This article is meant to be helpful for any adult (teacher, parent, caregiver, etc.) who has a child with behavioral difficulties. Remember, there are no magic answers, and some kids may have challenging behavior no matter what strategies you use. However, most kids respond well to positive behavior strategies and these need to be your first step in trying to help your child. If you feel your child’s behavior is out of control and you have done everything you can, seek the help of a medical and/or mental health professional.
An important thing to remember is that generally behaviors (positive or negative) serve a purpose. The purpose or reason for the behavior is called the function. Professionals often conduct functional behavior assessments to determine the function of problematic behavior and put strategies in place to prevent or alleviate the problem. To give you the most basic example, a child who frequently has a runny nose might keep using his sleeve to wipe it. If this child never learned to use a tissue or doesn’t have access to tissues, the behavior will continue. Giving him access to tissues and teaching him to use tissues could alleviate the problem. If you punished the child, rather than providing him with the appropriate tools, you will likely be unsuccessful at stopping the behavior because you haven’t addressed the need. If the punishment does work (the child stops out of fear), the child will likely be very uncomfortable leading to more problematic behaviors, because he still won’t have the tools to address the problem.
Because children are often punished for their behavior without getting the tools to address their needs, punishment often leads to more behavior problems. The premise of positive behavior support is that kids are taught replacement skills and provided with a supportive environment to minimize problematic behaviors rather than being punished in an attempt to force them to stop doing something. People often say that kids who aren’t punished for their behavior act out, but that is because many adults don’t know how else to handle the behavior. Many kids who are punished act better in the short term out of fear, but the behaviors often return, happen when parents/teachers aren’t around, or evolve into a different kind of problem.
As a parent, teacher, caregiver, etc. you can do your own functional behavior assessment (trying to figure out the reason for the behavior) and put strategies in place to support your child and give him/her the tools he needs to be successful. To do a functional behavior assessment, analyze the behavior in different environments. Questions you need to ask include, “What is the specific behavior you are concerned about?” “When does it happen?” (e.g., does it happen when a demand is given, when other kids are around, when he/she can’t have what she wants, when he/she doesn’t have a structured activity, when he/she is with a specific person, etc.) “How is the behavior handled by the adults?” “What is the child getting out of the behavior?” Once you have a hypothesis as to the reason for the behavior, you can target the child’s specific needs.
Here are five common reasons that children act out, along with specific strategies to address the child’s needs and help alleviate the behavior.
Reason 1 – The child is trying to get more control over his/her environment. Many kids feel they have little control. They are often being told what to do by others and many times are expected to follow directions without question even if they don’t agree with them. Imagine your day was planned by someone else, and you were frequently told “no, you can’t do that, you can’t have that, you must stop that, or you must do this now!” Feeling in control of ones own life is an essential key to happiness. Some kids do whatever they can to feel in control. Even if it means lying to get what they want, breaking rules, refusing to follow your directions, throwing a tantrum to get out of something or to obtain something, or arguing with you.
What to do about it: Give your child as much control over his/her environment as possible. As long as he/she is not hurting himself or anyone else, disrespecting others, damaging property, or being inconsiderate of other people or their belongings, allow him to pursue his interests, play how he wants to, get creative, and make a mess. Also, include choices in his day, ask his opinion about things, and let him know what will happen next. When your child can’t have something, explain the reason why, empathize with his feelings, and offer an alternative. Set up expectations ahead of time (a chart may be helpful-i.e., complete homework, set table, take out garbage) and allow your child to earn privileges for good/compliant behavior, rather than threatening to take privileges away. This puts the ball in his court, giving him the power to work for the things he enjoys and gives him more control over his environment. If possible, allow him to alternate preferred with non-preferred activities (i.e., homework, tv, set table, eat dinner, computer time, take out garbage, IPAD, Bed). When your child feels he has control he will spend less time trying to exhibit control. Don’t give attention to tantrums, but ensure your child’s and others’ safety during the tantrum. For more strategies on handling tantrums see How to Prevent and Handle Temper Tantrums. Be flexible with choices, encourage strengths, but also make sure to stick to your rules. If you have a rule and are set on it (e.g., first homework, then tv) don’t spend time negotiating or arguing with your child. This teaches him that he can get you to bend the rules if he keeps asking and pressing.
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Reason 2 – The child is trying to feel good about themselves and validate their worthiness. Kids who feel inferior, have low self-esteem, and need to gain acceptance may do inappropriate things to get yours’ or others’ attention. An example may be the student always cracking jokes in class, the kid who moons his brother and sister, the one who keeps saying something inappropriate no matter how many times you ask him to stop. These kids may also do other things to make themselves feel worthy like picking on their little brother, doing something dangerous just to feel cool, or negatively judging others.
What to do about it: Remove attention from the negative behaviors and focus on the positive ones. If your child is getting the attention of his siblings or classmates for behavior, do the best you can to encourage them to not pay attention to the inappropriate/negative behavior. Instead, work to build up the child’s self esteem and give attention for good, appropriate, positive behavior. Try to provide your child with positive social role models. Set rules regarding behavioral expectations and give your child positive feedback for following those rules (phrase rules in the positive by telling your child what yo do instead of what not to do). Focus on your child’s strengths and give her plenty of opportunities to pursue her interests. Do not tolerate any bullying or teasing in your household/classroom. Remind children who are bullying/teasing that they must treat everyone with respect and direct them to another room if they continue being mean to others. Stress that you are a family/team and everyone needs to be supportive of each other. If you are concerned that your child’s behaviors come on impulsively and he/she can’t control them, see 9 Practical Strategies to Decrease Impulsive Behavior in Children.
Reason 3 – The child has a need to move, burn energy, or stimulate themselves in some way. An example would be a child who is constantly running and jumping on furniture in the house no matter how many times you say “relax,” “stop,” or “sit down.”
What to do about it: Give your child plenty of outlets to burn energy. Can he/she jump rope, jump on a trampoline, be your running partner, do a dance video? Give your child regularly scheduled outlets for exercise. Again, post house rules (e.g., walk nicely in the house), and give positive attention for following those rules. Provide your child with meaningful activities (utilizing their strengths) so he is not looking for something to do. Children with time on their hands are much more likely to run and jump in the house than children focused on an activity they enjoy such as an art project, helping mom cook in the kitchen, or learning how to use the computer. This is also true for children in school. A child engrossed in a hands on activity, is much more likely to be focused and calm than a child who is forced to sit in their seat and listen to an hour lecture.
Reason 4 – You are giving the child more than he/she can handle. An example would be a four year old who is refusing to clean up her room, a 7 year old refusing to do his homework, or a five year old who keeps running away or grabbing toys in the supermarket line. Many young children and some older children (such as those with ADHD or other needs) have trouble organizing belongings, focusing on homework for long stretches of time, or waiting quietly.
What to do about it: Try to get to know what your child is capable of before putting demands on him or her. Additionally, you may need to provide assistance to help your child through the task. For example, have your child clean up one toy before taking out another so she doesn’t get overwhelmed with cleaning up a lot at once, or give specific instructions (e.g., put the block in bin, put your shirts in that drawer-some kids benefit from a written list with breaks after completing a few things on the list), give your child breaks during lengthy homework tasks (e.g., complete the first 10 problems, take a 5 minute break and complete the next ten, or bring your child something to occupy him/herself in the supermarket line).
Related Article: 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion
Reason 5 – The child is frustrated/angry about something and cannot express himself/herself. Some children act in aggressive ways (to themselves and/or others when they can’t tell/explain how they feel or what they need). This may happen with young children or children with speech/language impairments or other special needs such as autism or an intellectual disability. Some children may have difficulty expressing themselves due to anxiety or fear of being judged, yelled at, punished, or ignored.
What to do about it: For children who cannot express themselves due to speech/language impairments or simply being young in age, utilize pictures, gestures, etc. to help them tell you how they feel or what they want. Offer them choices by showing them the objects you are offering and offer alternatives rather than just saying “no” to their requests and behaviors. Teach them an alternative to express frustration such as squeezing a stress ball, biting a safe object (for children who bite when frustrated), or pointing to a picture of how they feel. For children who do not have speech/language needs but do not express themselves due to anxiety, fear, or inexperience, help build their self-esteem by showing them that their thoughts, feelings and frustrations are valid and matter. Focus on their strengths, and try to empathize with what they may be going through. Try the best you can to put yourself in their shoes and work with them rather than punishing them for doing something you deem wrong.
Do not tolerate aggressive behavior. Remind the child to keep his/her hands to himself/herself and that hitting is unacceptable. Try to identify with what he might be going through or encourage him to express how he/she feels. If the child continues to be aggressive, keep everyone safe by maintaining distance. Create a barrier if he needed such as standing on the other side of a table, or holding up a pillow to block kicks or hits. If you are able, move him/her to a safe space to cool down where he/she can’t hurt anyone. Only allow him/her to join others when he regains control.
If you have concerns about the safety of you, your child, or anyone else call 911 or the crisis number in your area.
Keep in Mind:
1) While this article gives some very effective strategies for alleviating behavior problems, I am sure you can find functions of behavior, problematic situations, or behavior strategies that are not covered in this article. Whatever the situation, try to determine the function of the behavior and provide strategies to support your child’s needs. Every child is different so try to tailor your behavioral supports to your child’s unique strengths, interests, and personality.
2) Sometimes several functions of behavior may all be happening at the same time. For example, you may have a child who refuses to follow directions and complete tasks, makes fun of other people, has a lot of energy, and has trouble expressing how he feels. To tackle all of these behaviors at once you would do a combination of the strategies above.
3) What one person deems bad/wrong another might not. Try to think about whether or not you could just let something go or provide support, rather than reacting negatively/judging the child, etc. Think of the reasons you have done things that other people got mad at you for. Do you think you should be punished for them?
4) Work with all children to develop positive ways to express/cope with their frustration or anger (e.g.saying how they feel, walking away, exercising, doing something they enjoy).
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Recommended Book: Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide
Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.