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Revisited: Avoiding behavior challenges before they begin [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to have revisited a previous episode with Rae Pica. Rea joins us to talk about how to avoid challenging behaviors in children before they begin. Rae is an early childhood consultant dedicated to the development and education of the whole child. She is the author of 21 books and has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, state health departments, resource and referral agencies, and school districts throughout North America.

Are kids really ‘misbehaving’ or are we simply setting unrealistic expectations for them? In this episode, Rae Pica returns to the podcast to discuss her book, “Acting Out!: Avoid Behavior Challenges with Active Learning Games and Activities,” and provides actionable techniques for you to use to harness children’s natural behavior into activities that will make everyone happy.

A huge part of why children act out is because they are not allowed to do what comes naturally to them, which is move and play. Movement and play contribute to a friendlier, calmer setting and children not feeling the need to act out. 

Children can learn to control their bodies and feelings instead of letting them control them. This in turn helps them not act out!

Relaxation is a learned skill that many people never acquire. It is so important that children acquire it early in life, as they will likely keep it later in life. Children need downtime and play, not time to sit still!

It is important to respect and honor the stage that they are at instead of making them into something else.

Listen to the full episode to dive deeper into strategies for avoiding challenging behaviors before they occur!

We still think of the mind and the body as two separate entities which is crazy to me

Rae Pica

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Podcast Transcript


Rae, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thanks, Ron. Glad to be back.


Yeah! So, we’re having Rae back. When she was last with us way back in 2017 for Episode 38, believe it or not. We are so excited to have you back. So, Rae Pica – for those of you who don’t know her – she is very active in the early-childhood education community. She’s an early-childhood education consultant and author.

And we’re delighted to have her on the show today to talk about challenging behavior. But more specifically, how to avoid challenging behavior before it even begins, specifically with active learning. So, I am personally really excited to learn about this. Rae, it’s great to have you back. Tell us, I guess, first about this new book that I guess you’ve just released and why you decided to write it.


Yeah, Redleaf Press published it and I’ve just got my copy last week. And I decided to write it… I never associated my work, which has to do with connecting the mind and the body – it frustrates the heck out of me that the education system seems to consider children important only from the neck up. So, I’ve been working for almost 40 years trying to change that attitude. But I never really thought in terms of the whole child education being associated with behavior challenges. But then I kept hearing these stories from early-childhood educators and I realized that a huge part of why children are acting out – and, by the way, I would, too – is because they’re not being allowed to do what comes naturally to them, which is move and play.

So I have put together this book with lots of tips from the mistakes I’ve made through the years, the things that I’ve learned, and some information and research: what we know about sitting; what we know about fidgeting; what we know about the need for active learning; and the link between physical activity and learning, because we still think of the mind and body as two separate entities, which is just crazy to me.

And then I offer circle games for community building, cooperative games to promote pro-social skills, games that foster self-regulation, “brain breaks” so they’re not sitting all the time and relaxation exercises.

So, the thought is, if the children have a sense of community, if they’ve got those pro-social skills that come from playing cooperative games and the friendly feelings that go along with all of that, if they want to regulate themselves because they’re playing games instead of being told, “Sit still, sit still,” if they get into brain breaks and if they know how to relax their minds and their bodies, all of those things contribute to a friendlier, calmer setting and just fewer children feeling the need to act out those. That was a very long answer. Sorry, Ron.


No, it’s very intriguing. And it’s one of those things where it’s so intuitive when you say it, but you realize that we have really made a big disconnect between the mind and the body. And the thing that really came to me straight away when we started talking about this was my own two-year-old [child].

So, we can have a whole another podcast episode about watching TV and whether that’s good or bad. But anyways, every once in a while, he does watch some TV and I don’t mind that. But the challenge that I have more than the watching [of] TV is his reaction when you shut it off. And I do have some of that challenging behavior. So maybe that is linked to this book that you’re writing. So, a lot to take in there. Where do we start with this?


Well, I guess… also, people don’t think of the mind and body as working together. They also would not associate movement with behavior management because they tend to think of children and movement. When they consider those two words in the same sentence, they imagine children bouncing off the walls. They think that – and Redleaf brilliantly on the back [of the book] with the description said, “Movement is not misbehavior.” So it’s always been associated with misbehavior. And I’m saying, “No, it’s the other way around.”


Interesting. So, let’s start there. How have you sort of structured your book and sort of your thinking around this relatively new thinking of movement and behavior?


Well, “relatively new,” I’ve always been weird, outside the norm. So, my thinking is not like other people’s. Well, let’s just take the games for self-regulation. So, I once heard a very wise man, the dear departed Fritz Bell, say, “We can keep telling the children, sit still, sit still, or we can understand that they’re children and let them do what comes naturally.” So, telling them to sit still, even if they obey that goes against the definition of self-regulation, right? It’s not supposed to involve an outside person.

But if you play a game like “Statues” or “Freeze”, and every early-childhood educator I think knows this, the children move while the music is playing and freeze into a statue when the music stops. They are regulating themselves. They are holding themselves still. Why? Not because you’ve insisted, but because they want to; because it’s fun to pretend to be a statue; because fun is what motivates young children. We’ve got to look to intrinsic motivation, not the extrinsic. “Oh, you’ve been really good. You sat really still today, let me give you a gold star.” No, no, no, no, no. It has to come from inside.

So, I present in the book all the rationale about the sitting and the fidgeting and there’s so much research about it now. For example, we know now that sitting makes us tired; it increases fatigue and it reduces concentration. So I ask early-childhood professionals in my talks to imagine sitting at a meeting all day long, or maybe on a plane, and feeling really, really tired at the end of it and thinking, “Wow, gee, all I did was sit all day. Why am I tired?” Well, now we know why.

Well, if you’ve got tired, restless children, they’re going to act out. So, I present all the rationale, all the research and then lots and lots of active learning games. And I think one of the important things to mention, Ron, is that I include curriculum connections with every game because a lot of policymakers and administrators don’t see the connection between fun and developmentally appropriate practice. So, they don’t see the connection between fun and learning, let’s say.

So, if you can tell them, “Well, we’re doing this activity because it involves word comprehension and that’s essential to our emergent literacy,” or, “We’re playing statues because it promotes self-regulation, which falls under the content area of social studies,” and maybe you can even relate it to a standard that you’re expected to have the children meet.

So, we always have to explain why we’re doing, quote unquote, “this stuff”. So, every activity includes curriculum connections in addition to some alternative ways they can play it and et cetera, et cetera.


And another couple of things that you mentioned, in addition to games, was relaxation and brain breaks. Can you tell us a bit about what those might entail?


Well, again, if sitting increases fatigue and reduces concentration, and especially with the little ones – you can’t have them sitting for very long. So, if they’ve been sitting for a while, and I’m not quite sure why but when we think early-childhood, we do think it’s [from] birth to the third grade, right? So, once they get into kindergarten, first and second [grade], they really might be required to sit for a while. But if periodically you get up and you do something beside the seat or a quick jaunt around on tiptoe or whatever it might be around the room, then you’re stimulating both the body and the brain.

Eric Jensen, he’s written a bazillion books on brain-based learning, talks about the norepinephrine and the dopamine and all the brain chemistry that comes from these kinds of activities – he calls them “energizers”. So, that’s what brain breaks are about. They don’t have to take a lot of time. I know a lot of teachers tell me they don’t have time to include active learning and movement in the curriculum, or their administrators will ding them – ding them! – if they catch them doing this stuff. Well, you’ve got to do it. The brain breaks, you can sneak those in when nobody’s looking. They’re quick and easy and they work.

And then the relaxation exercises are so important because… well, especially now, I mean, stress is not conducive to learning. And children are under a lot of stress in their lives. There is a quote from the late Clare Cherry that I really like. She says that being able to relax can make serenity a part of children’s lives, helping them learn they can be in control of their own bodies and feelings rather than having to let their bodies and feelings control them. And if they can control their bodies and feelings they are a lot less likely to act out, right?


I never thought about it that way but that’s very enlightening to me.


Yeah, well, real relaxation is a learned skill, which most people don’t realize. I didn’t know it before and it’s not one that I am particularly good at. A lot of us just never acquired that skill. But if you can acquire it in early-childhood, you’re much more likely to keep it throughout life. And it is… being able to relax is a valuable skill.


Interesting. And it’s so much harder today with so many things going on in our lives.


Oh, my gosh.


I can see why that is an important skill and one that not everybody knows how to do.


Yeah, we need to give them the downtime for it as well, both at home and in their early-childhood settings. We have to make sure that they have the time to just let their minds go.


Totally. And your book, as I understand, it has a lot of great practical examples and activities that we can use in our classrooms, which is phenomenal. What are some examples of specific games or exercises that you really like?


Well, let’s see… we mentioned “statues”, which is one of my favorites for self-regulation. I am a big fan of cooperative games because we spend a lot of time in this country thinking about competition, but that will promote anti-social behavior as opposed to pro-social. And when we think about life, there are many more opportunities in life to cooperate and collaborate.

We have to live and work with people and we don’t spend a lot of time helping children understand how to do that, especially in school settings. “Sit at your desk, eyes forward, hands to yourself, don’t talk going down the hall.” A lot of schools say, “Don’t talk during lunch.” You wonder how they think these children are going to become part of society.

So, I just opened up the book here and there’s one called “Musical Hugs”. So, it’s similar to Statues in that the music is playing and the children move in whatever way they want while the music plays. And then when the music is paused, when the teacher pauses the music, the children hug whoever is closest to them. And then for the second round, three children hug. And then for the fourth round, four children hug, and so on until there’s one great, big group hug. I’m a little bit of a mush; I love that sort of thing.

There’s one called “Belly Laughs” where the children lie on their backs and each child places their head on the belly of a nearby child. And the teacher may have to help with this arrangement. And [they] point to one child who says, “Ha!” And then the child whose head is on the laughing child’s belly must and say, “Ha, ha!” The third child says, “Ha, ha, ha!” And so on. And then everyone is giggling. How can you have frustrated, angry children when you’re doing these kinds of activities, right?

I did a blog post once about seven reasons why we’re seeing more misbehavior in early-childhood settings. And it was, in large part, because we’re not letting them play, because they’re not getting the downtime, because they’re being made to sit still when nature did not create them to sit still.

I mean, imagine your two-year-old and imagine just not letting him ever move. I had a mom e-mail me and say that she kept getting notes sent home from her three-year-old’s childcare centre, complaining because he couldn’t sit still and he couldn’t properly hold a pencil. And she asked me if a three-year-old is supposed to do these. And I said, “Absolutely not.”

So, these expectations that we have, these unrealistic expectations that we have for children these days, it’s another one of the reasons they’re acting out. So, my idea in writing the book was if we can accept children as children, [it] shouldn’t be a novel idea. If we could respect and honour the stage that they’re at instead of trying to make them into something else then we’re going to have fewer behavior challenges. They can be avoided. And, I mean, to me it seems simple.


And one of the things I love about your book, too, with all these exercise and activities, is that most of them don’t require any materials or anything at all, maybe just a song. And in lots of cases, not even that. So, it’s very accessible to anybody.


Exactly right. Back, like 112 years ago when I first started my business, I was going into the local childcare centers and preschools and I was being the “movement lady”. And I realized very quickly that they weren’t able to have materials available; they didn’t want to have too many materials available. So, if there are materials called for – like a game called “Traffic Lights”, which is another self-regulation game – all I ask is that you have one piece of yellow paper, one green and one red. As you can imagine, it’s about traffic lights. So, yeah, it’s very minimal. Maybe I’ve asked for plastic hoops or something, I don’t remember. But you’re right, there’s very little material required.


And the other thing I really picked up on when you were speaking there was about [how] we’re forcing children to do some, unnatural things at certain ages. And really a very important part of life and learning early on is collaborating and working with others and socializing. And, actually, it’s interesting because to extrapolate that one of the bigger trends in sort of like H.R. [human resources] and for people looking to get jobs is it’s becoming less about sort of the standard interview and more about these skills, about how you can coordinate and work with other people because that, beyond anything else, is probably the most important factor to success in life, including in any future career you might have.


Yes, I really am glad you made that point because American corporations right now are spending a lot of money on team building, getting the young employees to learn how to work together. So, the team building skills are seriously lacking among the generation of young people looking for jobs right now or entering the job force. So, it is an important skill.

The other one that I think is hugely important is problem solving. You know, if we focus exclusively on testing, we’re teaching them there’s only one right answer to every question. And that isn’t how life is. We need innovative thinkers; we need people who can see beyond what already exists; we need people who know how to solve challenges when they come up.

So, I use a lot of divergent problem solving. It is, I think, absolutely essential to creative and critical thinking. So, divergent problem solving is when there’s lots of possible responses to any single challenge. So, for example, if I asked the children, “Show me a crooked shape,” if I had 36 children I could get 36 different responses and that would be wonderful. And then you point out all different responses you’re seeing to help them understand that it’s okay to find their own way.

That’s what life is like – there isn’t always going to be one way to balance a budget or to manage an argument with somebody; conflict resolution. You need to know how to think. And I’m afraid that we’re not teaching children how to think these days. So, I incorporate a lot of divergent problem solving in my work as well.


Cool, that makes so much sense to me. This sounds like a fabulous book, Rae. If I’m listening to the Podcast and I would like to find your book or get a copy of it, how do I best go about doing that?


You could go to www.RedleafPress.org, or you go to www.RaePica.com and look under “Books”.


Cool! And just to remind everybody, the book is called Acting Out! Avoid Behavior Challenges with Active Learning Games and Activities. Lots of fabulous ideas in there from Rae. And Rae, if I want to get in touch with you – maybe I’ve got the book or I’m getting the book and I have other questions for you because I really love what you’re doing – how can I get in touch with you?

Rae@RaePica.com is good. And I’m just remembering that I’ve created some PDF [files] for your listeners. There are three of them and they include games for self-regulation, circle games for community building and some brain breaks. And they are free to anyone who goes to www.RaePica.com/promo.


Ooh, thank you so much for offering that to our guests. Some fabulous content on there. Rae, thank you so much for joining us. Always a pleasure to hear about your very insightful views on early-childhood education based on your many years of experience. Thanks for joining us!


Thank you, Ron!


Our pleasure; thanks so much.

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!