“I’ll understand if he can’t stay here. He was kicked out of two other schools for aggressive behavior.”
I love strong-willed, “spirited” kids. Kids who can be really sweet, but they know their own mind. Kids whose high opinion of their own goals and perspectives often put them at odds with their parents and teachers. They may be defiant or oppositional. They’re often emotionally “intense”; their frustration and anger can be extreme; and they may even be physically aggressive.
And you know what? I love those kids. I “get” them.
In fact, I’ve come to understand these kids so well, my clients regularly tell me that I’ve been able to solve behavior problems that therapists, doctors, teachers, and other coaches could not. I have a lot of success with these challenging kids!
Do you want to hear a story of one of the first times I had to deal with a challenging kid?
It’s 1999, and I’m in Columbus, Ohio. It’s lunch time in the small, private school where I am lead teacher and school director. Most of us are already sitting at the lunch table, but instead of chatting quietly with each other and eating like we normally do during this time, the 19 youngsters in my classroom are staring, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at Karl, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, stocky boy. Karl is having an epic tantrum – overturning chairs, dumping food on the floor, throwing toys. I’m trying to calm him, and that effort quickly turns to physical restraint. I manage to get behind him and immobilize his arms. Everyone is shocked, and even the grownups are a little scared.
And I have absolutely no idea what to do next. I’m trying to recall all the relevant coursework from my teacher-training program, desperately searching my memory for the classroom-management techniques that would help in this situation. I’m praying. I’m thinking, “OK, so this is why he got kicked out of his last two schools.”
And then Karl manages to turn his body so now he’s facing me, and then he bites into my chest as hard as he can! This REALLY hurts! But ironically, this latest development is SO bad, I just get really calm. I don’t feel hope; I don’t feel despair. I just feel completely lost, and there’s a kind of freedom in that. But wanting to break the spell Karl’s meltdown is having on the others in the room, I calmly say to my assistant (who clearly is now rethinking her career choice), “I think now is a good time for the children to go outside…”
So, fast-forward to the end of the school year, and Karl’s behavior has completely transformed. He’s no longer standing by, evaluating the class to decide which kids’ play he’ll disrupt by storming in and stealing the ball or scattering the materials. He’s no longer throwing the heavy metal truck at the child he’s mad at. He’s no longer turning over tables and chairs and looking at me with a “What are YOU gonna do about it?” expression on his face. Now, he’s helping other kids with their woodworking projects, and the other kids respect him and look up to him.
But what caused this transformation? Well, I had figured out how to redirect Karl’s disruptive behavior. The problem was that the techniques I learned in my teacher training – being calm and centered myself, having clear, consistent routines, making rules together with the children – none of this was enough. But as I observed Karl with a clear intention to really understand him, over time I began to see that his disruptive behavior was motivated mainly by a need to make an impact on the people around him. I could see it – he wasn’t a mean kid, but he had a very strong sense of self, and he wanted others’ attention. As I saw it, he wanted to be a leader. So we created a leadership position for him, and this is what transformed him.
In the last 30 years I’ve worked with hundreds of kids like Karl: strong-willed, “intense,” sometimes oppositional, sometimes defiant – and powerful. Until we teach them to do things differently, their behavior can be SO difficult! But helping them to listen to parents, and accept limits, and express anger safely, and work with you to solve problems so your family’s working together as a team – well, this is SO possible!
And this is my mission: to show you how to achieve it. It’s my mission to help you transform your family’s life so your child is strong and happy; you are strong and happy; and your home life is positive, powerful, peaceful, and deeply satisfying.
Rebecah Freeling is a child behavior expert specializing in kids with defiance and oppositional behavior, emotional volatility, aggression, and other problem behaviors. With a background in education and more than 20 years' experience with strong-willed, “spirited” kids, Rebecah helps parents transform kids’ problem behavior quickly and sustainably, so parents no longer need to continually re-invent their discipline strategies, and they no longer need to say, “We’ve tried that, but it didn’t work.” Along with her coaching programs, Rebecah has developed The Agreement Game, a practical, step-by-step process for teaching cooperation and collaboration to strong-willed kids. She has also written a book, Your Rules Are Dumb: How to Maintain Your Parental Authority While Creating a Partnership With Your Spirited Child. Rebecah received her education at Ohio State University and the Waldorf Institute of Michigan. One of her greatest joys is to help grownups create environments that turn kids’ problem behavior into strengths. Rebecah also loves kayaking, and cats.