“WHY is he acting this way??”

How many times have you said this to yourself, to your partner, friend, or teacher?  Or, likely, stated it loudly in an impatient voice?  We all have experienced the frustration brought on by kids acting in challenging ways.  One way to cut down on your own frustration in dealing with bad behavior is to better understand whether it’s temporary, brought on by stressful circumstances, or whether it has become more stable, a habitual pattern of acting:

Sophie begged to go with you, her mom, to get groceries, and promised she would be a good girl.  You told her she could pick out gum at the check out line if she behaved well.  Sophie lasted about 20 minutes before she started asking – over and over again – when she got to pick out her gum.  As you began to move faster through the aisles, throwing in groceries, Sophie’s voice grew louder and more shrill as she demanded, “you promised I’d get a treat!  you promised…” and she started kicking the cart while you fielded annoyed stares from other shoppers.  Finally in the check out line, feeling embarrassed and exhausted, you say “Why are you always naughty in the grocery store?” as you angrily grab her gum.

Sam seemed to enjoy having the teacher ask to talk with you – yet again – at school pick up.  He certainly didn’t seem embarrassed, as you certainly were, at the teacher’s description of him disrupting the class, throwing the ball hard at the younger kid on the playground, yelling during lunchtime, and laughing at the behavior aide who was giving him 1-1 help during math.  In fact, he didn’t seem at all concerned that he was getting in trouble again at school, despite you yelling at him all the way home and threatening to take away his screen time.  Nothing seems to work anymore to get him to stop misbehaving.  It’s exhausting, for you all.

There are ways you can understand – and help – young children with challenging behaviors.   A challenging behavior is any repeated pattern of behavior that interferes with (or is at risk of interfering with) optimal learning or engagement in pro-social interactions with peers or adults.  What does that mean in plain English?  If your child’s behavior is so frustrating you don’t want to take them out in public, or your student’s behavior stops them or others from learning, or keeping friends, you want it to stop!

Why do they behave like that in a public place?

Kids’ behavior serves a specific purpose.  Are they trying to get something they desire? …escape a situation? …avoid something they don’t want or know how to do?

Why do I need to understand?  They should know how to behave!

Understanding why allows you to plan for success rather than face yet another frustrating situation to deal with bad behavior.  Knowing the why, or the purpose of their behavior, allows you to practice responsive parenting (or relationship-based teaching), which gives the child what they need to succeed.  You can learn to set expectations and provide structure that helps the child build self-regulation skills and learn good decision making.

Why does my behavior need to change before my child’s?  I’m the parent / teacher!

Children misbehave for many reasons.  They may not have the skills to ask for help or act according to your wishes.  They may feel hungry, tired, or sick.  They may be worried or pick up on the stress displayed by others.  They may be embarrassed that they don’t know the right answer or way to act.  They may have learned that bad behavior gets them noticed, and maybe even out of a situation they don’t want to be in.

As adults, we can help by:

  • staying the course — be calm, redirect, proceed
  • intervening if harmful to self, others, environment
  • using natural consequences
  • understanding and meeting the child’s basic needs
  • being proactive — avoiding known pitfalls and challenging situations
  • offering choices
  • using distractors and reinforcers
  • developing and utilizing a behavior support plan
  • listening to your language
  • setting a positive tone

I think I need help…

Talking with your partner, other parents, important adults in the child’s life, or a behavior or mental health provider can help you develop ways to minimize challenging behavior and develop positive behavior patterns.  By better understanding the why behind the child’s behavior, you can set specific goals that allow children to feel more in control, involved, respected, and able to learn.