What’s Going On? Considering the Sources of Behavior

magnifySome of you are reading that title and thinking, “Sources of behavior?  That two year-old having a tantrum on the carpet – THAT’S the source of behavior!”  Now, right from the start, I need to say that I am not implying that we absolve children of all responsibility for their choices.  But at the same time, if we can be observant and consider what may be triggering those choices, we can know how to use that moment as a teaching opportunity and take preventative steps in the future as well. 

For No Reason.  Just as an example, I recently worked with a group of teachers and one expressed concern over a child who was aggressive and hitting “for no reason”.  Now, it did appear to be for no reason, there was no provocation from the other children.  But it’s difficult for me to accept “for no reason” as a behavioral description.  It seems all you can do for “no reason” is let the child know the behavior is not appropriate and then give a generic, and often inappropriate punishment (like a “naughty chair”) that will have little corrective influence, as it was not tied in an authentic way to the source of the behavior.  As I probed a bit into this particular situation the teachers realized that he usually acted out against one child in particular, and that child was what they called “an easy target”.  Now this little tidbit differentiated the act for me. 

If the child was aggressive toward children he liked and usually played with, I would say the source of his behavior was a language limitation or social skill need.  He was likely trying to enter play and didn’t know how and so he hit children to get their attention.  For that child, I would say teaching and practicing the words “Can I Play”  would be effective. 

With one “easy target” as the primary victim, my inclination would be to say that this child is seeking power.  He sees an easy target he knows he can dominate and so he acts out in a way that makes him feel powerful.  For that child, I suggested that the teachers find other ways to make the child feel powerful, in an attempt to replace the negative behavior.  Perhaps he could have a job, watering the plants or turning off the lights when they go outside for example.  To help with his social skills, maybe he could even have a chance to teach other children (his usual victim in particular) how to do the job.  That way he feels powerful in a positive and cooperative way.  He is still responsible for his own actions, and when he hits, there still needs to be an appropriate response from his teachers, but by recognizing the source of the behavior, the teachers can teach him to find more positive ways to meet the same need.

Go to the Source.  If I tried to identify every source of every possible negative behavior, I’d probably run out of room on this server, and you would probably get tired of reading and go back to Facebooking your friends instead.  Here are a few of the most common sources, just to get you thinking and recognizing some of the sources for yourself.

Environmental.  Pay attention to the environmental factors that may contribute to the behavior.  Is the furniture type or furniture arrangement encouraging a behavior?  As an example, when I was working with a group of preschoolers as a large group, the best spot to sit them all down was near their book area.  However, it seemed like every time we sat down, several children would run back and forth to the book shelf, finding new books to read.  I was frustrated, until I realized, that’s the purpose of a book shelf.  It is supposed to encourage children to read!  So, I attached some velcro to the top of the bookshelf, and the other side of the velcro to a pocket chart.  Every time we needed to use that area as a large group, I simply covered the shelf with the pocket chart.  Now the books were no longer a temptation, and I had a handy pocket chart to help me with our activities! 

What can be done in your environment to discourage the undesired behavior?  Do outlets need to be covered?  Could furniture be rearranged (particularly applies to inappropriate climbing, running, or jumping)?  What environmental factors maybe overstimulating the child (too crowded, noisy, etc.)? 

Routine.  Children crave consistency.  If you find that a child’s undesired behaviors occur when there are changes to your routine, that might be the impetus.  Likewise, transition times may be a source.  Wait times within a routine are notorious for triggering misbehavior.  Limit waiting and look ahead for potential wait times and be sure to fill them with appropriate activities (books, songs, etc.).  Additionally, examine your routine to be sure that the behavioral expectations you place on your children are appropriate to their ages and developmental levels.

The Big People.  We, as parents and teachers, play a role in children’s behavior as well.  We need to be sure that we have a positive attitude and communicate love and respect in our tone, our words, and our actions.  We can use all the “right” words, but if we don’t feel it and believe it, our children will hear the truth in our voices.  I once read that if we can first teach children they are loved, we can then teach them anything else.

Family factors also have a huge impact on children.  Divorce and death are obvious family stressors on a child, but so is the addition of a new sibling, or even a new pet!  When a child moves, that will clearly cause stress as well, but so will the relocation of a grandparent or friend who used to live nearby.  We can’t always control the factors that will affect our children.  They will inevitably be influenced by the choices of others.  But we can be aware of those changes and their potential effects.  Likewise, as parents and teachers, we have a partnership.  We can’t control the other partner, but we can communicate and educate and work effectively as a team. 

The Little People.  Last of all, but certainly not least of all, we must consider aspects of the child, unique traits, temperaments, and needs that may influence behavior.  Each person is unique, and so again, I couldn’t enumerate every trait and need right here even if I wanted to, but I can highlight some of the most frequent triggers here and help you to recognize others as they arise.

  • Temperament.  Each person has different preferences and thresholds for annoyances.  One quick categorization of temperament is Flexible, Fearful, and Feisty.  I happen to have all three in my boys.  One is easy-going, another is a bit anxious and sensitive, and another is a robust button-pusher.  Now that’s not to say that my “fearful” son isn’t also frequently flexible, or that my flexible son never throws a fit, but it does help me to recognize what their natural fall-back pattern might be.  When we recognize a child’s temperament, it helps us to know how to support and give guidance adequately.  It helps us to recognize that “fair” does not mean that we treat everyone the same way.  We tailor responses to meet their needs and personalities.  For example, you may need to warn fearful children before operating a loud appliance, like a blender, giving them time to find a quiet spot or cover their ears.  Where one child may not need this support, another may become very upset without it.
  • Physical Needs.  Some obvious triggers in this category would be the need for movement, need for food, need for sleep.  When we can be aware of these needs and meet them, children are less likely to rely on other behaviors to get their needs met.
  • Verbal Ability.  A child needs to be able to communicate and to be understood.  That’s a tall order for some of our young ones.  For many, their emotions, desires, and ideas far exceed their ability to communicate.  This frustration can lead to aggression as a compensatory action.
  • Need for Power.  We all like to have control.  For young children that craving is intense.  They want to be independent, but are still developing the skills that allow that independence.  Some children are so desperate for power that they act out, just because they feel a sense of control by being able to “cause” your predictable reaction.  Others simply melt down when they feel that they have been robbed of power, either by not having been given choices, having something taken away, or not being able to accomplish something independently.
  • Need for Attention.  For many children negative attention beats no attention.  They’ll act out in an effort to get you near them, or to get you or other children to notice them.  They want the validation of knowing that they have been heard. 

Guidance, Not an Excuse.  Again, I don’t point out these behavior sources as an excuse for inappropriate behavior.  I don’t want you saying, “Oh, it’s just too crowded in here.  That’s why Jimmy pushed.” And go on with your day.  I point out the sources so that you can teach Jimmy how to appropriately handle the situation in the future.  Without recognizing the source, all you can say is, “Pushing is not OK, Jimmy,”  which doesn’t give Jimmy any instruction for handling a similar subsequent experience. When you recognize that Jimmy pushes when he feels crowded, you can give him tools, such as teaching him the phrase, “Excuse me, I need more space,” or helping him to find a quiet spot, or even being able to verbalize to you, “I feel crowded.”  We can also pre-empt a potentially difficult experience by saying, “Jimmy, this room will be a little crowded.  If you start to feel uncomfortable, you let me know and we’ll find a quiet place.”  Once we know the behavior’s source we can choose appropriate preventative actions and positive reactions for that particular source.  Wouldn’t you know, that will be the topic of the next post in this series?  Join me tomorrow!

For more on Positive Guidance, click here!

Top photo by barky.

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3 responses to “What’s Going On? Considering the Sources of Behavior

  1. Pingback: No More Tears…an Unfair Request « Not Just Cute

  2. Pingback: When It Comes to Challenging Child Behaviors, Do You Take the Time to CARE? « Not Just Cute

  3. Pingback: A Behavior Problem-Solving Approach: Positive Guidance for Preschoolers | Not Just Cute

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