CHILD BEHAVIOR

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For years the battle has raged between nature and nurture, between genetics and environment; but the bottom line is that, the answer is both.

Humans have few behaviors which are absolutely instinctive.  Sucking is one.  Most, the vast majority, of our behaviors come from an interaction between what we brought with us from before birth and our environment, including our interaction with that environment.  Some of the information provided below will differ to a degree because it comes from different sources which do not always agree.  That’s ok, you’ll get a slightly different viewpoint on some of the subjects.

 

The following is rather long and I expect that there will be both questions and discussion; however, it is worth including:

“Why does he do that?  This is the age-old question.  People ask this question when they see a child throw a “fit” in the store.  Why does he behave like that?  To date, an often-cited explanation of such undesirable behavior involves a hypothesis about the brain’s development in the child “afflicted” with such behavior.  The underpinning of the undesirable tantrum behavior is hypothesized to be the result of some abnormality or underdevelopment of some part(s) of the brain.  As further evidence of brain involvement, in some cases, such behavior along with other behaviors forms the basis for a mental disorder.  Below is an excerpt from a hypothetical lecture in a Child Psychology class.

 

Student:  Dr. Trait.  I have a question. Why do some children have tantrums that are clearly inappropriate for their age?

Dr. Trait:  The child throws the tantrum because he is immature for his age; his brain has not fully developed (in some hypothesized fashion).  Once his brain matures, particularly the frontal lobe that is responsible for executive functioning, he will not respond to social situations in that manner.  Until that point, we can expect this child to continue behaving in such a fashion because of his inability to process events adequately.  Teenagers have a similar problem with brain immaturity when they behave impulsively.  Their brain is not like the adult brain; hence, they too cannot be fully responsible for their impulsivity.

 

There are variations and extensions of this immature brain explanation.  The following is the same conversation in a class in developmental psychology, with a slightly different explanation.

 

Student:  In Dr. Trait’s class, we were told that children who have severe tantrums that are clearly inappropriate for their age do so because their brain is not fully developed.  Is there any experimental cause-and-effect evidence for such an assertion?

 

Dr. Stager:  Well, I believe there is more to it than just the brain’s development, although I would concur that neurological issues are part of the problem.  Children behave in a certain manner because they have not proceeded through certain invariant developmental stages.  I would say that these children have not progressed past the egocentric stage.  Of course once the brain has developed, it is more likely that these children will interpret the actions of others as reasonable and not view everything from a “me first” perspective.  When this happens, s/he will not react in such a manner, but will respond to conflict in a more age-appropriate manner.

 

Suppose we believe that the child throws a tantrum because his brain is not yet fully developed.  What are the ramifications for dealing with such behavior when the supposed cause is brain malfunction?  Do we wait until his brain becomes more fully developed?  For clients who have continued such “immature” behaviors throughout their adolescence, and into adulthood, do we still continue to wait?  What can be done in the interim to reduce tantrums and/or develop a more acceptable manner of dealing with his social environment? 

What is wrong with those interpretations about tantrum behavior?  The role of the environmental response to such behavior is trivialized!  If the brain has not developed, apparently what people do in response to the child’s behavior, whatever the form, is insignificant and, therefore, irrelevant.  One can only hope that the child’s brain becomes more fully developed. We believe there is a better conceptualization of why tantrum behavior occurs. 

                Instead of saying that the child throws a tantrum because he is immature, we would possibly ascribe such an incident to the purpose or function such tantrum behavior serves in that child’s environment.  That conceptualization would generate an examination of observable events in the social environment.  In the case of a child’s tantrum behavior, one would examine what the social environment does when the child has a “fit” in the store.  What is the antecedent context for such tantrum behavior?  How does the social environment react to these tantrums in the short and long term?  The examination of temporally ordered environmental events can reveal the purpose of this behavior in this context.

                This approach is termed a functional behavior-analytic approach to understanding human behavior (Baily & Pyles.  1989; Cipani, 1990; Cipani & Trotter, 1990; Iwata, Vollmer, & Zarcone, 1990; LaVigna, Willis, & Donnellan, 1989; Lennox & Miltenberger, 1989).  In a functional behavior-analytic approach, all behavior is viewed as serving an environmental function, either to access something or terminate/avoid something (not withstanding genetic influences for some behaviors).  Although other psychological explanations invoke hypothesized traits or developmental stages to explain behavior, a functional behavior-analytic viewpoint examines the role of the social and physical context. It deals with events that are observable to us and measurable.

                For example, to say that a seven-year-old child named Oskar, diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (see DSM-IV-R manual) is aggressive is sufficient for many mental health professionals.  When asked why this child is aggressive, their response would be, “It is a symptom of his underlying disorder, that being oppositional defiant disorder.  He acts aggressively because he has this disorder.”  As you can see this is a trial lawyer’s dream.  People do things because they have a disorder.  If they have this disorder, they cannot help it.

                Whenever the behavior occurs, it is the disorder that made them do it.  One should expect that they will engage in this behavior from time to time.  It further presumes that such a behavior will occur irrespective of context and consequences.  The child engaged in the aggressive behavior because of his malfunctioning brain.  Such brain malfunctions are not predicted on any environmental context being present. One never knows when the neurons misfire!  When they misfire, aggressive behavior results!

                In contrast, a functional behavior-analytic view would explain such behavior more from the social context of the behavior.  One would examine Oskar’s history of aggressive behavior and how it alters his existing social environment when exhibited.  An understanding of why the behavior occurs is accomplished through an analysis of the behavior’s ability to produce desired events or terminate undesirable events.

                For example, we may find out that Oskar often engages in aggressive behavior when he comes home from school.  Oskar’s mother wants him to stay in the house for a while and either do his homework or finish cleaning up his room, Oskar, of course, wants to go outside, and play with his friends.  He sometimes will complain and whine.  His mother will respond to such complaining with the following retort: “You need to finish your homework.  How do you expect to pass third grade?  Once you are done with your homework, then you can go outside.” This parental response to his behavior incurs more arguing from him, with retractions for each of his assertions from his mother.  When Oskar sees that this arguing with his mother is not helping his cause (i.e. getting to go outside) he tries another tact.  He states, “I’m going to leave and you can’t stop me.”  When he begins to exit the house she grabs him. At this point, he yells at her, calls her names, and hits her.  After a struggle, Oskar pulls away and heads out the door.  The mother, tired of fighting with her son, lets him go, complaining he is just like his father.

                With the above information, what is a more plausible explanation for this child’s behavior during these circumstances?  Does he do this because he is disordered?  Or does the explanation lie in an understanding of how such a behavior impacts his environment?  Does arguing with his mother result in him going outside?  Or does he get to go outside when he becomes assertive (walking to the door) and combative (when he hits his mother as she tries to get him to stay inside)?  What is the best explanation for his aggressive behavior in the afternoon?  He does it because it “works” for him when he wants to go outside, and other behaviors such as complaining are less effective.

 

Why Is Traditional Counseling Not effective With Many Clients With Severe Problem Behaviors?

 

In 2006 (year this book was written), many people believe that sending children or clients with sever problem behaviors to counseling is the best method for changing these behaviors.  This is despite a lack of empirical evidence demonstrating that severe behavior problems of clients or children are effectively treated with such an approach.  But let’s look at the nature of this intervention and what we now know about client behavior.  Perhaps we can determine why such an approach may be doomed for many children and clients with problem behaviors. 

Can anyone (through counseling) convince Oskar that crying or later property destruction is not in his best interest?  What is in the child’s best short-term interest when he is place in time out?  It is getting out of time out.  What behaviors are most effective at producing such?  Crying and property destruction.  As a reader of these materials, do you believe that any adult, no matter how many degrees s/he may posses, can talk to Oskar once or twice a week and convince him not to throw shoes at the wall when in time out?

What will work is to alter the maintaining contingency?  This translates to what?  How will the child’s behavior change when he is placed in tome out?  Through insight or self-awareness developed by seeing a professional?  Or by changing, the manner in which the parent reacts to the behavior?  The answer should not be obvious. Ultimately, it is up to the care providers/parents to change their behavior in order to change the child’s behavior!  If the adults continue to handle this child’s behavior in the same manner, we cannot see where anyone who talks to this child for 1, 2, or 3 hours a week is going to convince him to “straighten up” when he is in time out.  The problem is not just with the child!  It is also with the way the child’s environment responds to his/her behavior.

 

You change child behavior by changing the behavior of the adults who deal with that child.  Pure and simple!”

Functional Behavioral Assessment, Diagnosis, and Treatment: Ennio Cipani & Kleven M. Schock 

pages 1-3

 

 

If you are a therapist concerned with behavior, this book is a must read; however there is more to environment than just the behaviors of the adults and as the above authors acknowledge, there is more to behavior than just the environment.  We’ll talk about a few important elements.

 

Please click here to discuss or ask questions.

 

 Relationships are always the foundation for all of our interactions with each other.  Before doing anything and while you are doing everything, build relationships…then:

First, look at the Environment: this includes the physical environment, smell and sound. (Safety and immediate health concerns always take president and if present should be addressed before anything else.)

Second, consider setting events, this includes: schedule, sleep, diet, stressors (including medical)

Third, consider interactions with others: does the behavior get the child something or get the child out of something.

Fourth and last, after looking at all else, even if the child has an obvious disability, even when the answer seems to be apparent…that this child has a problem, only after all of that, and making adjustments that may help, look at the child.

 

First, look at the environment.

Are their lights, sounds, colors, smells, that may increase stress or the likelihood of problem behaviors?  Are there lots of distractions?  Is the child too warm or too cold?  Is the environment conducive to the child being able to effective communicate wants, needs, and feelings?  Are there safe boundaries, i.e. safe and fenced yard and/or a partitioned off part of the home or center?  If there are partitions, is there a clear view of all children?  Sometimes designating different areas for different activities can be very helpful.  Using appropriate music for a transition (see m.  under Stress Management) can be helpful.  Is there a consistent and full schedule for children with developmentally appropriate activities and engagement with adults (watching televison does not count)?  Is the area safe, clean and engaging for a child?  Are there different environments for different activities, even in a home environment this is possible and helps children to learn to regulate themselves according to the environment.  Remember you can create a different environment with a different space, colors, temperature, pictures, toys, stuffed animals, or other items, with sound and with smells.  This does not have to be expensive, with a little creativity this can be done cheaply and still be safe and appropriate.

 

Please view the videos below.

How to Create a Classroom Checklist







There are many simple ways to manipulate an environment and have a significant impact on behavior. For example: when you want a young child to leave a room and come out with you, particularly in the evening, after asking the child to come, just turn off the light. The child will typically and naturally move toward the light where you are. This doesn’t mean that you need to make a big deal out of it and create a fear of the dark. Another example is simply removing objects which are a distraction or temptation. For a toddler it makes a lot more sense to remove an object you don’t want him or her to touch than to repeatedly try to teach the toddler not to touch the item...something that may be developmentally very difficult or even impossible to do.

 

Please click here to discuss or ask questions.

 

Second, look at setting events.   When in a child care center, these can be things that happen outside of your direct influence.  As a parent you do have direct influence on these things.  Does the child have a regular sleeping schedule and does s/he get enough sleep?  Are there any medical problems?  Are there other stressors in the child’s life?  Does the child have consistency or is s/he passed around among many different care takers?  Does the child eat regularly and did s/he eat last night and this morning?  Are the meals healthy and enough?  Is the child’s environment clean and is the child clean?  How much positive interaction does the child get with adults?  How much television and video games does s/he watch and or play?  How many of the Developmental Assets does the child have in his or her life?  Also remember skill building, which is important for all children.  Some children need additional assistance or different teaching methods for skill building which should almost always be done in an inclusive environment.

 

Third, consider interactions with others: does the behavior get the child something or get the child out of something?  Make appropriate changes to the way you and others interact with the child and teach skills to this child and when the child is in a group, teach and practice the same skills as a group.

There are many misunderstandings about the cause and affect of behavior.  Over the years, I’ve often heard that someone has tried this and that and it just hasn’t worked.  When this occurs I like to tell the following story.  Many years ago there was a speaker in church who was going on and on and was rather dry.  After what probably seemed like an eternity to one particular child, this child turned to his father and pleaded “dad, please take me outside and spank me.”  I share this story for a couple of reasons.  Lots of times we think that something is a punishment and while it may be to some extent, there is something else out there that is even more punishing or more rewarding.  In this story, the boy, even though he was young, figured that a spanking would be less punishing than sitting and listening to the speaker.  Children, even adults at times, will choose what may appear to be a punishment because they get an even more important reward i.e., physical touch (even painful touch can be acceptable when it is missing and craved) or attention.  People often do things because it either gets them something they want or gets them out of something they don’t want.  The other reason I mention the above story is that I’m really not a fan of spanking or corporal punishment in general.  I and many of you have heard the term: “Spare the rod, spoil the child”.  There are a number of alterations of this adage in the Old Testament and people for generations have used it as an excuse to beat children.  About 20 years ago I was in a child abuse seminar presented by a Jewish Doctor, who was a student of the Tanakh, and who was also an expert on the subject of child abuse.  He brought this statement up and said that in this context, the word “rod” did not refer to a physical rod but something quite different.  When he said and explained it, I thought to myself…of course.
 

There are so many things that could be said here that it would take a chapter or two to even touch the surface of this part of our discussion. 

Please ask questions and we will discuss, here.


Consider also that an inappropriate behavior may be reinforced in another environment, if this is the case; you need to be crystal clear that it will not be reinforced in your environment, while helping the child to learn that there are more appropriate ways to get their needs met, however; be gentle, loving, patient and understand the confusion.  For example, a child that hits for attention and touch needs to not only learn that this is not acceptable in your environment but also that it will not work in your environment
AND that they can get this same need met in other more appropriate ways. 

Communication is key, often what we see as bad behavior is an attempt to communicate a want, need, or feeling.  If children are behind in communication, help them get the help they need.  (See lesson on Child Development)  (Communication problems often lead to behavior problems.)

When children come to you from another environment that may be less than ideal and exhibit behavior as a result, help then to transition each time to your environment and let go of the one they left.  Sometimes children will be so frustrated from their other experiences that they will act out aggressively in yours because it is the only safe place for them to do so.  If you have good reason to expect abuse, it must be reported to your local child protection agency or law enforcement.  If it is just a chaotic and frustrating environment, then help them to change their physiology (see stress management for kids especially h. i. j. k. and m.) and transition to your environment.  Be clear in your communication.  Tell children what you expect of them.  Listen.  Even infants have a lot to tell you if you know how to listen.

Strong positive loving relationships with solid attachment are essential.
 

Please view the videos below.

How to Approach Understanding Child Behavior



Please read:

More Than Just Saying "No": Guiding Your Child to Positive Behaviors

 

 

Here are a number of videos.  They are very good and cover a number of topics. By Dr. Michele Borba. 








If reviewing this material for IdahoSTAR hours please view at least 2 of your choice.  Additional related videos may appear. 





One common mistake I see from adults is when they laugh when a young child does something very inappropriate.  Please stop and ask yourself this question, 'will this still be funny when the child is 16 and directing the behavior towards me'.
There is more about reinforcing appropriate behavior below. 


One last point here, never forget the power of example.


Please click here to discuss or ask questions.

Fourth, the child.  You will note that all of the videos above are listed under the third section.  This is because most of this is about the interaction with the child and the way the child has learned to communicate his or her wants, needs, and feelings.
  At this point it may be necessary to request additional help.  Certainly in a couple of the situations in the videos above, it is also time to get some additional help.

In Idaho you can call 211, explain your situation and tell them you have social emotional, behavioral, or mental health concerns for your child.  Elsewhere in the United States use the CDC number 1-800-cdc-info (232-4636)

Do not be surprised if a consultant or therapist who gets involved takes a new look at the environment, setting events and interactions or communications.  To tell you the truth, you should be surprised if they do not.  That’s good.  Sometimes a different perspective can find something new.

Another great resource is Devereux and the fabulous resources they have available.

 

Click here to discuss.

 

Next I want to talk a little more about reinforcement.  Remember the story about the child in church above.  Reinforcement is not the same for every adult and it is not the same for every child.

There are basically two different kinds of reinforcers.  It's kind of complicated but basically when you get something you want or when you avoid something you don't want, both are called reinforcers, one positive and the other negative.  Either type of reinforcer increases the chance that the person will do again, whatever it was that got them the desired result.

Punishment on the otherhand decreases the chances that someone will do the thing (whatever the thing is) again.  In the case of the child in the church, the spanking was not a punishment, or at least it was not as powerful of a punishment as the removal from church was powerful as a negative reinforcer.

There is one more thing to consider and that is, extinction.  Extinction is the complete removal of a reinforcer.  Extinction is kind of tricky though because you have to be pretty consistant for it to work, and you need to pair it with another reinforcer that achieves the same result.  For example if a young child has learned that the best way to get attention is to hit, and if you start to ignore the hitting, then the child needs to learn at the same time, a more appropriate way to get attention.  (S/he) needs to be rewarded with attention when s/he does the more appropriate behavior (i.e.), mom, dad, will you play with me. (Figure out ways to answer "yes."  See additional information about "yes" below.)
(Note: when there are genuine safety concerns or significant property damage, you can not ignore the behavior.)


Natural reinforcers are those that will be received in almost any setting from almost any person.  Natural reinforcers are almost always better than contrived and should be used whenever possible.  For example, in many (hopefully it is most) situations, politeness and good manners receive a natural reinforcer.

Please click here to discuss or ask questions.

 

Temperament can be exhibited in a child as young as three weeks and that it is firmly in place by six weeks.  Temperament is defined as the combination of mental and emotional traits of a person.  It is a natural predisposition toward a unique behavioral style.  Remember that we have all kinds of predispositions; however, we still have choice.  While many of our initial temperaments come with us from before birth, both environment and choice play an ever increasing part in who we are as we grow older.  There are many stories of people who remade themselves.  Gandhi is a great example.  When I left home for college for the first time, I made some hard decisions to remake myself in many ways.  These decisions and the changes I made have had a profound affect on my own life.

Understanding temperaments can be useful; however, be careful to never diminish or excuse a child because of a temperament.      

There are several dimensions of temperament. Thomas and Chess identified nine dimensions of temperament. Other researchers describe them a little differently. If this is something that particularly interests you, go to http://www.collaboration.me.uk/Therapy_Search_Engine.php and do a search of the various types listed below. Just copy and paste the whole line into the search engine.

 Greenspan classifies children’s temperaments into five basic types.

The first type is the highly sensitive child.

The second type is the self-absorbed child.

The third type is the defiant child.

The fourth type is the inattentive child.

The last type of temperament is called the Active/Aggressive child.


Remember, catch kids doing good.  Praise them, reward them for doing good, and connect natural reinforcers with doing good.  If you can, when a child asks, say "yes" as much as possible.  It may be, "yes after you have done..." or "yes, after I have finished..."  Sometimes you can not say yes, when this is the case, explain on the level the child can understand.  We all have to learn to understand "no."  When they have to wait, try to make it a reasonable amount of time for the developmental level of the child.
For more technical information on behavioral interventions and reinforcement, click here.

Click here to discuss or ask questions.     

   Please decide what you are going to implement in your child care setting and try it for two weeks, then make a comment in the most appropriate section of the associated blog.  Tell us how it went and how you might adjust for improvement before you turn in your paper.  This is a part of the new IdahoSTARS requirements for the higher level trainings.

Please review and make yourself aware of the Idaho Early Childhood Guidelines and Resources


At the request of a Child Care Provider, I have add a blog for ongoing discussions of child behavior.  This is for any care provider to ask questions and discuss issues.  Please provide feedback to other providers about what has worked for you.  Please click here for this discussion.
 


Additional Resource:

Memory and Schedule Aids: Picture schedules, chore charts, task lists, other visual and transition reminders for children.


Technical Assistance Center on Social/Emotional Intervention for Young Children Backpack Connection Series