Behaviour is communication
Whenever I ask a child to adjust their behaviour I don't just tell them to stop. I always try to give them an explanation of why I am asking them to change what they are doing.
I calmly state things like,
“When you bang your hands on the table like that, I can't hear the other children and I would really like to know what they have to say.”
“The other children would really like to have a turn and they feel sad when you don't share the swing.”
“When you don't follow the rules of the game, it makes it really hard for everyone else to play.”
The basic message I am giving them is that their behaviour is having a negative impact on other people, which they may not have realised. Providing them with additional information behind why I want them to change their behaviour helps them to gain a sense of awareness about how to act in order to sustain the needs of the group. Most of the time the child alters their behaviour and we can continue with what we were doing.
However, there are some times when they just don't...
They continue to bang the table, or 'selfishly' swing on the swing whilst everyone else is waiting, or wreak havoc on the game by deliberately breaking the rules. These moments are very frustrating because it seems the child is choosing to ignore the needs of others despite being made aware of them.
So what do we do in these moments? Get mad at them? Give them a time-out? Dish out a punishment? Force them to adjust their behaviour in some way?
Well, before I do anything, I try to view the situation through a particular lens. I remind myself,
Behaviour is communication...
However, it's not necessarily that easy to understand what the message is... Behaviour can be a very cryptic form of communication that is frustratingly challenging to translate. But, by choosing to reframe the negative behaviour as a form of communication we are able to ask, “What does this child need? What are they really asking for?”
Recently I was working with a group of 6-7 year olds at summer camp and we had spent the entire morning engaged in focused activities. The children had been shuffled from activity to activity in which they were asked to sit still and listen for quite a lot of it. By the end of the morning many of them were struggling, becoming fidgety and noisy.
One particular boy became outright defiant. He wasn't following the rules of the organised game we played, deliberately stomping on the game pieces on the floor despite being asked not to over and over again. He wouldn't sit still in our listening circle and instead flopped himself down on the floor and proceeded to roll around hitting the people next to him. I had tried speaking to him a few times about how this behaviour was distracting and disrespectful to the group, but he still wouldn't stop.
So instead of punishing the boy or removing him from the group, this is what I decided to do instead... I took the whole group outside to the woods and let them play.
Immediately the 'bad' behaviour stopped and everyone, including the formerly defiant boy, played peacefully and respectfully for the next hour.
Why did I choose to address the behaviour in this way? Well, in Young Children's Behaviour, Louise Porter (2003) states, “It cannot be emphasised enough that, when individual children are acting thoughtlessly, you must examine the context where they are presently functioning and make adjustments to the program to enable more considerate behaviour" (pg. 32).
By viewing behaviour through the lens of communication, we place some of the responsibility for the behaviour on ourselves instead of all on the child. I think this is really important because it makes us question, is it truly the child's behaviour that is inappropriate? Or is it the environment/context/situation I've put them in that's inappropriate?
In the example above, the children's attention spans had merely reached capacity. The inconsiderate behaviour was communicating that they had had enough and needed time to play. By listening to this message instead of just reacting to the behaviour itself, I was able to make the situation better by simply giving them some time in the woods... an adjustment that fulfilled their needs and subsequently made things much better for me too! Pleasant and happy children as well as some time in the great outdoors? A win-win situation I say ;)
Porter L (2003) Young Children's Behaviour 2nd Edition, Paul Chapman Publishing, London.