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ECE Resources

Being a behaviour detective: Looking for clues within children’s challenging behaviours

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

Our webinar with Dr. Anna Winneker (University of South Florida, USA) looked at the ways in which teachers might be able to support children with challenging behaviour by looking at both why particular behaviour might be happening and how to prevent and respond to it. 

The key insights from the webinar include: 

Children’s behaviour has meaning and can be seen as an attempt to communicate something. Challenging behaviour is persistent and more intense behaviour than what we might typically expect from children or what is developmentally appropriate for them. While trying to address challenging behaviours can be frustrating and overwhelming, it can be helpful to see these behaviours as a form of communication. Knowing that the behaviour has meaning can be very empowering, especially when you develop skills for working out what is behind the behaviour and what can be done to support children to meet their needs in alternative ways.  

Challenging behaviours do not necessarily have the same meaning or function for every child. This means teachers need to try and determine why the behaviour is happening in order to provide the appropriate support and intervention. There are many reasons for children’s challenging behaviour which include limited language or social skills and insufficient sleep. 

Creating a strong foundation for positive behaviour is an important first step. The pyramid model for promoting social and emotional competence has several tiers, and each layer builds on the previous one to provide a foundation for children’s social and emotional skills. Nurturing, supportive and reciprocal relationships form the base of the pyramid. This means that teachers should find ways to partner with families, learn about children’s interests, engage in positive dialogue and connect meaningfully with each child as a foundation for positive behaviour.  

Teachers should also reflect on the physical and social environments provided for children (the second tier of the pyramid model). They should examine whether children are engaged, and whether planned activities and resources are flexible, varied and matched to children’s interests.  Children who are highly engaged in their learning are less likely to present challenging behaviours. Teachers should also examine whether routines and expectations are clear, consistent and predictable, with effective and positive directions that let all children know what is expected. Learning about expectations and routines should be discussed and reinforced often, and revised when necessary to suit different groups of children. This too can be highly preventative, decreasing incidences of challenging behaviour.  

All children should be taught particular social and emotional behaviours and skills to help prevent challenging behaviour, and there are many evidenced-based strategies for doing this. For example, children need to learn a wide range of emotion vocabulary, and be given opportunities to discuss how these emotions feel physically and what they look like in others. Children also need to learn about self-regulation, and how they can use different strategies to regulate themselves when they experience a difficult emotion. Children benefit from learning skills for developing and sustaining friendships, and teaching can also address how to solve common social problems that occur during play. Be aware that it is impossible to teach children social skills or self-regulation strategies in the moment of their challenging behaviour. These skills must be taught when children are calm and receptive. 

Being a behaviour detective means collecting data to determine the cause and meaning of challenging behaviour. When children do not respond to the preventative measures of positive relationships, engaging environments and intentional teaching of social and emotional skills, it is important to collect clues about the behaviour and why it is occurring. A good first step is to note when and how often the behaviour occurs, measuring incidences in half hour increments. Then you can conduct more focused observations of that time, and start to identify the antecedent (what happened immediately before the behaviour), the behaviour, and the consequences of the behaviour. These help you to know why the behaviour occurs and to think about alternative ways to meet the child’s needs in that situation. 

Individualise teaching strategies for children with challenging behaviour. Provide individual children with opportunities to practice specific skills by offering additional prompts and visuals about how to respond in a particular situation, along with plenty of positive feedback. Teachers can monitor whether these individualised supports are making any difference to children’s behaviour by examining if there has been any change in the quantity of challenging behaviours in half-hour increments throughout the day.  

Draw on a wider team for extra detective work. If children are still not responsive to individualised teaching practices, it may be useful to take a team approach in order to gain more clues about the behaviour. Engaging the help of the child’s family can enable teachers to gain clues about the child from their behaviour in different settings, and they might also seek support from people who have expertise with behavioural difficulties (including more experienced teachers in the centre). As talking to families about a child’s challenging behaviour can be difficult, building a strong and positive relationship with the family with many interactions about the positive things that the child does in the setting is helpful. It is important to value the family’s input for helping teachers to understand and support the child. 

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