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Children can learn to control their behavior

Sirjulius Swain has been a handful for his mother, Dennise Wallace, from the start. The word “no” could send him into a rage. Wallace turned to a Pinellas agency that helps families deal with young children’s emotional and behavioral issues, and says it has made a big difference. “It’s a true blessing how far he’s come,” she says.


Sirjulius Swain has been a handful for his mother, Dennise Wallace, from the start. The word “no” could send him into a rage. Wallace turned to a Pinellas agency that helps families deal with young children’s emotional and behavioral issues, and says it has made a big difference. “It’s a true blessing how far he’s come,” she says.

Before she had her fifth child, Dennise Wallace thought she knew everything there was to know about parenting.

Her baby, Sirjulius Swain, would soon prove otherwise.

As a toddler, the word "no" could throw Sirjulius into a fit of head-banging, sibling-punching, object-throwing rage.

The violent and defiant conduct continued at a Head Start preschool program as he cursed teachers and hit classmates.

The little boy even knew how to break a heart, such as the time he told his mother to leave him at the grocery store.

"You're not my real mommy," he told her. "Leave me and I'll find my own mommy."

"I cried and cried," said Wallace, 34, a certified nursing assistant from St. Petersburg. "I was ready to pull my hair out. It was causing a tremendous amount of stress for the whole family."

Still, she treasured his sweet side, his outgoing personality and his intellect. Even at his worst, she always has had high hopes for her child.

"I just needed to find a way to turn things around," she said.

She sought the help of Coordinated Child Care of Pinellas Inc., a nonprofit corporation that provides child care scholarships, resources and supportive services for families with young children.

One of their programs, Project Challenge, is geared toward preschoolers like Sirjulius who have emotional and behavioral challenges. Funded by the Juvenile Welfare Board, it was developed in 1984 because children were being expelled from child care settings because of behavior issues.

Spokeswoman Lisa Hughes said the goal is to provide children, their parents and child care providers with positive strategies so the little ones can experience success in school, home or other environments.

Reaching children early is crucial.

"Between birth and age 3, a child's brain grows at a phenomenal rate. Neurons are making connections that will serve as the basis for how they function in the world for the rest of their lives," she said. "The earlier you address the social and emotional concerns, the easier it is to change the behavior."

Liz Dixon is the child and family consultant who has worked with Sirjulius, who is now 5, for two years.

"He's doing good," she said. "He has switched schools and his behavior has improved tremendously."

She began by using "feeling faces," flash cards depicting a variety of facial expressions. They helped Sirjulius recognize what was brewing inside him, like anger, frustration or embarrassment.

"He learned that it was okay to have those emotions, but that it was not all right to take it out on others," she said.

Sirjulius can now handle his emotions by using the calming techniques he has learned, like deep breathing, singing or marching around a room.

Or he may go find the ball he squeezes when he feels like lashing out.

Dixon also worked with his mother, teaching her how to minimize using the word "no'' and other negative commands.

"Instead of saying 'Don't run,' we say, 'Let's use our walking feet,' " Dixon said. "You give the child an alternative to the unwanted behavior."

Dixon also provided teachers with colorful books containing positive messages to read in the classroom.

Wallace said the early intervention has paid off, with much more harmony among the five siblings, ages 5 to 15.

"We do have our trials and tribulations, but now we have the tools necessary to deal with them," she said.

"It's a process and he's not perfect, but it's a true blessing how far he's come."

She wants parents to know there is help — and hope — out there.

"Whatever you do,'' she said, "don't ever give up on your child."

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at

For more on Project Challenge and other early childhood programs, call (727) 547-4280 or visit

Children can learn to control their behavior 10/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 4:30am]
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