Help with Challenging Behaviours

Jillian Enright

Expert advice for supporting our children and working through challenging behaviours.

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In this case challenging is an adverb, not a verb. We’re not challenging the kids, even though their behaviour is sometimes challenging.

This is the second of a multi-part blog series — but also the fourth of a four-part blog series — (because ADHD)… The two-part series focuses on supporting children whose behaviour can become quite challenging when they are dysregulated.

Engage in Self-Reflection

Before you begin addressing any child’s particular behaviour, check in with yourself (and maybe a trusted adult/co-parent/friend/colleague) to see if it is actually a problematic behaviour.

Is the behaviour only a problem for you, or is it a problem for that child, and for others in the child’s life?

Behaviours we are focusing on are behaviours that:

  • Are harmful or potentially dangerous to someone (the child or others)
  • Infringe on the rights of others

If the behaviour is simply irritating to you, or one you don’t like, ask yourself why? Ask yourself why the behaviour might make sense for that child, and whether perhaps there is something you need to work on, rather than expecting the child to change to suit your needs.

If the behaviour is potentially harmful, dig down to see what need that behaviour is meeting for that child, and find other ways to meet that need that are safer.

What NEED is the behaviour meeting for that child?

When considering prevention:

  • Think in terms of problem-solving and reconciliation, rather than punishment
  • By punishment, I mean adult-imposed consequences intended to stop the behaviour from happening and teach the child that their behaviour was unacceptable

Why Punishment is Counter-Productive

If the child has repeated this behaviour in the past, it’s highly likely they’ve been told a thousand times that behaviour is inappropriate. Intellectually, they almost certainly already know that.

“ADHD is a deficit of regulation, not a deficit of knowledge.” — Dr. Russell Barkley

Most children can recite the rules verbatim, they know right from wrong, but ADHD causes impulsivity. While children have the knowledge, they may not always have the capacity to stop, think, and apply that knowledge before acting.

Another side-effect of punishment, is that it actually increases the child’s stress levels, which is often part of the reason for misbehaviour in the first place.

“Instead of viewing behaviours purely as difficulties we need to get rid of, it’s helpful to see them as forming an instructional manual for how to support each child.” — Dr. Mona Delahooke

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“A child who seems to be misbehaving is, in the process, adapting and surviving.” — Dr. Mona Delahooke

Triggers are frequently outside of the child’s control

Some of the behaviours, and most of the triggers, are largely outside of the child’s control. When we punish behaviours that stem from the child’s neurodiversity (which is most of them), we are essentially punishing a child for having a disability.

If a child is frequently singled out because of their behaviour, other children look to the adults to role-model how to deal with it. This is particularly true with siblings, teammates, and classmates. If adults frequently punish, shame, or reject that child, the other children will follow their example.

Note: I am not advocating a lack of accountability, far from it. The point I do wish to make is that if punishment worked then behaviours would stop after the first few times the child was punished, so it would not be necessary to continue punishing the same behaviour.

When we punish behaviours that stem from the child’s divergent neurology, we are essentially punishing a child for having a disability.

Our previous blog post, “Punishment Does Not Work” expands on this point. It was the first in the four-part series that started out as a two-part series, but then blended in to this other two-part series… confused? (Welcome to my ADHD brain).

Even worse, when we punish behaviours that stem from the child’s divergent neurology, and we haven’t appropriately supported or accommodated their needs, we are essentially punishing a child for having a disability that has been ignored.

So, how do we achieve what we want?

Reconciliation, restoring relationships, and collaborative problem-solving.

Before a child is able to accept responsibility for their actions, they need to feel that their experience has been heard and their feelings validated.

When we truly listen to the child, we are role-modelling how we want them to validate the experiences and feelings of the others their behaviour has impacted.

Overcoming Defensiveness

We all can become defensive when we know we’ve made a mistake, and this is even more so when we feel attacked. When we don’t have a chance to process and acknowledge our errors, we may feel backed into a corner and so our defences go up.

The goal is connection, not compliance.

To avoid defensiveness in the child:

  • Hear them out, show the child you are truly listening and that you care.
  • Give them an opportunity to speak without interruption.
  • Avoid blaming and shaming.
  • Then you can focus on problem-solving together.
“If caregivers are focused only on modifying behaviour, then all they’re modifying is the signal. But they’re not solving any of the problems that are causing the signal.” — Dr. Ross Greene

Collaborative Proactive Solutions by Dr. Ross Greene

The key premise of CPS is that kids do well when they can, and when they can’t, they need adults to help teach them skills they are lacking (Greene, 2014).

It’s not malicious or willful misbehaviour, it’s a lack of skills.

Collaborative Problem-Solving in a nutshell

  1. Identify something you’ve noticed without blame or judgement.
  • “Hey buddy, I noticed you had a hard time when Jason wasn’t following the rules in that game. What’s up?”
  • It’s important to be authentic, be yourself. Paraphrase this in whatever way feels comfortable for you, while ensuring you don’t include judgements or assumptions when you state your concern.

2. Give them a chance to explain their perception of what is happening.

  • Do not interrupt and do not correct their version of events.
  • Let them get it out.

3. *Empathize with the child’s experience and validate their feelings.

**This is a very important step**

  • It’s likely you will not be very successful with the proceeding steps if you don’t take the time for empathy and validation.
  • “It’s very frustrating when someone isn’t playing fair. Sounds like that made you pretty angry. I sometimes feel frustrated when someone isn’t playing fair too.”

4. Identify your concern — without blame or judgement.

  • Explain your concern without labelling the child or their behaviour, and without making assumptions.
  • “My concern is that when you raise your voice at other children, it makes them feel unsafe, and everyone has less fun, including you. I want everyone to feel safe and have fun.”

5. Ask the child to express any concerns they may have.

  • “What concerns do you have about what happened?”

6. Invite them to be part of the solution

  • Ask them if they have any suggestions for ways you can work together to solve the problem.
  • “What do you think we can do to solve this problem together?”
  • This includes actions that can be taken both by the children and the adults.
  • “We can try to explain the rules with more detail next time, and make sure everyone understands before we start playing the game.”
  • “The adults can watch a little more closely and help the students/teammates/classmates who may not fully understand the rules.”
  • “What do you think you can do to help everyone feel safe and make sure we’re all having fun?”

They may shrug their shoulders and mumble “ idunno”, especially if this process is new to them. That’s okay. You can ask them if you can make some suggestions, or if they would prefer to take a little time to think about it and come back to it. Be specific about when you will come back to the conversation: “ Would it help if we both took some time to think about it this afternoon, and we’ll talk about it after dinner?”

Some suggestions the adult can make (or the child might make) in the scenario above:

  • Ask adults for help if someone isn’t following the rules.
  • Use a gentle voice, a kinder tone, to explain rules.
  • Let the adults worry about the rules — it’s the adult’s job, not the kids’ job — remember, the kids’ job is to have fun!
  • We can try to be flexible and understand that not all the kids will understand the game right away, and not everyone will be able to follow the rules perfectly, but we’ll all do our best and focus on having fun.

Check in with your child at the end of the conversation:

  • How are you feeling about our conversation?
  • Do you think our plan is fair?
  • Do you think we can all try those ideas and see how they go?
  • It’s okay if they don’t work perfectly, we can always make adjustments if we find things aren’t working for us.

Don’t Go it Alone

You don’t have to do it alone. You know that old expression, “it takes a village to raise a child”? It’s a lasting expression for a reason.

Due to Covid, as well as general societal and community changes, we have become less and less connected with each other while being more connected electronically. Finding support and community online can be very helpful, but it doesn’t replace the live and in-person support that we sometimes need (and this coming from an introvert!)

Whether you’re a parent, you work in a school or with children, or both — you should not have to support children all on your own. Lean on your co-parent, family, close friends, colleagues, experts, whomever you have in your life that helps you be your best self.

For teachers and school staff: reach out to your admin, your clinicians, and your colleagues. Collaborate, compare notes, and support each other. I’m hearing from so many teachers and school staff who feel burnt out, unappreciated, isolated, unsupported, and just plain demoralized.

If you have students in your class whose behaviour can be very challenging, reach out to your team — the RT, school psychologist, guidance counsellor, social worker, student services, whomever you can go to for advice or a good vent. Once you’ve vented and gotten a clear head, reach out to the family, ask the parents or caregivers for suggestions.

Communicate. Parents may be waiting to see if teachers want their input because they don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or appear overbearing, while school staff and teachers may be hesitant to reach out to caregivers because they don’t want to be the bearers of bad news. Someone has to take the first step in order to make that connection.

Students do better when there is a positive relationship between themselves and their teachers, and when there is positive communication between home and school.

References

Barkley, Russell A. (2015). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis & Treatment. The Guilford Press.

Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviors: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioral challenges. PESI Publishing.

Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, “chronically inflexible” children. HarperCollins Publishers.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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