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Ain’t Misbehavin: Understanding Challenging Behaviors from the Inside Out

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Ben was a puzzle to his parents and teachers alike. In kindergarten he struggled to stay in his seat, and teachers constantly reprimanded him for all the challenging behaviors. At home his parents often felt confused by his constant need for movement and his habit of jumping off couches and tables. His teacher secretly wondered whether his parents were setting proper rules and limits, or whether lax parenting was to blame. At the same time, his parents secretly wondered if Ben might have ADHD or hyperactivity.

Challenging behaviors are often a puzzle to parents and teachers alike. Some children, like Ben, are difficult to understand. But Ben was lucky. His public school has a “student success team” (SST) whose goal is to support early difficulties as soon as possible.

Two months into the school year, the SST met with Ben’s parents. During the meeting, an occupational therapist came up with an explanation for his difficult behaviors. She surmised that he experienced challenges in body awareness, and that his constant movement was his body’s way of coping. When he jumped around, feedback to his system of “proprioception” (input to the muscles and joints) allowed him to feel where his body was in relation to people or objects around him. She urged the team to consider that his actions reflected sensory processing differences, rather than intentional misbehavior.

Ben’s occupational therapist was trained in a developmental relationship-based approach to understanding childhood behaviors. Such approaches prioritize an understanding of the child’s individual differences within the context of warm and caring relationships. So when she observed Ben in class she asked these questions:

Ÿ What factors might be affecting a child’s ability to have calm, focused and alert attention?

Ÿ What impact does this have on a child’s ability to have warm, connected relationships?

In Ben’s case, his need to move and problems with sustained attention were already affecting relationships at home and at school. His parents and teacher had formulated their own reasons for the behaviors. And they were wrong. Ben’s behaviors stemmed from neither poor parenting nor ADHD. Rather, they reflected differences in the way he processed sensory information.

The profound shift in thinking about his behaviors led to a plan for supports at school and at home. At school, his teacher gave him opportunities for frequent “movement breaks” and recruited him to help her move around heavy objects, calming his body’s need for input to his muscles and joints, and making him feel important at the same time. At home, his parents played with him every day at the local park, something he loved to do. His mom asked him to for help around the house with activities that made his body feel calmer, such as carrying grocery bags. She also enrolled him in a fun gym class. With the team’s help she suddenly had more compassion and less worry, allowing her to enjoy her son more. As for Ben, the support strategies led to increased focus and attention, and to a successful school year. When his parents and teachers considered options other than intentional misbehavior, everything changed for the better. *

If you are concerned about challenging behaviors, here are some things to consider:

  1. Explore below the surface of behaviors. Think of behaviors as the tip of the iceberg, and all the potential reasons for the behaviors as the larger chunk underneath. For young children, underlying reasons for challenging behaviors include sensory, motor, cognitive, language and emotional distress, among many others.
  1. Give children the benefit of the doubt. While our first reaction may be to explain a behavior as willful disobedience, we need to understand that children also have an innate desire to please.
  1. Prioritize loving relationships as the foundation for regulation of emotions and behaviors. Warm, positive emotions support all learning and development.

Again and again, I have observed empathic, loving parents and professionals attempt to reason in vain with children about behaviors that stem from causes beyond their awareness or comprehension. When we shift the lens to include mindful compassion and an appreciation of each child’s unique differences, new doors open. With this fresh approach to challenging behaviors, parents and professionals alike can understand and support young children when they need us most.

*Ben’s sensory issues were mild and were addressed within a school consultation with an accomplished occupational therapist. Sensory issues that may require therapy, including sensory processing disorders require an evaluation from an occupational therapist trained in sensory processing.

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