Whether we are managing behaviour in our own homes or dealing with the fallout from behaviour management in school, the mantra ‘All behaviour is communication’ can serve us well. I will be forever grateful to the parent I first heard this from.
Parenting two children with complex needs has made me rethink my approach to behaviour management regularly. It isn’t just a case of reward the behaviour you want to see and sanction what you don’t. Sometimes, rewards and sanctions don’t work or even cause harm and we have to take a different approach.
I’ve learned that, before we can change behaviour that is unhelpful, we need to understand the reason it is happening and what the child is trying, maybe unconsciously, to communicate.
When we fall into the trap of trying to change behaviour without understanding it, we are unlikely to make anything better for ourselves or for the child. Sometimes we can make it an awful lot worse.
Before imposing a sanction I think we need to ask some questions:
- What is the child trying to communicate by this behaviour?
- Should we try to change the behaviour or does it serve a purpose?
- Will a sanction just prevent the child from communicating their needs?
- Is there an unmet need for support?
- Would solving the cause of the behaviour remove the need for the sanction?
- Is a sanction necessary or would an explanation suffice?
- Is the child capable of changing their behaviour?
- Will the child link the sanction to the behaviour?
- What will the child learn about themselves from the experience?
- What will the child learn about the adults caring for him from the experience?
There is no point in giving Lucas a detention for forgetting his PE kit if his executive function difficulties prevented him from bringing it. The sanction will not improve his executive function skills. On top of that, by keeping him in detention, you could be
- disrupting a helpful routine
- preventing him from accessing support
- increasing his anxiety
- further reducing his executive function skills
- eroding his self esteem
His resulting distress could be interpreted as an indication that the sanction will be successful in getting him to change his ways but it is also possible that this is an overwhelmed, distraught child who is exhausted from trying to keep up with the demands he faces and who believes that he is a lazy, incompetent failure who lets everybody down. How, then, did that sanction help him?
This School Stress Triggers Questionnaire could be a good tool to use to identify the reasons behind behaviour as an alternative to just using sanctions to try to change it. Another strategy that has worked well for me is asking the child to design his or her perfect school; the one they would make for themselves if they had a magic wand. This can help us to work out which aspects of school need to change for them.