A few nights ago, having just left my almost-four-year old’s bedroom, I found myself thinking about why bedtime was starting to work better. For months, he had been up and down multiple times, expressing his various needs (a drink, the bathroom, a hug, for me to chastise Spiderman—who was being too loud, etc.). Sully feels things deeply, and he relies on predictable routines to transition between different parts of his day.
Like most every other parent, we’ve tried a variety of tactics to help him relax. We’ve done bath time (which only riles him up), we’ve tried no screens after dinner, we’ve sung songs, we’ve talked with him sternly, we’ve been generous and warm, and none of those specific things did a whole lot to help him learn how to settle himself.
In our months of figuring out an approach that felt like it worked for all of us, we settled into sometimes lying down next to him, letting him set a timer, and settling our own bodies next to his. While it isn’t the right approach for every kid or family, I’ve found myself really enjoying it, and I think it’s because it’s activating a part of my teacher brain that I haven’t used as much since leaving the classroom. Most of all, though, I like it because, over the past few weeks, it seems to be helping him figure out sleep better.
Here are the three biggest things I’ve noticed:
1) I’m genuinely regulated and calm. Taking a few minutes to lie down and be still gives me the chance to quiet my mind and focus on what’s happening now. I’m able to breathe, and that gives my body a chance to unwind. Because we co-regulate with the people around us, he is better able to calm himself because of my calm, and then I’m able to feed off his relaxed energy. Finding these moments to embrace calm is also incredibly important in classrooms because teachers and students regulate one another.
2) He has some choice. People need agency, whether they’re three or thirty. Letting my son pick whether we set a timer for two minutes or five minutes gives him an opportunity to say what he’d like within my parental parameters. Likewise, giving your students the chance to choose a product helps them feel more ownership over the expression of their learning.
3) I live my English teacher dream of showing and not telling. Sure, I could tell my son for the billionth time that he needs to close his eyes and go to sleep, but I think most parents and teachers know that not all kids just listen and then do exactly what you say. By settling down next to him, I show my son what it means to take a few deep breaths, close my eyes, and quiet my body. Inevitably, I peek at him to see what he’s doing, and much of the time, I see him quietly cozying himself to sleep. Sometimes, I notice he’s softly whispering to himself or humming, and I love that he’s finding his own way toward soothing practices. Other times, he is staring me down and waiting for me to do exactly what I’ve asked him not to do and open my eyes. He’s very quick to tell me to close my eyes, a loud reminder that he is closely watching my example. This is also true of our students, who watch us closely to see if how we behave lines up with what we say (and I’ll suggest reading The Students Are Watching by Ted & Nancy Sizer for more on this).
There are still nights when he gets up a few times after we’ve tucked him in, but they’re getting fewer and fewer as we figure out how to meet him where he is right now. And then again, there are many nights when I can’t settle quickly and need to try different things to meet my own needs. I am raising a human, and he needs to be able to figure out what works for him.
Teachers, remember this as you pass through your first weeks of school: You are teaching humans.They need your example more than they need you to try to fill them up with wisdom.Practice what you want them to do so that they can understand how to be rather than just how to look like a student.