Our current understandings about why people behave the way they do come from a rich history of behavioural science. The thinking traces back to scientists such as Pavlov with his famous salivating dogs and the development of classical conditioning, through B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning, to Bandura and Thorndike who considered the impact of society and learning on an individual's behaviour. Most modern psychologists who describe themselves as behaviourists would agree that there are only two functions of behaviour. This is great for those of us in the thick of parenting because we only have to remember two things! Human beings behave because they either want something or they want to get away from something. Really, it’s that simple.
Until recently I was involved with training educators in a framework called Positive Behaviour for Learning. So I know what you may be doing as you read the above sentence. I know that in my audiences of teachers across the Auckland region most people looked a bit sideways at me when I made that pronouncement. Let’s work through the idea. To begin I have to clarify that I’m not talking about the inner emotional workings of the brain, I’m talking about what we can see and describe taking place in the physical domain.
When I start to work with a child who is struggling to behave in what is considered socially accepted manner the first question I ask myself is, why? Are they trying to get something or get away from something. They may be trying to get away from or get , attention, this could be peer or adult attention. They may be trying to get away from or get tangibles like a computer, or toy. They may be trying to get away from or get sensory stimulation, like a quality of light which is either very attractive or very upsetting, or a texture of clothing, or sounds.
Quite often people who refer children to me will tell me in the first few sentences of a conversation the why. I often hear xxx is attention seeking. That’s so helpful because immediately I know that I need to consider that xxx is in fact behaving in a way that those around them find difficult in order to get attention. A commonly raised example from the classroom is the child who calls out constantly and inappropriately during class. In this case a teacher might tell me that this individual is attention seeking. Whilst this is helpful I generally want to dig a bit further. I might assess the child to understand better what his/her learning level was at and talk to the class teacher to find out what level she/he is pitching the learning. Sometimes I find that the child in fact doesn’t understand the lesson and had found that by calling out inappropriately they distract the teacher and peers from the fact that they can’t do the work and they avoid doing the tasks. In the end the reason for the behaviour is to avoid the tasks. The solution is to provide work at the right level and perhaps to provide some extra opportunities for the student to learn.
A similar scenario can occur at home. Parents may tell me their child may be avoiding tidying their room and despite parental reminders to get this job done the child still doesn’t tidy the room. The best way forward is to think about the why of this behaviour. Is the child trying to get attention? Have they learned that when they avoid tasks they get a lot more of mum and dad’s attention? In this case the function of the behaviour is to get adult attention. Or, do they not know how to tidy their room, or are they very tired or pressed for time so they are avoiding the task. Thinking through behaviours that you as a parent are finding challenging in this way is a great way to find solutions that work.
Something that must be taken into account when thinking about behaviour is that the function of the behaviour must be met. The solution will never involve depriving the person of the function of their behaviour. If we go back to the school example, let’s agree that the function of the student’s behaviour was to avoid the task because he/she didn’t know how to do the work. If the adults in the situation attempt to stop the child meeting the function of their behaviour in the first instance it is likely that the challenging behaviour will get worse. If the teacher ignores the child’s calling out and continues to expect that they get this same piece of work done the child may then resort to something more dramatic like swearing at the teacher or hitting one of their peers or throwing a book. This kind of behaviour will most likely see them removed from the lesson (if not the school) and in the end the function of the behaviour will be met. A better approach is to allow the child to avoid at least the initial piece of work that has caused the difficulty. A different piece of work or part of the original work can be given until the child has had time to learn a new set of skills and can tackle the original work.
At home in the room tidying example if a parent continues to force the child to tidy their room and the function is to gain parent attention it is likely the child will continue to play the situation out until the parent becomes annoyed and perhaps a confrontation will follow. If this becomes an established pattern, children learn that the best way to get their parent’s attention is to be non compliant with their requests. If the child is avoiding because they don’t know how to tidy or they are too tired, persistence with telling and reminding can lead to children escalating their behaviour in order to avoid completing the task. In the home situation it is better, in the first instance, to help your child learn how to tidy their room. Some children may need photos of a tidy room so they know what they are working towards. If your child is seeking attention they will be getting this as you spend time with them teaching them how to complete the task. As they become more competent at this they can receive attention from parents for their good work and also find more time to spend with parents on fun activities. If they don’t know how to complete the task they can receive instruction. If they are too tired once you talk and figure out a good time to complete the task hopefully the task will be completed with minimal fuss.
On a personal note my sons hated tidying their rooms so we agreed on one time during the week, for us a Sunday night just before bed time, that they would tidy their rooms. Looking back the function of their behaviour was likely avoidance. They both had busy school schedules and by the time the end of the day came they were too tired to be bothered tidying their rooms. Their father and I would give a hand as needed but once they were done they would let me know and they would line up for inspection. We made this into a game and I (silly I know) would pretend that I was an inspector and they had to stand at attention for inspection while I checked under beds and in silly places to make sure everything was just so! Kisses and hugs and extra bedtime stories were the rewards for tidy bedrooms.
If you are wondering about your child’s behaviour start by thinking about the why. Ask yourself, are they trying to get, attention (peer or adult), a tangible or a sensory experience or are they trying to get away from attention (peer or adult), a tangible or a sensory experience?
Let me know how you go.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.