Behavior Detective: looking at challenging behaviors by Laura Kett

“Oh, my, there’s James hitting someone else again!  HIs mother should pay more attention to disciplining him.  He is not going to make any friends that way.”  Ouch!

Have you felt like this when observing someone else’s child?  Or have you been struggling with your child’s behavior and maybe even overheard this said about your child?

Challenging behaviors are just that:  challenging!  There are so many factors to consider and the best place to start is to think of yourself as being on the “same side” as the child when the event is past.  In other words,it’s generally too hard to come up with a plan in the “heat of the moment” when the behavior is ticking everyone off.

We have all experienced seeing children misbehave which may range from pushing over someone else’s block tower to shoving or hitting.  Often the reaction for us as parents or teachers is to intervene by saying “no” to a young child and possibly diverting them to another activity, or with older children maybe exacting an apology and giving them a time out or another consequence.

When thinking of appropriate consequences we should be thinking of “why” this behavior occurred.  An important part of dealing with challenging behaviors – especially repeat behaviors – is to try to understand what the motivation is behind the behavior.  Are they trying to escape a situation, get attention, or is crashing into people or things just too much of a temptation?  Or could it be that they do not understand the rules or forget them in the heat of the moment?

In preschool we had a little guy we will call Sean.  He was referred to us for behavioral issues and yet we found him to be a pleasant little 4 year old who loved to be social.  His idea during choice time was to get people to play chase with him and then he would tackle them.  Fun for him, but they were not always happy to play this game and it was pretty disruptive in the classroom setting.  He was repeatedly “timed out” so he could calm down and “play nice.”

In the case of Sean, we would talk to him and he would nod that he needed to make other choices and he was back to tackling.  We decided first of all to check if he really comprehended what we said.  The speech therapist did some more testing and found that he did not. This information helped us when constructing his interventions.

To start with, we knew we had a child who needed a multi-sensory approach including:  role modeling for more calm play, pictures of play activities to choose from and then physical practice in using those tools.  This is not a child we should pop into a “time out” chair, but instead, he needs some fun but acceptable activities.  Because of his language issues, he is the child to whom you give clear directives and have him show you that he understands. As with all children, he needs consistent and firm follow-through guiding him toward good choices.  Behaviors take time to change!

We also worked with him on how to “read” people’s responses.  When he tackled and kids squealed, he would smile – not in a malicious way, but thinking it was fun.  He loved loud voices.  Similarly when the teacher reprimanded him for knocking down someone’s block construction, he would get a puzzled look on his face.  Again, this was fun for him and he thought it would be fun for everyone.

This particular behavior is an indicator of some deep sensory needs.  Next time we will begin to look at sensory processing as part of our behavior detective work.

In the meantime, here are a couple of questions to ponder:

  • are the expectations age appropriate and have they been clearly communicated?
  • what are you observing in the way of motivation for the behavior:  attention? power? escape from the situation? sensory needs?


October 7, 2014