Thank you so much for your comments on challenging child behaviors. I’m currently working on an eBook based on Positive Guidance, and hope to incorporate your input. Here is one aspect that will be addressed in the book.
When children present us with their most challenging behaviors, it is easy to fixate on what they’re doing that gets under our skin. We claim the behavior as the source of our frustration: he throws tantrums, she won’t listen, they don’t share. But change rarely comes by focusing only on the symptoms. We have to care enough to get to the source. Using the acronym CARE can help you do just that. CARE stands for Cause, Action, Reaction, and Expectation. If I really want to get to the root of a behavior, I would it using these four aspects. Let me walk you through each one.
I’ll sometimes hear parents or teachers comment that a child behaved a certain way “for no reason”. That’s just an answer I won’t accept. The reason may not be apparent, but there is always some type of motivating force for behavior. Some may want to attribute it to “spite” or the child just being “naughty”, and while that’s not entirely impossible, there’s usually still more to uncover. If you aren’t willing to examine behavior for its source, you can only respond in generic ways, which won’t do much to effectively change behavior. It’s like slapping a band-aid on a sore finger, when all the while there’s a sliver still there, festering.
I wrote previously about sources of behavior in more depth here, but to sum up, any single difficult behavior may be a response to a variety of factors.
- Environmental factors like music, room arrangement, number of people in the room or general chaos may influence behavior. (A child may not be listening because he is distracted.)
- Physical needs like the need for sleep, movement, or food. (The same child may not be paying attention because you have expected him to sit still for too long.)
- Behavior may be an indicator of a lack of social skills that need to be taught and developed. We have to ask ourselves if the child has been taught proper behavior, as well as whether or not that desired behavior is appropriate to the child’s age. (The child may not have been taught how to pay attention.)
- Challenging behaviors may also be the result of emotional influences like feeling rushed, insecure, unwelcome, or frightened. (A child may have trouble paying attention because he may not feel engaged or connected with the speaker.)
- Children may misbehave as they seek power or attention. (The child may not be giving attention because he is still seeking attention.)
Taking the time to discern the cause of behavior allows us to address the behavior in a more effective way. While the cause is the first thing listed– the antecedent to the action– it is sometimes the last thing we can decipher. If you’re filling out a CARE form, you may need to start with a question mark in that category and move on to the others. Sometimes, it is the process of filling out the other aspects that causes you to uncover the root cause.
This is where we usually fixate, but it is really the simplest part of the equation. What is the behavior? The answer is purely objective. Avoid inserting interpretations and simply describe the facts.
Next comes the reaction. This is another objective aspect. What happened next? How did the child react? How did the other people involved react? How did you react? Particularly when a behavior is repetitive, the payoff often comes from the reaction. Whether it is a playmate’s scream or a parent’s bribe, the reaction may be the reinforcement. This can give you some insight into what is feeding the behavior.
Challenging behaviors are only challenging within the context of relationships. Our expectations are different. As Fernanda pointed out in our last discussion, “when talking about difficult behavior, the big question is, “difficult” for whom?” We can take a look at this relational factor by examining the child’s expectations (what we interpret their behavior to be communicating), as well as our own expectations (how the behavior is different from what we expect them to do). As we consider what the child’s expectations are, we can find ways to teach them to get what they desire in a more appropriate way. We can also look at what we expect of them so that we can first check to see if our expectations are developmentally appropriate, and also clearly define what skill or behavior needs to be taught and encouraged.
Let’s look at how this applies to specific scenarios.
First Scenario : Emily is frequently stubborn and openly defiant. You observe her and fill out your CARE sheet this way:
C: Need for power
A: Emily was told to put on her shoes and she responded with “No! I don’t want to!” She sat with arms folded, staring at her mom.
R: Mom forced Emily’s shoes on to her feet which Emily responded to by throwing a fit.
E: Mom expects Emily to comply. Emily expects to call her own shots.
Once you’ve collected the information, and considered that Emily’s needs and expectation are for power, you can make a more informed decision about how to address future situations. If Mom needs compliance but Emily needs power, give Emily fair warning before the transition, and then allow her to make some of the choices. Rather than”put on your shoes“, the child seeking power may respond better to, “We need to leave in five minutes. Do you want to wear these shoes or those shoes?”
Here’s another scenario: Tommy consistently struggles with sharing and frequently takes toys from others. An observation may look like this:
C: Hmmm. Let’s put a question mark here for now. Why isn’t he sharing? Let’s look at the rest of the picture and see if that helps.
A: Tommy’s classmate is playing with a toy dog. Tommy walks up and pulls the dog from her without saying anything and begins playing with it in another part of the room.
R: Tommy’s friend screamed. The teacher returned the dog and helped Tommy choose a new toy.
E: The teacher expects Tommy to take turns and share. Tommy expected to keep the toy.
So we look at the situation again, and question ourselves about the cause. The most effective response will only come if we address the right cause. In situations like this, my first guess is usually that the child hasn’t been taught how to share or negotiate. So I might start off by coaching Tommy through a script for sharing or teach him how to negotiate a trade.
However, if after a series of observations, we find that Tommy always takes toys away from the same child, or always from smaller or younger children, particularly if he’s been taught proper social skills and has shown that he can use them in other situations, Tommy may be seeking a feeling of power. I would recommend giving Tommy opportunities to feel positive power by giving him jobs and responsibilities, asking him to help you and others (particularly the usual “targets”) and commending him for his helpfulness, and emphasizing that “big kids know how important it is to share” or “now that you’re all four, you’re getting really good at taking turns with your friends”.
You may not always need a CARE form to analyze behavior, it may just be that you consider the four aspects mentally. But if the same behavior is recurring, it may be helpful to jot down some details over a few instances and then look for patterns.
When we care enough to take the time to really consider what challenging behavior is all about, we can learn to recognize how to best help children overcome it.
Top photo by Heriberto Herrera.
Center photo by Niels Rameckers.