Nearly every time I do a school observation for a child that is struggling with behavior and various forms of aggression toward peers, I see something that the teacher does not. Sneaky saboteurs.
Who are they? They are kids that have quickly learned that the child I am observing is easy to set off, has volatile emotions, and can earn the saboteur “level up” points over the child that has emotional regulation difficulties. Saboteurs are usually very socially aware, well-liked by teachers and other peers, and make sure they position themselves in a way that suggests they would never do such a thing.
Sneaky saboteurs enjoy pushing the buttons of the kid in question and make sure to do so when the teacher isn’t watching, and then, when the child retaliates in self-defense, the more socially savvy child pretends to be the victim, and my guy (or gal) is scolded or consequenced with their legitimate claim of sabotage getting lost in the response to the behavior. Sometimes teachers can sense something is going on, but can’t put their finger on it, as saboteurs can be masters of their game.
Certainly, we can’t allow kids to hurt one another at school. Self-defense looks different than it used to. If your child is struggling with how to defend themselves from sneaky saboteurs, here are a few tips to try.
Have an outside observer come in. This way, the observer can be in tune with and watching just your child and how the other children are interacting with him or her. Sneaky saboteurs know how to work around their teacher, but will usually forget the observer is in the room or on the playground. It is important to note that the teacher is not to blame in any way for these interactions, and sneaky kids can set another kid off in a matter of seconds, usually when a teacher is paying attention to another student (as they should be). Teachers usually express appreciation that I have brought it to the surface or validated the suspicions they haven’t been able to prove.
Teach Your Child No-Go-Ask for Help. This strategy teaches your child to use a stick-up-for-yourself statement first, such as, “Stop it, I don’t want you to do that.” or, “No, I don’t like it when __. If that doesn’t work, the next step is to touch your child to “Go” and remove him or herself from the situation or to take a break. And if the saboteur persists, then it is time for your child to seek help in a way that doesn’t sound like tattling to the teacher. This sounds like, “Mrs. Brown, I have a problem and I need some help.” i
Help Your Child with Frustration Management Strategies. It is perfectly OKAY to be angry, it is not okay to hurt someone else, yourself, or damage property. I have co-written a workbook just for kids (3rd-grade reading level). Kindergarteners can access the content with assistance, and older kids will benefit from the strategies even though the illustrations are for younger kids.
Remember that ALL children can be capable of misbehaving sometimes. It is tempting to give our children who struggle a full pass, and it is going to be very difficult at times to decide if a child is the one who struck first, or the action was in response to being triggered by a saboteur. I think the best idea here is for all adults (parents, teachers, administration) to look at all sides of the story and as a team, before making assumptions about particular interactions.
Work backward from outcome to inception. I have sat and drawn a backward flow chart with kids to ascertain the place where the skills go missing so that I can teach them. It sounds something like this:
“Okay, so you hit Johnny. I don’t agree with that and we can’t solve problems with our hands, but we’ll talk about that later. I want to help you and hear your side of it. What happened right before you hit him?
“He called me stupid, grabbed my book, and threw it on the floor when you weren’t looking.”
“I see. That wasn’t nice. What happened before he called you stupid?”
“Nothing, I was just sitting and reading my book.”
“I see. And you asked him to stop trying to grab it?”
“No. I just hit him so he would stop.”
“Ah, I get it. So what steps maybe got left out?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think they were telling him to stop, moving away to a different table, and asking for help when he didn’t stop?”
“Okay. So next time, so you don’t get in trouble for hitting him, what can you do?”
“I can tell him to stop, and if he doesn’t, I can go play with Billy.”
“Sounds good. I will try to make sure that I keep an eye on things, but if I don’t see it, please come get me so that you don’t hit him again. I am here to help.”
Protecting volatile kids from sneaky saboteurs is not easy, hard to tell what’s really going on (because it’s so sneaky), and requires a significant amount of coaching for the child who struggles, and calling out the sneaky saboteurs when we catch them at it. I did that this week at my observation. I saw it, and I looked right at the kid causing the problem and said, “I saw that. It was extremely unkind and I don’t want to see it again.” He was not used to be caught, and his reaction was one of knowing he did wrong and feeling some remorse about it.
Exposing the sneaky saboteurs is one way we can not only stop bullying between a set of children before it begins but lets our emotionally struggling kids know that while we don’t accept the choice to lash out, we will teach them other ways and that we always have their back.