Friday, January 1, 2016

"I Can't!"

Hello, all! Welcome to a new year! I'd like to start out by addressing an issue we've all dealt with. 

"I Can't!"

We all have that one child that just doesn't want to try. "I can't do it." "It's too hard." "You do it for me." "I don't want to try." I have one in my classroom who says phrases like, "I can't listen." It can be frustrating at times. We get caught in an endless loop of encouragement, cajoling, and incentivizing. Sometimes we can feel we aren't getting anywhere with this child.  We wonder where this attitude comes from and why they don't have any self-esteem.

But all hope is not lost. There are several strategies we can use with these children.


     The first is to realize that anxiety is a very real and normal part of the human condition. We can't control it, we can't rationalize it, we can't reason with it. All of a sudden, it's there. With its giant head looming, telling us "You can't. This is a very real problem and you can't deal with it." Children are definitely not immune to anxiety. You've seen it when children throw a tantrum over seemingly nothing. I taught one four-year-old girl who got very upset if she accidentally used too much glue and it made a blob on her paper.
    What's important to know is that while we know it's nothing, we're on the outside looking in. In the anxious mind, it's a very big problem with no solution.  Once we recognize it for what it is, we can begin to address it, using very calm and objective words. The key here is to acknowledge the feeling while offering reassurances. "I see you're upset about that. The glue spilled and it's ok. I still love you."

Calming Techniques

Hands, Holding, Embracing, Loving, Child, Girl   If you feel that what you're saying is feeding into the problem, try changing the subject. I've worked with children before where acknowledging the feeling only made him focus on the problem. Once I started talking about a toy he was interested in, he was able to switch gears and calm down enough so we could find a solution together.

Singing can help, too.  Music engages the whole brain and speaks to us in a universal language. It physically changes our heart rates. Anecdotes collected by Dr. Sacks actually suggest that our brains need music; some people deprived of hearing suddenly started hearing all kinds of music in their heads. Try singing the child's favorite song or even just humming in a soft, rhythmic pattern. The brain loves predictability and a repetitive song or rhythm can give the child something else to focus on. If you need help finding something, try one of the songs or "I Love You" rituals  on the Conscious Discipline site.


  Use touch; or don't. Touch is very powerful. The very first sensation we have when we're born is being held. As infants, a mother's touch communicates safety, warmth, and love. Touch lets us know that another person is there with us to help us. If the child will let you, rub his back or give her a hug. Hold a hand or cuddle him on your lap. Depending on your situation and training, some children may be able to be physically restrained by a teacher if they are so upset that they're hurting others. A teacher I worked with had been trained so that she knew how to hold children without hurting them or letting them hurt others, so I would defer to her in those situations.
See You Again, Meeting, Encounter, Joy, Hug, Together    You also need to respect the child's space. Some children are uncomfortable with touch for a variety of reasons (sensory issues, abuse, personal boundaries, culture, etc). If a child reacts negatively or tells you to go away, it's perfectly fine to sit a safe distance away so that you can still keep an eye on him. This way, you don't add to the child's anxiety, but are still nearby just in case. There's a child in my classroom now that is very resistant to pottying and frequently screams at me to "Go away!" once he does get into the bathroom. When he's calm, I've started talking with him about other things he can say, like "I don't need help right now."  I close the door to the bathroom and keep an eye on him through the window. When he's ready, he calls for help because he knows I'm not far.

The most important way to help children with anxiety is to help them avoid it altogether and be proactive. 

This includes:

  • Talk about feelings throughout the day, not just when they happen. Explain that we all have positive and negative feelings and validate them. (I worked with a researcher who used a gumball and a pompom to illustrate "prickly" and "fuzzy" feelings.) Remind them that it's not the feeling that's wrong, but some of the actions we might take because of them.
  • Give children a safe space and teach them how to use it. Invite them to put their own items and books in it. Make it soft, comfy, and protected. There are lots of ideas on Pinterest and Google images. Your director can also be a good resource, especially to stay within state guidelines. A couple of years ago, I worked with an OT to make a safe space using a cardboard box. The children helped us paint the interior a dark blue, then stick glow-in-the-dark stars inside. The dark helped calm some children and they felt enclosed inside the box.
  • Teach children breathing techniques and Yoga. The Conscious Discipline site has some great visuals, but there are lots of other resources online, too. Make sure to help children focus on exhaling longer than inhaling.
    •  A simple visual like bringing your hands together and apart can help. 
    • I've also seen a straw with a pinwheel on one end and a flower on the other. Smell the flower, blow the pinwheel. Smell a skunk, blow the odor away. Smell a flower, blow out a candle. Use your children's interests to help you think of your own and hang pictures in the safe space.
  • Focus on the good feelings associated with breathing. Encourage them to watch their belly go in and out as they breathe (This is called "belly breathing" and helps the core, which in turn strengthens writing abilities). Use words like "calm" and "relaxed."
  • Teach the "tense and release" relaxation technique: tighten up the toes, then wiggle them and relax. Move up the body to finish with gently shaking the head. Visuals help here, too. You can use this resource from SkinNurse or use the children's interests and input to come up with your own.
  • Encourage creativity by asking open-ended questions and providing open-ended materials. Creativity gives us the ability to solve problems and have resiliency.
  • Read books like "The Way I Feel" by Janan Cain or "It's Ok to Make Mistakes" by Todd Parr. Help children connect to it by modeling it. "Have you ever felt angry? I felt angry this morning when Johnny didn't want to make a good choice. How did I handle it?
  • Involve children in the process. Ask them for input, to model, what they like to do, etc. 

The Power of "I Did It!"

Setting and reaching goals is important, too. The world might end, but at least you can say you reached that one goal. Behavioral goals, reading goals, any type of goal will work. Just make sure it's reasonable.
Task cards are useful for this, too.  Maybe a child gets frustrated because he wants to draw or build and just doesn't know how. Or maybe she's disengaged. Giving children a task card with listed steps gives them an attainable goal that's broken down into smaller ones. You're empowering them and saying, "You can put two blocks on top of each other. Now you can add a third one."
The phrase "You did it!" is incredibly empowering to children. It gives them a sense of self-worth and accountability. It shows them that tasks can be done and enables them to take on more challenging tasks. In my current class, I have a student who can barely speak, but he can proudly exclaim, "I did it!" when he accomplishes something. 
If students are really having trouble with a task, you can say, "You were close. I bet you'll get it next time." This reassures them that it's ok to make mistakes and they are allowed to try again.

With all of these strategies, remember that there is no instant cure-all. It takes time, repetition, and staying calm through the storm. But all storms pass.


   You may notice the tone of this post has been a little more serious than others. You also might notice that this is the first post in a few months that I've made. This is because I've been struggling with my own anxiety. There were some circumstances at work that caused a lot of stress for both me and my co-teacher, who is now somewhere else. This past week in particular has been hard for me and I opened up a little more to my administrator than I usually do. When I was cleaning the classroom, I was reminded of the student I mentioned in the first paragraph and was suddenly struck by the realization that that's been me the past month. I've been caught in the trap of saying, "I can't do this without..." "I need more.." Instead of focusing on what I could do, I let anxiety get the best of me and I listened to it.  So I was inspired to write this post.

If you ever feel yourself saying, "I can't" or "It's impossible," I want you to know:

  1. It's ok.
  2. I love you. (Me, a random stranger on the internet, wants you specifically to be happy and healthy! How about that?)
The above techniques have another name in the adult world: "Cognitive Behavior Therapy." That's right; the same strategies we teach our students can be used by us, too! Go back and read through it, replacing "student" and "children" with "me."

Know you're not alone. 

Talk to a co-worker, a family member, or me! You can always email me at and I'll be here for you. 
Another great resource for free, anonymous chats and resources is  I've been on both sides of that site (chatter and listener) and there's a fantastic, caring community there.

Finally, you're normal. You're human. You make mistakes and it will be ok. It's a brand new year and together, we'll get through it.

Happy New Year.


*The previous strategies come from a mixture of Incredible Years, Conscious Discipline, and personal experience. Images from,, and


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