In a recent staff meeting, North-eastern Montessori School educators spent time revisiting the idea that all children’s behaviour is a form of communication. Human beings are complex and can have multiple stressors and emotions happening, sometimes simultaneously. By looking beyond the surface at the obvious emotion or behaviour a child displays, we can explore what is happening underneath for them.
Let’s imagine a child who suddenly stamps his feet and yells out whilst his class is starting to line up. He then precedes to throw his lunch box on the floor. At first, we may think this child’s unexpected behaviour is anger, anger possibly at having to stop eating his lunch and line up. However, if we think about the possibilities for the behaviour, it may be that underneath, this child is anxious at being last or that his parents have insisted, he must eat everything in his lunchbox today, so he feels worried that he will get into trouble. Another consideration is that the outburst of emotion has nothing to do with lunch and that it could be this event is the one small thing under a large pile of other stressors or events that tips this child’s ability to cope. Sometimes as care givers and educators, we can rush in to make an assumption about the reason for a behaviour, but when we pause and take a moment to reflect more deeply on what we already know about this child, our relationship with them and what the child says to us, we can start to uncover the rationale, triggers or even the lack of skills that may be present for this child. This knowledge is crucial for us to accurately respond and put in meaningful supports for the child.
Another interesting perspective on behaviour can be found from Dr Ross W. Greene, an American clinical child psychologist and author of the books The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Lost & Found, and Raising Human Beings. Dr Greene maintains, “Kids do well when they can,” and when they can’t, it’s because they are delayed in the development of crucial skills. Sometimes it’s not that they don’t want to behave in a certain way, they have not yet mastered specific skills. An example of this may be when we see a child who pushes another child, which may initially seem like an aggressive response. However, what we may understand is that this child needs help with how to communicate their need for space. By helping a child to understand when someone is too close to them or they need some extra room, they can say, “I need some space, please” rather than pushing. By modelling how we can communicate our needs, an adult can better prepare that child for facing a similar situation next time.
Dr Greene’s idea around behaviour is based on the premise that challenging behaviour occurs when the demands and expectations being placed on a child, exceed the child’s capacity to respond effectively. It may be the child is not yet prepared enough to manage the task or situation successfully. We can sometimes see this lag in skill development when children transition from kindergarten to primary school or from Year 6 to high school.
So why is it that we see some children that are better equipped (i.e., have the skills) to handle certain demands and expectations then others? There are many factors that can impact the development of these skills: premature birth, neurodiversity, trauma, disadvantaged backgrounds, family circumstances and personality. Another reason is: practice! Our children will need plenty of it and will require extra patience and care from us whilst they do so. Rather than an adult jumping in to solve an issue or reduce the struggle for our children, it is an opportunity to ask ourselves, “What is going on for this child?”, “What skills does this child not yet have that they need?” or “What are the expectations they are having difficulty meeting?” Our role can be that of a coach and guide, offering them probing, thoughtful questions which can assist them to build their problem-solving ability and self-reflection skills.
By spending the time to work through challenging behaviours and upskilling our children, we help to improve their social skills such as communication skills, flexibility, respect, empathy as well as build honesty, self-responsibility, and an ability to resolve disagreements in ways that do not need to involve conflict. All these are essential skills that our children will need throughout their lives ahead.