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FLIP IT | Ask Rachel

Rachel Wagner, MSW

Rachel received her Bachelor’s Degree in Clinical Sociology from Ithaca College and received her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Albany. Rachel is a Lead National Trainer and Early Childhood Mental Health Specialist for the Devereux Center for Resilient Children (DCRC). She is the author of FLIP IT! Transforming Challenging Behavior. She is also the co-author of Your Journey Together: Building the Resilience of Children and Families, and the Devereux Resilient Leadership Survey (DERLS). Rachel travels the country speaking to groups on topics related to social-emotional health and resilience. Rachel began her career as a preschool teacher and then worked as a teacher and counselor at a therapeutic preschool. She also served as an Early Childhood Mental Health Coordinator and Consultant for several Head Start programs. Later in her career, Rachel began one of New York’s first early childhood mental health consultation services. In her work at DCRC, Rachel enjoys a variety of responsibilities including adult learning design, live and web-based professional development, resilience resource creation, technical assistance, and long distance reflective supervision to groups and individuals providing early childhood mental health consultation, coaching and leadership services. Rachel embodies the characteristics of a great reflective practitioner as she helps others explore the emotional content of their work in order to grow and improve their practices and confidence. She is also endorsed by the MI-AIMH to provide reflective supervision for applicants applying for Endorsement® for Early Childhood Family Specialist (II) – both Bachelors and Masters-prepared applicants. Rachel currently resides in the Syracuse, NY area with her family. She is a passionate speaker, a dedicated listener and an advocate for children who communicate in unique ways.

If you can’t find your question answered below, feel free to fill out and submit the form found at the bottom of this page!

What if the behavior is caused NOT by the feeling(s), but by the desire to gain attention? How do you begin FLIP IT in this case?

“Wanting attention” is, in fact, a feeling that can be addressed using the FLIP IT steps. For example…

FEELING – “I see that you are pushing things over and looking at me to see if I’m watching. You must really want my attention.”

LIMIT – “We get attention by using our words.”

INQUIRY – “If you wanted my attention, what could you do?”

PROMPT – “You could ask m to play or tell me you want to have a chat.”

Children who act out for attention must really need it, so we need to help them find more productive ways to get it. I will also add that wanting attention can also be motivated by a deeper feeling, like loneliness or fear. Try to ask yourself, “what is he feeling right now that is making him do that?”

What do you do with a child that does not seem to care about the pain she has inflicted on teachers or other children?

We sometimes come across children who lack empathy for others. This means that they really do not seem to be able to connect with how their teacher or other children are feeling. Empathy with young children is a tough lesson. A child who does not yet understand her own emotions couldn’t possibly be expected to understand the feelings of others. FLIP IT with these children will help them understand their own feelings, and therefore, provide the gateway to empathy. I often say that a child who hurts others often does not yet understand the hurt inside herself. The first step for a child showing empathy to others is a safe adult showing empathy for her. I know it is difficult when it seems like a child doesn’t care, but if we show them empathy, eventually, they will be able to show it to others.

This strategy has been working well most of the time, but I have one child who tells me she hates me every single time I get to the Inquiries step...

[question continued]…I know you say to “go back to Feelings” if a FLIP starts to FLOP, but every time I go through the steps and get back to Inquiries, everything explodes! This little girl has a lot of troubles at home and “melts down” all day, every day. My FLIPs go like this:

F – “I hear you yelling and crying. You must be feelings so frustrated.”

L – “We use an inside voice to talk about feelings.”

I – “Do you want to go play at the water table instead?” This is where she usually responds and says, “No! I hate you!” Any insights would be welcome.


Thank you for sharing this very real-life FLIP IT experience. It sounds like this particular girl needs alot of extra love and support. I am happy to tell you that your feelings and limit steps sound wonderful! You are on the right track. I am sure I do not need to remind you that FLIP IT takes longer to work with children who have a lot of “ick,” and it is even more important to be consistent in your approach with these children.

Going back to the Feelings step is always a good option when FLIPs start to FLOP, but I think we may be able to tweak your Inquiries step so it is more successful. When we ask children to problem-solve, we should start the Inquiries with open-ended questions. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. Your example was more of a leading question and resulted in a “no” response. We can also run into trouble when we ask questions focused more on redirection than helping the child think about her feelings.

If the feelings are really intense, the inquiry may be more focused on coping with feelings, rather than resolving a situation (e.g., “What can you do with that mad?”). Sometimes addressing feelings in Step 1 is enough and the inquiry will relate more toward changing the situation (e.g., “What can you do if you want more?”). The child will likely let you know if they need more focus on their feelings or quick help thinking through a problem.

It sounds like this child may need you to stay focused on her feelings. A different FLIP may sound like this:
F – “I hear you yelling and crying. You must be feeling so frustrated!”
L – “We use an inside voice to talk about feelings.”
I – “What is a quiet way we can get out your frustration?”
P – “Sometimes it helps me to talk about my feelings with a friend. Which friend would you like to talk to? We have the Kind Caterpillar or Brave Bear (stuffed puppets)?”

Stick with her feelings so that she can learn some healthy coping skills when the troubles in her life get overwhelming. I wish you calm and serenity as you embark on this FLIP IT journey. Let me know how it goes!

I am a Head Start bus driver, and I attended your one-day FLIP IT training. It was great, but most of it was for the classroom. I'm on the bus and I would like your help on a specific problem...

[question continued]…Sometimes I get to a house and the child doesn’t want to go to school. The parent tells us that the child has to go school and walks away while the child proceeds to scream, kick, punch, and grab the hand rail. I have an aid on the bus, but all of the children are buckled in and we need to keep moving things along in a timely manner. How do I use FLIP IT in this situation?


This is a tough one and I’m not sure I have any miracle answers, but I’ll try.

  1. Remember that the stronger the relationship, the easier it will be to try any strategy. Find ways to bond with these children who have trouble transitioning. Have a special hello routine (handshake, song, or hug). It may even be worth it to visit him/her in the classroom. The safer they feel with you, the easier it will be to say good-bye to mom or dad.
  2. Focus on feelings. We can only imagine what these children must be feeling and what “ick” they may be trying to cope with. Saying good-bye and coming to school can be very overwhelming. Sometimes just validating, “yes, I know it is scary, and you are so sad to leave mommy,” can calm a child down.
  3. Offer things to help a child get re-focused on a pleasant bus trip (prompts). Have a bin of books, stuff animals, squeeze toys, etc., available to children.

A FLIP might sound like this:
F – “I see you are so sad to leave mommy.”
L – “It is okay to feel sad.”
I – “What can we do to help you feel better?”
P – “Would you like to choose something from our bus bin to hold during the ride?”

You will want to move through the FLIP IT steps pretty quick and try to help a child out of their “ick” with prompts and supports as fast as you can. Stay calm, gentle and kind.

The fact that you even emailed me tells me that you have the heart to help these kids through this tough transition. I wish you luck and peace as you begin the school year. Let me know how it goes!

Should we allow children to calm their bodies before moving on to the LIP portion or is it the LIP that is used to help a child calm down?

This is a great question, and as you indicated, there is likely more than one right answer.

In many instances I do believe that the L, I, and P steps can help a child to calm down. For example:

F – “Wow, you’re really angry and your body is really tight.”
L – “We keep each other safe.”
I – “What could we do to help your body calm down?”
P – “Do you want to try and squeeze this ball as hard as you can, or do you want me to try and roll this car up and down your back to help you loosen up your tight body?” (Rolling cars is one of my favorite ways to offer massage to children.)

Sometimes when a child is extremely upset we think we should “hang out” in the feelings step for a while before moving onto L, I and P. Sometimes this is appropriate if the child is open and wants to talk about feelings, BUT in some cases, it is more upsetting to push the feelings conversation and we need to help that child move toward coping skills and problem-solving to feel better. In this case, simply label the feeling to help the child with awareness and keep moving to the L,I, and especially PROMPTS. You can always go back to have a more in-depth feelings conversation once the child is more calm.

There will certainly be times when a child is truly “out of control” and an attempt to FLIP IT may even escalate the situation. I always try to FLIP IT first, but if it seems to increase the child’s level of agitation, I will let the child know, “I see that talking about feelings and looking for solutions is making you more upset. I am going to give you a little time (in this safe area) to cool down, but I am right here if you need me.” After a little time, I would start the FLIP IT process again. In some instances, FLIP IT may not be the best strategy. Please always consider a variety of good strategies when approaching any situation. I have found when a child is tantruming that a combination of simple redirection and FLIP IT works wonderfully. For example, I may grab a puppet and start petting the puppet and talking to the puppet to distract/redirect a child and then use the puppet to help me begin FLIP IT.

I am wondering what is the youngest age you would suggest using FLIP IT? I have a family that is struggling with a few behaviors with their 2-year-old. I wanted to know if you thought if a 2-year-old is too young?

The FLIP IT strategy was designed and researched for children ages 3-8 years old, but many many people over the years have seen it as very applicable to both toddlers and infants (and teenagers!).
So, yes, I do think that FLIP IT can be used with a 2-year-old, but some of my suggested adaptations include:

  • Move through the steps quickly.
  • Adults must accept that they will be doing most of the “work,” BUT should be doing it aloud in front of the child in order to model a feeling-focused problem-solving process.
  • FLIP IT may not be the best strategy in all instances. Often, a feelings statement and a redirecting prompt are the best option.
  • When working with children with limited verbal skills, try using Feelings posters, Feelings faces, and Feelings wheels (e.g., children can see a variety of emotions and choose which one applies to how they are feeling).
  • To help reinforce concepts in a fun and repetitive way, read books and play music that involves labeling and discussing feelings.
  • To help children realize how their faces and bodies express strong emotions, try using mirrors (when culturally appropriate).
  • Provide visual and pictoral displays of rules and expectations.
  • In the Inquiries step, 0pen-ended questions are ideal, but not always applicable to toddlers. When a child is limited in the decision making process and/or verbal skills, adults may need to ask simple “yes” and “no” questions to help a child work toward a solution.
  • A child with limited reasoning abilities may benefit from having the adult “reason aloud” to consistently provide examples of the reasoning process (e.g., “Let’s see, if Rhianna gets a turn first and Mary has to wait, is that fair? No, Mary did have the toy first. Maybe if Mary had it first and then gave it to Rhianna after one minute? Does that seem more fair?”).
  • Children who are unable to come up with any potential solutions on their own may be able to choose between two simple solutions. Offer two choices so the child can feel like he or she helped find the solution.

I hope that helps!

I'm an early childhood mental health consultant at a Head Start program. I'm trying to convince my supervisor that it is worth our agency's money for me to attend a FLIP IT Train-the-Trainer...

[question continued]…Although I believe my arguments for attending are persuasive, she continues to tell me that the strategy is based on “basic concepts” that preschool teachers should already know. Do you have any “proof” I could show her, or any ideas to help her understand that this method can and does work, and that it is more valuable than basic knowledge that teachers have about children’s social-emotional development.


Thank you for submitting your question. This is a tough one and I’m not sure how much I can help, but here goes…

Yes! This strategy is based on basic concepts that teachers should (and often do) already know. Each of the four FLIP IT steps is a great strategy by itself and well supported by research (see literature review). The questions any program must face include:

  1. What is our philosophy regarding social-emotional development and behavior management and does FLIP IT fit into our plan?
  2. Have our staff shown that they have achieved a solid KNOWLEDGE base on basic concepts related to the FLIP IT strategy, or do they need more training that helps them to KNOW more about relationship-building, empathy, feelings, limits, inquiries and prompts?
  3. Have our staff shown that they can actually APPLY the basic concepts of FLIP IT into their daily practice with children or do they need more training to support them in APPLYING THE SKILLS of relationship-building, empathy, feelings, limits, inquiries and prompts?

I think all programs struggle with the difference between knowledge acquisition and skill application. There are lots of things we KNOW that don’t actually get APPLIED to our daily work. The struggle is HOW DO WE GET TEACHERS TO APPLY WHAT THEY KNOW?

I am a bit biased, but I believe the FLIP IT five-module training supports the process of knowledge acquisition AND skill application. The training is centered around very intentional adult reflection and practice activities designed to help adult learners fully integrate their knowledge and develop their skills. It’s a very high-quality training design that applies adult learning principles throughout.

If a program does choose to integrate FLIP IT into their social-emotional and behavior management approach, it is very helpful to have a trainer on staff to help with ongoing skill application practice, as well as addressing staff turnover and the need to train new staff on an ongoing basis. NO behavior training should be a one-time event and requires ongoing booster training and technical support. The FLIP IT Train-the-Trainer was designed to help programs build capacity from within.

Finally…FLIP IT is simply one strategy! It isn’t supposed to replace a comprehensive plan, but it was created to help teachers apply basic concepts in a user-friendly, memorable, and compassionate way during real and often chaotic moments with children.

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