Tips for Turning Tantrums Into Teachable Moments

tantrumThe idea of “teachable moments” has been popular in education and psychology circles for decades, though it’s blown up in recent years. It’s a simple concept: at certain educational crossroads, teachable moments pop up that make for the perfect opportunity to impart a specific lesson or ideal to a child. As a nanny, you’ll be confronted with many of these each week — sometimes many each day — so it’s important to take advantage of them when they occur. When the child (or children) in your care hit the wall and throw a tantrum, don’t freak out. This is a great chance to turn their meltdown into a learning moment.

Pause the Action

A tantrum can feel like a runaway train, but you don’t have to stand back and let it happen. Gently (but firmly) redirect the child’s attention to you and the situation at hand. For instance, if they start to lose it because they want a toy that another child is using, guide their attention back to you and start talking about things like sharing, common goals, helping others and being fair. It can be tempting to think you’ve only got two options here (let them whine or walk away), but you’ve got a third if you can remember to swiftly step in and shift the child’s focus on something else.

Establish Goals

“I’d like to talk about fairness.” “I’m glad you said that, because it’s something we can talk about.” And so on. Kick off a teachable moment with a brief but clear statement of your goals for the conversation. It’s going to be a lot easier for the child to follow you (and a lot easier for you to get to the point) if you set clear signposts at the beginning for what you want to accomplish. Teachable moments aren’t necessarily disciplinary, either, so don’t feel like you have to make your talk about punishment. Instead, use the tantrum as a springboard into an actual conversation about feelings, desires and how the child can do a better job at expressing themselves.

Listen Carefully

Seriously, listen. You’re not lecturing, and you’re not delivering a standard warning against future tantrums. You’re having a conversation with specific goals that’s designed to teach, not scold (though scolding might be ancillary). Teachable moments are spontaneous things, which means you’ll need to pay close attention to the child to determine what they’re really upset about and what they really need. Start with basics: Why did you do that? How does this make you feel? Why do you feel that way? Do you remember the last time this happened? How did it go? Let the conversation flow toward the goals you established, but don’t rush it or feel like you need to force a particular conclusion before the child’s locked in. A kid is like an adult: They’re going to be a lot more receptive to new ideas once they know that they’re actually being heard.

Set a Good Example

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this one. Tantrums are explosions that happen when a child perceives something as unfair and doesn’t know what to do about it, so they cry and scream and pout. They sense an injustice (even if they’re blowing events way out of proportion) and they respond. Setting a good example for them, though, can go a long way toward reducing these tantrums and teaching them how to respond to difficult situations. If your first instinct is to shout and scream, don’t be surprised if that’s what they imitate. If you ignore your own teachable moments, you won’t be able to convince a child of their merits. In other words, don’t just save the teachable-moment behavior (firm goals, genuine conversation, receptive listening) for worst-case scenarios when you’re trying to defuse a tantrum situation. Use them all the time, every day, in multiple ways. Strike up conversations while reading or playing and see what happens and if you are able to guide their natural questions or observations into natural teachable moments. That will make the post-tantrum moments feel like a natural part of your childcare approach, not a bandage on a bad situation.

Remember: It’s always possible to turn a tantrum into something better. It might take time, but it’ll work out.