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Every parent or caregiver can think of a time when their child showed a big behavior they were unsure how to support. Yelling, hitting, biting, screaming, refusing, crying – these are just some of the responses we are all too familiar with as parents and educators. In addition to the routine of daily life, as we navigate more time at home together as a family over the past year, we can often feel as though our tanks are empty, for both parents and kids alike, with little reserve to interpret these behaviors. Below are strategies provided through the lens of pediatric therapy, from the perspective of one of our own occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists.

It is easy to designate these actions as a child misbehaving and give a consequence as a response, but that only leaves us frustrated, upset, and without a solution for future interactions. If we take a step back and ask some critical questions, we can often get to the root of the action:

  1. WHY is this happening?
  2. WHAT happened to lead up to this?
  3. HOW can we support ourselves proactively?

It is important to remember that for children, and young children especially, the ability to self-regulate is a skill that is still being learned. For any person, child or adult, when we live with stress building up, whether that is from everyday events or larger trauma, our fuse can feel shorter and responses can seem bigger.

At St. David’s Center, we believe in lifting up the whole family to support the child. No child is intentionally trying to offend or be disruptive. We all know it is hard to respond in the moment, for example as your child is throwing a toy down the stairs, yelling at you, or hitting a sibling. In those moments expecting a rational response in real time is often too big of an ask for a person who is still developing their coping skills.

When the behavior has calmed down, consider this: instead of terming something undesirable as a “behavior,” play detective and identify the underlying need or challenge. Here are a few potential scenarios:

  • When a new game with unknown rules is presented, and Johnny yells out, “This game is boring!” before ever having played it – what is he really trying to say?
    • Is Johnny feeling nervous about trying something new?
    • Is Johnny remembering a game that he lost the last time he played?
    • Is Johnny having a hard time taking in the verbal rules?
  • When a tactile defensive child says, “I hate going outside!” what is the child trying to say?
    • It’s so cold I feel uncomfortable.
    • The noise of traffic scares me.
    • The layers of clothes feel uncomfortable against my skin.
  • It’s also important to consider the other circumstances.
    • Has it been a long, structured day already? Perhaps giving the child some control to choose the next activity would be helpful.
    • Did the child skip a nap? Or are they transitioning in a sleep schedule?

This list is not comprehensive, but the goal is to keep in mind that if we view the child as an individual who has his/her/their own experiences, we can start to peel back the layers as to how their emotions build up and create certain behaviors. Rather than punishing a “bad” behavior, we can work to support the concern early to meet a need and help the child – and parent – feel more in control and at ease.

St David’s Center Approach to Meeting a Child’s Needs:

These are some of the ways we approach supporting children at St. David’s Center.

  • Providing validation: Acknowledge that something is hard, new, different, or exciting! Describe what you as the adult see happening and name some related emotions.
    • Instead of this: “Stop crying, it’s not your turn.”
    • Try this: “I see that you’re crying, you’re right, it’s really hard to share! I wonder what we could play with while we wait for your next turn.”
  • Forecasting: Provide proactive supports and structure before an event or activity which we presume may be challenging for a child. This can occur by explaining expectations beforehand, discussing potential challenges, or teaching something new ahead of time to decrease worry and anxiety in the moment.
  • Pause, Identify, Problem-Solve: To help determine the underlying cause of a behavior, stop to identify what happened to lead up to it, and use that information to inform effective solutions.
  • Sensory Breaks: Provide frequent and intentional breaks. Begin with identifying what type of sensory input your child is seeking. Think, do they need calming, alerting or organizing input? Are they really excited, running and crashing their body around? Or are they emotionally fragile, feeling overwhelmed with little things? Cuddle up with a blanket, soft music and a book for calming, connected time. Eat a crunchy snack and take a dance break to wake up their body for alerting. Move the couch cushions and play a game of floor is lava for some big body movement to help organize your child’s body and give their body what they are seeking in a functional playful way.
  • Connect emotionally. Disconnection is at the heart of most behavioral problems. Play is one of the best ways to reconnect with a child seeking extra attention and extra play. Get on the floor to their level and let them guide you in a playful adventure.

If you have questions about your own child’s challenging behaviors, whether related to communication, sensory processing, mental health, or other areas of learning, please feel free to reach out. Our CORE Navigators are available to help answer questions about services at St. David’s Center, our programming, and enrollment process.

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