Posted By Rene Thomsen
Remember children from “hard places” (i.e. adopted, abused, or ones with attachment issues) often lose their ‘voice’ – and with it, their feeling of safety and trust in adults. Responses to challenging situations with children should be efficient – the response should match the situation. Over-responding to a minor challenge can push a child into more severe behaviors. The following strategies teach children that safe adults are listening and hearing their voice. The TBRI Levels of Response outline what you can do in different challenging situations with children.
Playful Engagement (Level 1)
- Redirect children without breaking stride E.g., “Would you like to try it again with respect?” or “Are you askin’ or tellin’?” in a playful voice and tone. In this way, you are teaching the child to use their ‘words’ with a safe adult who can meet their needs – returning the ‘voice’ they lost through their history of harm.
- Use consistently – try to stay on this level 80 percent of the time. Playful Engagementreduces misbehavior dramatically over time because it strengthens the relationship between children and caregivers.
Structured Engagement (Level 2)
- Pause the situation and use a more structured voice – lower the timber of your voice and have a firmer tone (not yelling from across the room, but close to the child).
- Offer two choices or a compromise – this provides a concrete, quick way to get children back on track. Again, in this way, you are guiding the child in using their ‘voice’, their ‘words’ to be heard, rather than old survival strategies.
- Offer children appropriate amounts of control
- Should contain two options that both the caregiver and child can be happy with
- Should not contain a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ choice
- Don’t budge from the choices, but if the child wants to ask for a compromise allow it!
- Allow children to offer a different choice and share power
- Are ways to allow children to make decisions while the caregiver is still in charge.
- Help children trust that their needs are heard and will be met when possible.
- Use behavioral ‘re-dos’ to help children feel successful. Walking through the motions of the right behavior is good for ‘muscle memory’.
- For younger children, a physical re-do is appropriate, however with adolescents, a simple verbal re-do may be more appropriate because of the risk of shaming them.
Calming Engagement (Level 3)
- Allow children to regulate with adult assistance.
- Use a time-in and keep children close rather than sending them away (as in a traditional time-out). This lets them know that you are there for support and guidance. “I’m going to sit here with you until you’re ready.”
- In particular, for adolescents, an essential element is that the adult and teen create a plan together for Calming Engagement, making it clear the adult is not punishing the child, but rather supporting, coaching and mentoring them. Work out a predetermined ‘quiet’ or ‘calm’ place adolescents can go when overwhelmed. Make plans for items that will aid their calming, such as a weighted item, or calming music, or scented items.
- Once the child is calm offer a ‘re-do’
Protective Engagement (Level 4)
- Reserve use of this level for violence or aggression – when the child is being unsafe.
- The child is in their survival brain; try not to talk too much, they cannot hear or understand you. Repeat things like, ‘It’s OK,’ ‘I’m here,’ ‘You’re safe.”
- You may need to seek formal training that is accepted/recognized by state or facility.
- We frequently end this level by asking the child “What did you need?” and then help them understand that we are listening, and they don’t need survival skills to meet their own needs but rather, that we are there to help them.
- The child must be solid, connected and able to return to Playful Engagement before level 4 is completed.
When using the Levels of Response you are indirectly asking, “Can you use your words, and not your behavior, to tell me what you need? I am here, listening and want to help.” Don’t worry too much about remembering the levels and deciding which level to use – they are guidelines. It is more important to give your child voice, and to mentor, teach and coach your children. Simply connect with your child, figure out the need, meet the need, and guide your child in getting the need met in an appropriate way. The goal is always to return to Playful Engagement. Not only should the behavior have changed, but children (and adults) should also feel content and connected after a behavioral episode.