Walking Back the Cat


Walking back the cat is one of my favorite tools for helping children understand each other's motivations, and for supporting the development of spoken boundaries. It's the process of analyzing a sequence of steps in order to find out what set a negative situation in motion. Here's how I walked back the cat recently with two seven-year-old children in my homeschool pod.


I had a material on the rug and was waiting for a child to arrive so I could start the morning's first lesson.  The children know that I don't like it when they touch the materials on the rug or table when I'm getting ready to give a presentation.  This is just a pet peeve of mine, and I've expressed the boundary respectfully and clearly in the past.

The children were sitting on the floor, chatting near my rug. One of them - let's call him Jake - lunged in the general direction of the rug, and immediately another child - let's call her Nancy - placed her body in front of his to block his way.  Jake then grabbed her by the upper arm and dug his fingernails into her shirt.  Nancy screamed and I immediately stepped in to separate them.

I gave them a moment to feel their feelings, and then told them I wanted to find out what had happened.

I began by asking questions. "Nancy, I saw that you put your body in front of Jake's.  What were you trying to prevent him from doing by blocking his movement?"

She replied: "I didn't want him to touch the materials because of your rule."

I acknowledged her positive intentions by saying, "So you blocked him because you were trying to uphold my rule of not touching materials that are going to be used in a presentation."  Nancy nodded.

I then turned to Jake and asked him what happened.  "I wanted to go get a book and Nancy blocked me, so I stuck my nails in her arm."

I acknowledged his intentions by saying, "You wanted to get a book but Nancy blocked you with her body, so you grabbed her arm to let her know that wasn't ok with you."  He nodded.

I told them both that we would re-do the scene as if we were actors in a play, and talked them through it.

"Nancy, you see Jake lunging and you think he's going to touch the materials.  What can you do instead of blocking him with your body?"

"I can remind him not to touch the material," Nancy replied.

Then I turned to Jake.  "If Nancy had said 'please don't touch the material,' would you have needed to pinch her?"

Jake shook his head.

I continued with Jake. "If someone blocks you with your body when you're on your way to get a book, what words can you say?"

Jake replied, "Please move, I'm going to get a book."

At this point, a third child - who had been witnessing our interaction - piped up. "But what if they don't listen and don't want to get out of the way?  Can you hurt them then?" (This is a great reminder that when you're walking two children through a disagreement, the entire group of children is learning the same skills.)

"Good point," I acknowledged.  "If someone isn't listening, then you can repeat yourself more firmly or you can ask someone for help."

They all thought about this new knowledge for a bit, and I could sense the tension in the room defusing.  I asked Nancy if her arm was ok (she was wearing a thick shirt and Jake had short fingernails, so there was no physical injury.)  I concluded by saying, "It sounds like now you both know what to say if you're in a similar situation again.  Words are really powerful for getting our needs met."


You can practice walking back the cat with your children during small altercations.  The key to success is to look for the positive intentions behind every child's difficult behavior, and to acknowledge it verbally so the children exercise their empathy muscles.  You cannot take sides and expect this to work.  Staying impartial, even in the face of physical injury, is essential to achieve maximum receptiveness (obviously first dealing with any physical injury that requires treatment).  With practice and consistency, you can help the children see the best in themselves and each other, and they can learn how to hold boundaries with their words instead of with their bodies.

1 comment

Mats Anderson

Inspiring read. Thank you::

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