Once upon a time there was a 4-year-old girl who started throwing uncontrollable tantrums right before every swimming lesson. She would refuse to get dressed into her swimwear. She would refuse to get in the car. She would refuse to get into the pool and would call her teacher “dumb and mean”.
Some might say this girl was acting like a spoilt brat, and that her parents should teach her some manners. Some might say that she should learn how to respect her elders, and that she needs some type of punishment.
But some might take a closer look to see what is really going on…
Early childhood is a time of rapid physical, emotional and cognitive development. ALL children regardless of parenting style, family background, economic status or culture will display challenging behaviours during different stages of their development.
The best way to understand these behaviours is to examine why they are happening in the first place.
To get more of an insight into the motivations of the child, we can observe exactly what happens before, during and after the challenging behaviour.
Some helpful questions to ask…
Before the behaviour…
Are there any environmental events or triggers? e.g. heat, cold, noise, arguments, group dynamics, intrusion of personal space, transition time.
Is there a pattern of behaviours? e.g. rocking, then pacing followed by the challenging behaviour.
Is the time of day relevant?
Does the presence or absence of particular person change the child’s behaviour?
Does it occur during transition between activities or at start/end of activity?
HALT – Is the child hungry, angry, lonely, tired?
How is the mood of the child, play-mate, teacher, parent, visitor?
Are there problems within the family or home at moment?
During the behaviour…
Exactly what does the child do during the challenging behaviour? e.g. do they yell, scream, use violence, bite, meltdown, refusal to do tasks, or run away? The more details the better.
What does everyone else do when the child behaves this way? What do other children do? What do you do? What do other adults do? Sometimes when trying to determine the underlying cause of a child’s behaviour, it can be more illuminating when we observe the way everyone else reacts to their challenging behaviour.
After the behaviour…
What does the child get from acting this way?
What function does their behaviour serve?
Regardless of whether the challenging behaviour is hitting, biting, spitting, destroying property, invading personal space, tantrums, snatching toys, screaming or foul language; the underlying reasons generally fall into three categories:
1️⃣ To get what they want
2️⃣ To avoid something
3️⃣To meet sensory, physical, emotional, or developmental needs
For further information, check out – The Three Reasons for Challenging Behaviours in Children.
When a child acts in a challenging way, their behaviour serves as a function. Once you have worked out what that function is, you can begin working out how to decrease the challenging behaviour.
See – How to Transform Challenging Behaviours into Positive Outcomes for more information.
Back to the story of the 4-year-old girl. What if I told you that she generally had an easy-going nature and that tantrums were out of character? She usually loved to go to swimming lessons, and she also had a good relationship with her teacher.
Looking more closely at the behaviour itself, her mother was still bewildered as to why her daughter was behaving this way. After many confusing conversations, one particular exchange, however, revealed the underlying reason for the tantrums.
Girl: “My teacher is dumb and mean!”
Mum: “I haven’t heard her say anything dumb or mean. Can you tell me what she said or did that was dumb or mean?”
Girl: “She thinks that I can breathe underwater and no-one can breathe underwater! She makes me breathe underwater and I hate it!”.
The mother was still confused by this statement, but it didn’t take long to work out the problem. The girl had recently been learning her arm strokes in freestyle and was being taught to take 3 strokes and then breath to the side. The teacher would say “1-2-3, BREATHE”. Her daughter had taken the instructions so literally that she thought that she had to take a breath when her head was under the water instead of turning her head and then breathing. This was fixed when the mother explained the problem to the teacher who changed her words to “1-2-3, TURN”
This is a really simple problem with a really simple fix – but a classic example of how a child’s challenging behaviour can be eased or prevented when we take a closer look at the reason that it occurs in the first place. Looking solely through the eyes of the child, if the teacher was actually asking her to breathe underwater it really would have been DUMB and MEAN!!
If the mother hadn’t taken the time to seek the underlying cause of the behaviour, the problem could have escalated in many ways resulting in breakdowns in relationships, decrease in self-esteem or an impaired ability to learn an important skill.
Information in this article is based on my experience as a Special Education and Early Years trained teacher with post-graduate studies in Positive Psychology.
Children’s Author, Freelance Writer + Educational Consultant
Renee is a children’s author based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. She is passionate about creating profound social change by providing children, teachers and parents with the positive language needed for healthy social and emotional development. She is the author of picture books, The Strongest Boy, and Rosie Leads the Way.