Reframing Behaviour – Time for Change
Sarah Emerson, Trainer & Consultant, Director at Coroco Ltd
7th July 2023
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Why it’s time to challenge the way we talk about behaviour
There’s an age old saying that goes something along the lines of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
When it comes to how we work with children and their behaviour, current approaches are unfortunately very definitely broken. I frequently hear teachers and early years practitioners saying –
“The things we have always done just aren’t working any more”
What has changed?
We are undoubtedly living in a time of huge stress. The pandemic had a significant impact on children, even very young children who are now pre-school aged. The cost of living crisis is an added pressure. Many parents are struggling with their own mental health. Our society is experiencing a huge amount of pressure and uncertainty, and this affects children too.
However, even without the recent period of stress, I would suggest the approaches we have been using haven’t ever “worked”. They may have managed to create short term behaviour change in some children. Yet, we find ourselves in a place where mental health in children and young people is at an all time high, in part because we have been teaching children to suppress their feelings by “‘managing” their “behaviour” instead of addressing the feelings underneath that behaviour.
To fully understand this, we need to acknowledge that all behaviour represents a feeling inside. There are two mistakes we currently make:
1. We address the behaviour instead of the feeling underneath it. At best this leads to being able to manage the child’s behaviour but missing the opportunity to support their feelings, meaning those feelings will resurface at some point in the future.
2. We use strategies to support behaviour that actually make the child feel worse, not better. This can lead to their behaviour escalating.
It is time to reframe an approach to behaviour that currently sees children as the problem.
Where to start – time to change the language
A good place to start when it comes to reframing how we see and approach behaviour is to change the language we use. Language matters because it is how we express our thoughts, and how others understand our thoughts.
If we talk about children as “naughty”, “difficult”, “challenging”, “disruptive” we are focusing on the behaviour not the feelings. This affects how we see them, how we respond to them, and it even affects how they see themselves.
We need to start talking about children being “dysregulated”, “stressed” and “distressed”. We may see these states through their “behaviour” depending on whether they go into fight, flight or freeze.
Meeting children’s needs means we need to understand them. We need to understand their triggers, their life experiences, their personalities.
Here are some of the ways we can move forward once we have started to reframe how we see behaviour:
● Identify causes and triggers, whether this is stage of development, sensory needs, trauma, unmet needs, or simply. It having the skills yet to cope with and communicate about their feelings.
● Teach children about their feelings and how this links to what they do and say.
● Help them find new strategies to replace the ones that aren’t serving them well.
● Work from a place of compassion and connection, not judgement and conflict.
● Create environments that meet all children’s interests and needs – not what we think they need, what they actually need.
● Stop using rewards and punishments which focus on the behaviour (and run the risk of reducing children’s self esteem and emotional well-being even further).
● Start using strategies based in co-regulation and validation.
When we take a different approach to behaviour, we can truly support children. We do need to teach them healthy and appropriate ways of managing their emotions. But this won’t come through focusing on their behaviour. It will come through focusing on their feelings and their needs.
Sarah is an early childhood and parenting consultant working with nurseries, schools, and parents to support children’s emotional well-being. She advises on a variety of matters ranging from ‘behaviour’, ‘big feelings’, emotional literacy and intelligence, to boundaries, transitions such as starting nursery or school, sibling relationships, toileting, sleep and eating. Sarah holds an MA in Early Childhood Studies, a PgCert in Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Well-being, and is a qualified early years teacher, Montessori teacher and trainer of adults. She is also trained in holistic approaches to children’s sleep.
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