, and trying to bite, as she coped with the other children's teasings about how she smelled and wouldn't use the toilet. I could have reminded her at that time of all the friends she now has, of what a marvellous reader she is, of how well she sings and contributes to the group in order to lift her feelings. But in so doing, I would rob her of feeling her pain. The chances are that she will take action on her own to allay her hurt. Instead of soothing her, I listened and let her know I knew she was hurting a lot, was miserable and very angry. I told her I wouldn't take away those feelings, but that she could, by using her angry energy to get herself to the toilet, so the real cause of pain would disappear, so she wouldn't smell and therefore wouldn't be teased. The next morning Rachel used the toilet for the first time. Strong feelings can be precisely what motivates us to change. We do not help others when we soften or help them to ignore or deny feelings.

Some people who have read the 'Dirty Dozen' say to me “I use all of them! How do I communicate without them?"

Expressions like, “Say more", “I'm interested", “Tell me about it", “Oh", convey to the child his significance. They assure him that his thoughts about his feelings and his feelings about his thoughts matter to you. He or she is heard. Receiving what is offered, establishes a bond that can sustain whatever confrontations or support may follow. Remember too, it doesn't mean we can never use some of the Dirty Dozen. It just means that if these are the only ways a child is spoken to, individuation, self-confidence and esteem will be somewhat inadequate.

In a sense, what I have attempted to do in this article is “flesh out" how behaviour modification ideas can operate in the lives of real children. At the same time, elements of reality therapy, play therapy, primal therapy, Gestalt and milieu therapy and transactional analysis have been incorporated. Like Harry Stack Sullivan, I believe that “the-child-in-interaction" gives you who are with him several hours daily, the opportunity to have the greatest impact, during the many growth moments that occur within a day's interaction. You may periodically need to stimulate your investment in the children. I suggest the following books:

Virginia Axline's Dibs in search of Self;

Nathanial Brandon's Psychology of Self-Esteem;

Alvyn M. Freed's TA. For Tots and TA for kids: Games children play (manipulative that is)

James' & Jongeward's Born to win;

Fritz and Albert Bandura's Psychological modelling.

As you participate with the children you serve, if you have become a builder of self-esteem, you will be seeing children who are into self-enhancing behaviours, having better understanding of their feelings, developing their capacity to make decisions, to delay gratification, anticipate consequences, be spontaneous, trust, like and be honest with themselves – and ultimately be interested in, able to occasion growth moments for others which you have made for them – thanks to your self-esteem building skills. I've been fortunate to work with child care workers like this.

Reprinted from Child Care Work in Focus. Copyright – Academy of Child and Youth Care Practice. Reproduced with permission.

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