Children behave the way that they do for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s just a bad day, sometimes they are frustrated because their thoughts and emotions are bigger than their ability to communicate and sometimes it runs far deeper and is a reflection of their life outside of our care. Children often imitate what they see and are also silently guided by the belief systems and values they have been programmed with. It is, therefore, crucial that we see behaviour as a symptom of a child’s circumstances or a form of communication, rather than a determining factor of who they are.
It can be very challenging when a child displays consistently ‘bad’ behaviour and it can be even more frustrating when this behaviour has an impact on other children in our care. However, it is important that we look at the bigger picture and try to support these children to heal the reason they are behaving this way, rather than suppressing it with punishment and control.
Every action or reaction has a consequence and it’s important to teach children about these consequences. If a child hurts someone, they need to be moved away from that person. If they hit someone with a toy, the toy needs to be removed temporarily until they learn to use it safely. These are all natural consequences that are directly linked to the behaviour. It is also important to spend time talking to that child explaining why they have been moved away or had their toy removed. Getting them to identify how people may feel on the receiving end of their behaviour gives them an opportunity to develop their empathy and to learn about right and wrong.
By using methods like timeout, you get quick wins because it allows you to control the child and their behaviour. However, the problem with this is that it is like putting a sticking plaster on the issue because it doesn’t deal with the crux of the problem. It also teaches children to be externally-driven rather than intrinsically-motivated to do the right thing because they change their behaviour through fear of being punished, rather than because it’s the right thing to do. Another problem with this method, which for me is the most important, is that it teaches children that when they make a mistake, they get ostracised from everyone.
What a child consistently sees, hears and feels throughout their childhood, creates belief systems and values that then silently guide them through life. Our subconscious mind controls 95% of what we do and as adults we are very much on ‘autopilot’ most of the time. Our actions and reactions are often driven from the internal programming we have been given in our formative years. If we are consistently taught as children that we get removed from people and are ignored when we get things wrong, there is a good chance that this is going to form a ‘default’ setting that makes us do the same as teenagers and adults.
If we want teenagers and adults to be able to come to us and to talk to us when they are worried or have made mistakes so that we can help them to move forward and put it right, we need to teach them that it’s okay to do this in their early years.
If children face natural consequences (directly linked to their behaviour) and then have time spent with them talking about why they did what they did and the impact that it had on others, this still sets strong boundaries. However, it also teaches them to face their mistakes, that they can talk to people and still be loved when they get things wrong, and that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.
It’s also important to look beyond a child’s behaviour and to work out how their internal programming, circumstances or stage of development could be influencing it. If a child is consistently acting out, look at their home life and ask yourself why this could be. What message is that child consistently being given? Does their environment teach them that they are good enough? Does it teach them how to behave in a respectful way? If not, there’s no wonder their behaviour reflects this inner programming and perpetuates the reality of how they feel and what they see outside of your care. It’s also important to remember that babies are not born with the ability to regulate emotions and some young children take longer than others to develop this skill.
"A child is not their behaviour. If we look at what they are doing as a form of communication, we can support them to move forward in a better way."
It’s imperative to have strong boundaries and to allow children to face the natural consequences of their actions. However, if we can also see the bigger picture, we can deal with children’s behaviour on a holistic level and support them to heal whatever it is that is at the root of the problem. If they struggle with communication and lash out in frustration, we can support them to find strategies that help them with this. If they struggle with self-worth and crave attention, we can find ways on a day to- day basis to build their self-esteem and make them less likely to act in a negative way to gain that attention.
A child is not their behaviour. If we look at what they are doing as a form of communication, we can support them to move forward in a better way. A child that feels safe and secure is more likely to make better choices than one that feels rejected and fearful. By setting strong boundaries that are cushioned with empathy and compassion, rather than punishment and control, we not only teach children right from wrong, but build their self-worth and confidence, which can, at times, be at the root of the problem.
About the author
Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.