Child behaviour problem or adult expectation problem?

16th January 2018

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By Catherine Jackson

As a speech and language therapist, I receive many requests for assistance to support children with ‘behaviour issues.’

It comes with the territory really.

In fact you could almost go as far as saying that behaviour and communication are linked.

OK, I’m going to say it “All behaviour is communication.” And before you counter back with a “but there’s nothing wrong with his/her speaking – they speak fine” I repeat “all behaviour is communication.”

Sometimes we just have to look a little bit deeper.

So pick a child, any child. Pick a child that, if you were honest with yourself, the day would go so much more smoothly if they were at home.  Then, put yourself in their shoes and see the world from their fight-or-flight-adrenaline-fuelled point of view.

Let’s ask them 4 questions to understand where they are coming from and to reflect on what we can do to support them:

  • What’s your home life like?

Having just gone through a fairly stressful tense Christmas period myself, I’m not just talking about the families who we know need support. Sometimes the families we think are doing OK are just about holding it together and sometimes it unravels more at home than it does in public. Daily life is stressful at the best of times but even more so when there are financial, health, relationship issues on top. Children feel safe when life is predictable.

  • Asking the parent “how are things at home?” can help parents to open up and for you to understand a little more of what’s going on for the child.
  • Do you understand my instructions?

Put yourself in the position of having someone give you an instruction in an unfamiliar language. When you don’t respond, they repeat the instruction a bit louder and looking more cross. How do you feel? Happy and relaxed? Or tense and anxious?

  • Reflect on why the child doesn’t follow instructions. If you say “line up now and no pushing” and they push the child in front of them, are they deliberately doing it to wind you up or did they just hear the last word of the instruction and it seemed like fun? Use simple positive instructions such as “Line up. Hands in pockets.”
  • Is every day a clean slate?

Or do their misdemeanours add up over the week? As adults, we need to abandon language such as “I hope we’re going to have a better day than yesterday” and “no you can’t go in the sand pit because last time you poured it all over the floor.”

  • Every day, welcome the child warmly. Get down at her level and smile, giving eye contact. Or if she doesn’t like eye contact, communicate with her at a level with which she can cope, e.g. using a visual choice board. No sting in the tail praise “what a lovely hello – why can’t you do that every day?”
  • Do we expect too much from you?

Is it developmentally appropriate for them to be sitting for 20 minutes? Can they play in that particular peer group unsupervised? Some children are set up to fail.

  • Scaffold their learning. Allow them to experience success by sitting for 2 minutes and then build up to longer times. Support them in using appropriate language with certain peers, by saying “we say – can I have a turn?” Play alongside them, following their interests and demonstrating appropriate interactions with their peers. Catch them demonstrating positive behaviour.

I’d love to hear what your suggestions are for encouraging positive behaviour! I love the idea from Dr Ann Clarke’s article about this head teacher who changed the language used in her school from ‘challenging behaviour’ to ‘distressed behaviour’. It’s an important shift to looking at the cause of the behaviour in the first place.

What are your children telling you? Join my community on facebook or twitter.

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