The Power of a Block

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My apologies if you were hoping this was about wood, foam, or letter construction toys! However, if you have young children who play with blocks, you might as well read on because chances are that you have encountered situations where your young child or student has exhibited challenging behavior. Rather than the toy block, I am referring to a ‘block’ as a response that is used to deter a child from task avoidance. In plain talk, this is a method to keep a young child from getting what he wants until he does what he’s been asked. This is a strategy that can be effective to deal with situations such as the following:

  • a child at home who has thrown a toy and won’t pick it up
  • a child in a classroom who pushed a peer and won’t say sorry
  • a child at home who has knocked over a sibling’s creation and refuses to help rebuild
  • a child in the classroom who has knocked over a chair in a fit of anger and refuses to pick it up
  • a child at home who refuses to pick up the books he’s been looking at

You get the idea. The response of blocking is a way to calmly let a child know that they cannot do anything else until they follow a direction you’ve given them, such as ‘clean up’ or ‘say you’re sorry’ or ‘pick up what you threw.’ So here’s how you do it. This is complicated so you might want to take notes (a little Saturday morning sarcasm). Block your child from doing anything else until they complete the requested direction/task. In the integrated preschool classroom, we do this every day. Over time, kids learn that they will not avoid a task. Does that mean we never have power struggles? Of course it doesn’t. Sometimes we encounter a situation like this –

It’s time to wash hands before lunch but a child doesn’t want to stop reading a book they are looking at. The adult takes the book from the child and blocks the child from taking any more books. The child goes over to a toy on the table. The adult takes the toy and/or blocks the child from playing. This could go on for 5 seconds or 40 minutes. Responding in this manner is not necessarily a quick fix. If you don’t have an adult to devote the time to using this strategy, it won’t work. For example in a Kindergarten classroom with 20 kids and one teacher, obviously the teacher can’t drop everything to attend to one child’s oppositional behavior. If a parent is trying to get a child out the door to a scheduled appointment, there isn’t time to wait for the child to follow the direction. However, there are without question times and situations when blocking can be a successful way to teach a child that until they complete a task or follow a direction, they will not get to move on to something else. It also takes the frustration out of repeatedly telling a child to do something because you use very little if any talking. We often use first/then language to keep the child focused on what they’re being expected to do, such as “first brush teeth, then listen to a story,” or “first say sorry to Joe, then play with cars.”

At our Center, we are incredibly fortunate enough to have up to 17 kids in a classroom staffed by 5 adults. So there is almost always an adult who is able to use this strategy. We no longer use physical restraining or time-outs. Blocking can effectively replace those strategies. Having read this, if you are thinking, “oh, please, that won’t work in this situation….,” I’d be happy to walk through it with you to either figure out how it could work or to agree – it isn’t a good strategy and to help you brainstorm a different approach. I’d love to hear from you!


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