Behavior is a very powerful form of communication…. especially for children who don’t have the awareness of how they are feeling and what they need in addition to the ability of translating all of that into a verbal message. There are some adults who still can’t verbalize how they feel or what they need!
Kids speak in behaviors and not necessarily words. Facial expressions, crying, stomping feet or even hair pulling are all ways that children try to tell us something.
Traditionally, the old school way of handling negative behavior is to rely on punishment. However, we are now wise enough to know that punishment may work, but only for the short-term. Besides, with punishment, you are giving a one sided message – don’t do this… but then what is your child supposed to do? Punishment also doesn’t allow you to get to the root of the problem and only results in additional or more complex behaviors moving forward.
I prefer a positive behavioral support approach that allows you to understand why the child is behaving in a particular way, so that you can then begin to replace the behavior(s) with more appropriate or functional behaviors.
So why do children act out? There are 4 functions of behavior:
1- To gain attention
2- To gain or avoid sensory feedback
3- To gain a tangible
4- To avoid or escape a task
Function 1: To Gain Attention
Children want your attention. They want to be valued and recognized. They want your positive attention more than they want your negative attention, but if they don’t get your positive attention, they’ll take what they can get.
Function 2: To Gain or Avoid Sensory Feedback
Children engage in behaviors, such as jumping off of a chair or high surface or running out of a loud room, in order to gain or avoid sensory feedback.
Some children crave deep pressure or movement all day long. They engage in behaviors that will help them to satisfy that sensory need. For other children, they are unable to process large amounts of visual, auditory, or tactile information. As a result, they avoid activities or rooms that have too much visual stimulation or sound. Some children avoid certain activities, such as painting or playing with sand. Some also avoid certain textures of food.
Function 3: To Gain a Tangible
Children who engage in particular behaviors (e.g., tantruming) may be trying to communicate the need for a tangible. For example, I am hungry and I need food. Or, I am tired, and I need a bed or place to sleep. You may also notice that some children engage in behaviors when they are denied access to a tangible, such as a toy.
Function 4: To Avoid or Escape a Task
Ever notice that one particular child cries or throws a tantrum when it’s craft time? Perhaps the activity calls for fine motor control (e.g., coloring or cutting) and the child doesn’t have the skill or the hand strength to be able to do this.
Even activities that we believe are fun may be overwhelming to a child. For example, I observed a child respond to a teacher’s comment, “Come on, class. Stand in line if you want to go to the petting zoo!” She thought her comment was motivating to the class and would encourage them to stand in line. However, one student wouldn’t stand in line. In fact, he began to sing out loud and run around the class. He was looking to avoid the petting zoo – something about the petting zoo frightened him and he engaged in a negative behavior in order to avoid the seemingly positive class activity. Who would have thought?
The Power of ABCs
Now that you know what some of the functions of behavior may be, it’s time to put on your detective hat and keep track of the behavior via an ABC Chart which is an antecedent-behavior-consequence chart (sample below). This will help you to see patterns of behavior so you can begin to gain an understanding of the function of the behavior.
A Few Behavioral Strategies
Model words and behaviors - Give the child the words (e.g., “Help!”, “I need help,” “I can’t do this” ) and role model positive ways of behaving (eg., tap or say “excuse me” instead of hitting).
Make accommodations - If you have a fidgety or restless child on your hands, don’t try to make him/her sit still. Give him/her movement breaks often. In fact, give the child ‘jobs’ such as handing out paper or pushing in seats in the classroom. At home, let your child go outside and jump on the trampoline or run around the yard to release extra energy.
Reinforce – Make this your ‘tool’ of choice - praise when your child is showing positive behavior, and praise the student often for specific things he/she does during the day. You will most certainly catch more bees with honey than you will with vinegar. And make sure that your praise or rewards are immediate so that the child can begin to associate the positive behavior with the positive outcome (i.e., consequence).
Ignore certain behaviors – Ignore negative behaviors, such as whining, crying, begging or demanding, while you are reinforcing the positive ones.
Take it to School
Understanding your child’s behaviors will be difficult at first, but once you understand that there is a function, a reason, something your child is trying to tell you, this will become easier for you. Remember to share your observations and your data collection with your child’s teachers so that there is continuity between school and home in terms of how your child’s behaviors are handled. If you are using a certain system, see if your child’s teacher can adapt it in the classroom. Why reinvent the wheel? Greater continuity means clear-cut expectations for your child, which in and of itself, can lead to a decrease in negative behaviors.
In the interest of your better well-being,
Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles