When a child is acting out or misbehaving it usually produces anxiety in others. Parents often begin to feel that others will judge them as "bad" parents, if they can't control the child's behavior. Older siblings of the child worry that Mom or Dad will start yelling and embarrass them. Younger siblings of the child may begin to cry, because they see their older sibling crying or upset. One little thing can cause a melt down and ruin a whole morning.
Negative behaviors (for example, temper tantrums) often interfere with planned activities.
"We missed story time at the library, because he started having a melt down when I told him he couldn't bring his Spiderman figure along."
"She refused to go to ballet class, because she spilled juice on her pink tutu, and she had to wear the black one."
Everyone has heard of "The Terrible Twos." It is known for being a time in life when temper tantrums are frequent and should be expected. It is explained as being related to a child's quest for independence. Why, then do negative behaviors often stop around the age of three? Don't three year old children want to be independent too?
It's my belief that ALL BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION.
Two-year-old children often do not have the expressive language that they need to meet their communication wants or needs. Therefore, a child who pushes another person may want to say, "Go away," but cannot. Perhaps the child says, "Doh 'weh!" but others do not respect or obey the child's request for more personal space. Someone may hear the child say something, but doesn't understand exactly what the child is saying because it's not pronounced perfectly, and may choose to ignore it.
It is disconcerting to be ignored. The child may begin to feel anxious. Therefore, the child reverts to a more basic type of communication which the other person is sure to understand...like pushing.
Pushing is a physical prompt (a low-level form of communication). Adults use physical prompting with children all the time. We teach children how it's done every day by doing it to them. If we ask a child to come with us (and the child doesn't) then we grab hold of the child's hand and encourage the child to comply by gently pulling the child along. Pulling the child along is a physical prompt that we substitute for the verbal command, "Come with me" that, for some reason, the child seems to be ignoring or refusing to do.
We treat physical prompting as a totally acceptable form of communication (or communicative behavior), and the children learn from us how to do it. Imagine how surprised children must feel when we ourselves demonstrate how to do physical prompting and then punish them when they do it to others! It's an example of "Do what I say" (Be nice...don't pull [or push]), "and not what I do."
Which child is more likely to use physical prompts (which are interpreted as negative behaviors)?
A child who has a communication delay or disorder OR a child who has adults around him who do not respect or obey what he asks or tells them to do is likely to use physical prompts to communicate.
An environment that a child perceives of as being boring, controlling or too demanding will heighten the child's sense of urgency, when he is attempting to communicate his wants or needs. The more urgency, the more likely the child will feel agitated when there is no positive response to his desire for more freedom, more choices or a more stimulating environment. If the environment remains the same then there will likely be an increase in the frequency of negative behaviors.
When should we expect a child to use physical prompts or "negative" behaviors (and accept them as a logical attempt at communication)?
We should EXPECT a child to communicate using physical prompts or "negative" behaviors if he has a communication difficulty AND the adults or children around him do not respond positively to what he is attempting to communicate. If a young child is at a noisy party and wants a cookie, he is likely to push or pull his mother over to the snack table in order to get the treat he wants.
A therapist once told me that she insisted that a child climb up and slide down on a slide one more time, after the child had said, "No more." As the child slid down for the final time he punched her in the nose. A time out followed and both she and the mother were very shocked and upset with the little boy's behavior. He had never done anything like that before!
My response to her story was, "Well, he tried to tell you with words and you ignored his request to stop the activity. He figured you didn't understand and so he thought of a way to communicate that you were sure to understand." In my opinion, his reaction was logical in that situation.
Note: If a child who cannot effectively communicate verbally is being ignored when he attempts to communicate and DOES NOT use physical prompts when attempting to get someone's attention or communicate something then there is a problem. He is likely not engaging sufficiently and may appear disconnected from the other people around him. In this case, NOT using physical prompts indicates a more severe disability which includes social engagement and social language or pragmatic language deficits. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often demonstrate deficits in pragmatic language skills.
What can adults do to decrease a child's use of physical prompts or other "negative" behaviors (e.g., hitting, screaming, pinching, etc.).
1. Pay attention to the child's body language and facial expression to anticipate a communication attempt. Reinforce his communication by reacting positively, granting his request whenever possible (90% of the time).
2. Listen carefully to what the child is attempting to say. The more you understand the more you can help him to communicate effectively.
3. Say aloud what you think the child is attempting to say to yourself or to another person: "Not now. I'm busy!" "Go away, Sally. Please don't touch my truck. I don't like it." "No, thank you. I am not hungry right now. Maybe later."
4. Model a simple way for the child to REFUSE.
Gesture: [wagging a finger] Words: "No, No, No!" "Go away!" "Don't touch!" "That's mine!"
5. Show the child that you are listening and "hear" what it is he is trying to say: "I see you want Sally to go away and play with something else. Ok, Sally, Peter doesn't want to share right now. He is saying, 'Please, go away.'"
6. Allow for more choices of activities and materials, and more opportunity for movement within the child's environment. Accept the fact that refusal is making a choice that bears consideration.
7. Use silly distraction to move the activity along, or join the activity between two children and act as a moderator, modeling kind interaction and joyful sharing behaviors.
7. Use an upbeat and positive tone of voice (rather than reprimanding) in order to model a more accepting and positive mode of communication for a child.
8. Admire and praise the child's ideas for alternative or related activities to what is planned to occur. For example, if the planned activity is to build with blocks and the child goes over to get animals to put on the top of the blocks, praise his creative idea. "What a great idea! Now we can build a zoo! I love it!"
If the activity is finger painting and the child insists on using a brush, accept his request and allow it. "Wow, what a great idea! Imagine using a brush with finger paint! You really are thinking today! I am so proud of you!" Your show of respect will lead to his respecting you and your requests more and more, as his trust in you grows. He will learn that you are on his side, and think that he is a special person. Your work together will become richer as a result.
Helping a child to get to a higher level of communication is the key to reducing the child's use of physical prompts and other "negative" behaviors. When challenging behavior is going on, remind yourself that all behavior is a form of communication. Then pick a strategy and try it out.
Teach others the strategies, too! The more support a child gets to communicate effectively the less likely he is to use "negative" behaviors. Take notice as the child begins to act more and more positively day by day. I have seen it happen over and over again, and it is so uplifting to see and appreciate each amazing transition.
As always, I truly love my job!
Noelle Michaels, MA, CCC-SLP, LDT-C
Bilingual Speech Language Pathologist
Special Educator & Learning Specialist