The Developmental Iceberg: Looking Below the Surface of Challenging Behaviors

Behavioral challenges are the “tip” of the iceberg, and the answers to helping children are often found below the surface of behaviors. Take Ben, for example, who was a puzzle to his parents and teachers alike. In kindergarten, he struggled to stay in his seat, and his teachers constantly reprimanded him for not complying with simple instructions. 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 Ben’s parents were setting proper rules and limits, or whether lax parenting was to blame. At the same time, his parents wondered if Ben had a medical diagnosis and needed medication. The first few months in kindergarten were stressful for him and his parents, who became even more concerned when he suddenly refused to go to school.

How can we possibly discover what each individual’s unique needs are, given the unlimited range of human variations? To start, we can look at the child from different vantage points. Observable behaviors—what we can readily see—are the most obvious. In addition to observable behaviors, we also have tangible data about the child, such as age, weight, medical test results, and standardized developmental evaluations. We can also gather valuable information from the family, such as cultural and ethnic identification, parenting beliefs, and religious practices. We build most approaches, treatment plans and techniques upon this sort of information.

There is another vantage point, however, in determining how to meet each individual’s needs. It considers aspects that are less obvious, and are often invisible, such as Ben’s sensory and emotional needs. The analogy of an iceberg is useful here. We can think of the tip of the iceberg as what we readily see or know about the individual. The tip of the iceberg reveals answers the “what” questions about the individual. But the much larger chunk of ice is below the surface, invisible yet present and significant. Here is the valuable information that helps us expand our understanding of the “why” of a child’s behaviors, providing rich clues for tailoring our interactions.

Ben was difficult to read, and soothe. And he wasn’t the product of “bad” parenting, nor did he have a disorder per se. Rather, Ben experienced something below the surface of his behaviors, an invisible process in his sensory system that made his body crave certain sensations. Neither his parents nor his teacher was familiar with the concept of sensory differences. Understanding the “why” of Ben’s behaviors (the iceberg under the water) transformed how all of his caregivers perceived and helped him.

Sensory processing differences are only one of millions of reasons—below the surface of the iceberg—that cause or trigger childhood behavioral challenges. Yet, most educators and child behavior specialists work at the tip of the iceberg, attempting to shift behaviors without investigating their adaptive purposes for the child.  We have a preference, indeed a bias, towards “top-down” causes of behaviors. When we have a top-down perspective, we believe that children are doing things on purpose, seeking “negative attention”, or are otherwise willful. This top-down perspective is agnostic of the critical role the body plays in children’s behaviors, which is a bottom-up or “body-up” perspective.  Until we understand the difference, we will be prone to mistakenly engaging with the end-product of a child’s needs (behaviors) while ignoring the root causes, all those things beneath the tip of the iceberg.

Before they understood his body’s needs, his parents were often angry at Ben for being so unruly. Their well-meaning but inaccurate interpretations of his behaviors led them to punish him and strained their relationships with him, diminishing his self-confidence. After we reframed Ben’s behaviors, they felt more compassionate and less blaming. This new perspective provided a fresh lens through which to view Ben, and it set their relationships with him on a positive trajectory.

A whole-child vantage point, letting us view a child from above and below the surface of observable behaviors, offers the best way to understand and support social and emotional development.  I explain the developmental iceberg model of behaviors in my new book, Beyond Behaviors.