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Understanding child's behaviour - Dr. Nicola Scott


Children are moving targets, their brains are literally developing all of the time and their skills, abilities and understanding of the world change alongside this. At the different ages and stages, then, children have more or less ability to tell us what’s going on for them. If they don’t have the words to tell us, they show us with their behaviour. Often if they don’t fully understand what’s going on for them, they also tell us with their behaviour.


Children learn about the world in different ways. Some things they learn because the adults around them tell them about things. Other things they learn by doing. This learning by experience means that sometimes they are going to get things wrong or break rules that they are not yet aware of. This is likely to lead to an adult trying to keep them safe by telling them about the rules. For the child though, this can look a lot like just being told what to do all of the time and none of us really like that. So they can be frustrated and therefore show us behaviour related to this.


When we are asked about behaviour as Psychologists, people are usually asking us about challenging behaviour. It’s important to note, however, that children learn a lot through behaviour and this is not just their own behaviour. Children learn a lot from watching what other do, especially those they are close to and look up to. Child behaviour also encompasses all of the positive things that children do and all of those amazing moments where they show us a glimpse of the magic of childhood.


Focusing on the challenging behaviour for now though, we have just said that it may be a way of children trying to communicate something to us either that they don’t have the words for or the understanding for. So, what would you do if your child told you they had a difficulty? You’d listen and try to help. So, if they are trying to tell you something with behaviour, it is important to do the same. It can be really difficult to do this though because the first thing we see is the behaviour and when we say challenging, it can be very significantly challenging!


If we react to the immediate behaviour without thinking about what the child is trying to tell us, then:


1. They get a lot of attention for the challenging behaviour, which reinforces the behaviour and makes it more likely to happen again

2. They do not get any resolution to the actual problem they are trying to communicate.


With regard to the first point here, although the attention children receive for displaying challenging behaviour may be negative attention, in the sense that they are likely to be in trouble for challenging behaviour and being told not to behave like this; it is still attention from a significant adult in their lives and negative attention is still attention, so it actually reinforces the behaviour and makes the child want to do it again for more attention. This can be quite a difficult concept for parents but it is backed by psychology research.


So, we have advised trying to listen to what the child is trying to tell us through their behaviour but then what? Well, parents often then feel a huge pressure to fix things. Of course we should help and support our children but we also want to teach them skills for the future. One of the ways to do this is to explain that we will help them find a solution to the problem or ask them to think of solutions. This encourages building of problem solving skills. There also may be times when children ask us things that we just don’t know the answer to or that there is no solution for. At these points it’s important to be honest and tell children that we don’t know but that we will try to find out or we will try to help them to find out the answers. This shows children that it’s ok not to have the answers all of the time, it sets up coping skills and problem solving skills and it sets you up as a team to explore and find things out together. For parents, taking away the pressure of having to know all of the answers can be a helpful way to manage anxiety.


There are two things that parents often use to try to encourage children to show more of the behaviours they want to see. These are praise and rewards. At a basic level, it sounds like these things should be easy to do but there is a bit more to each of them. With praise, children want this, it makes them feel good. It’s positive attention from the adults in their lives and when it’s given it usually reinforces the behaviour for which it is given and makes it more likely that the child will do it again. Sometimes, though, people unintentionally wipe out the positive feeling the child has from praise and therefore don’t get the reinforcing effect. This happens when the positive praise statement is followed up with something that negates it. For example, parents sometimes say “Well done. If only you could do that every time” or something similar. The second statement wipes out the positive effect of the “well done”. Praise works best if it is given as a positive statement and left at that.


With rewards there are a number of things to consider. When do you give rewards? What should the rewards be? Younger children need to have praise and/or rewards given very close to the behaviour they are being given for. This is because of their brain development. If given later, the child can forget what the praise or reward is really for, or even think it’s for something else they’ve done more recently. As children get older they develop the ability to wait and to think about things across time more easily. This means systems can be set up around working towards a reward, whereas this won’t work with younger children. With regard to what should be given as a reward, the most valuable thing to a child is time and attention from the significant adults in their lives. If presents start to be given as rewards then special occasions become less special and/or things can quickly become very expensive! Time playing a favourite game together or going to the park together are likely to be more valuable to children and more enjoyed by parents too.


One of the ways in which parents can work on behaviour with their children is to set aside some one-to-one time with each child each day. This doesn’t have to be a very long time but it’s helpful if it can be consistently given, such as 5 minutes or 10 minutes per day. In this time, the rules are that the adults do anything the child wants (obviously within the limits of safety) but the adults determine when the time begins and ends. If you are in the middle of a game when the time ends, obviously the child won’t like this. If you have to end the game then you just to tell the child that you will play again tomorrow. You are likely to have to manage some challenging behaviour after this but just give the clear message that you really enjoyed playing and you are looking forward to doing it again tomorrow and try not to react too much to any challenging behaviour. This simple task of one-to-one time each day allows a number of things to happen. The child learns that adults make the rules but within the rules you can have great fun together. The child gets to take the lead and it can give parents a great insight into what children are thinking about and how they are interacting with things they are learning about. It’s a great way to bond with children because play is really important for so many of their skills and time with you is so important for their attachment. Also, it can be a lovely time for parents to relax and give up having to be in control all of the time while being allowed to join in the magic of childhood even if it’s only for a few minutes each day. We hope these tips are helpful.


Author: Dr. Nicola Scott - Brain Brolly, CEO and Clinical Director

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