We’ve all been there. Your child or student is exhibiting a challenging behavior, you’re frustrated, and you’re not sure what to do. While there is no sure-fire way to address any and all behaviors, we’ve reflected on some of our philosophies when it comes to consequences and dealing with undesired behaviors.
Sometimes children act out because they want to feel a sense of control. As adults, we want to offer them the opportunity to assert their autonomy, but sometimes what they want to do is unsafe, unacceptable, or just not appropriate for the time and place. In order to respect the child’s voice and need to feel independent, while also ensuring the behavior is safe and appropriate, we rely on offering choices to the child. A few notes and tips when offering children a choice:
- Offer a choice between two things. Too many choices can be overwhelming to a child. Often times it can be helpful to hold out a hand as you offer each choice, and allow your child to verbally tell you which they want to do or point to a hand. This is a helpful visual for less verbal children.
- Make sure that the choice is a real choice. People often will say to young children, “You have a choice: eat the broccoli or you can’t have dessert” believing that they are offering their children a choice. But statements like these are really about consequences not choices. The consequence of not eating the broccoli is no dessert. Talking about and explaining consequences to children is not a bad thing. In fact, we explain more about the power of consequences below. But masquerading a consequence as a choice can actually be harmful. A true choice honors the child’s ability to choose between two (seemingly equal) things. One way to make the above example a choice would be to say “You have a choice between carrots and broccoli. It’s your choice. You choose.”
- Only offer realistic choices. If you offer a choice, be prepared for your child to choose either of the options. If you are not comfortable with one of the options, simply don’t offer that as a choice. It can be extremely frustrating for a child to be told that they have the opportunity to choose something only to be told that their choose is no longer an option.
- When there isn’t a choice. Sometimes you cannot offer a child a choice due to safety reasons, for example, “You must hold my hand while we are in the parking lot.” In this case, it is perfectly fine not to offer a choice, but explaining why to the child is respectful and helpful.
At SEEC, we try to give natural consequences as much as possible for children’s behavior. This allows children to understand the cause and effects of their actions. For example, if a child refuses to wear their gloves in the winter, we warn them that their hands will get cold instead of struggling with them to put them on. When they get outside, they more often than not are bothered by the cold on their hands, and want their gloves. At this point we offer the child their gloves, and can remind them of this occasion if they refuse to wear their gloves again.
One of the great things about natural consequences is that the adults do not have to do anything for that consequence to happen. But unfortunately, that is not always the case and sometimes adults have to play a role. When this happens, it is important that the consequence is appropriate for the behavior. For example, it can be tempting to take away play time when a child isn’t listening or playing when they should be doing something else. However, this is not a natural consequence, it tends to not be meaningful as they suffer the consequence minutes or hours after the undesired behavior, and children NEED the play time. In fact, removing play time can often increase the challenging behaviors of children.
It is also equally important that the adult is willing and able to follow through with the consequence. If you say, “You need to behave or we’re leaving the store”, be sure that you are willing and able to leave the store if your child doesn’t behave in the way you want them to. It is also important that you explain to your child exactly what behaviors are appropriate versus not appropriate. Try saying, “you can calm down, hold my hand, and we’ll keep shopping, or we can leave” gives the child a positive idea of how they need to act and what the consequence will be if they do not.
Time Outs & Redirection
Growing up, I remember receiving time outs and being told that I was supposed to reflect on what I had done to earn the punishment. Instead of reflecting, I remember sitting and stewing about what had happened, and just said what I needed to say to get out of time out. In short, it was not productive for me, or to the learning process of why my behavior was inappropriate.
At times, we will redirect a child and have them leave a heated situation and take a moment to sit down in order to calm their bodies and emotions. We feel that this is helpful in terms of deescalating situations, and assisting children with their developing self-control, however we don’t set time constraints on these sessions, and often tell the child that when they feel like they are ready, to rejoin the group or come talk to the adult. We often call this “taking a break” instead of a time out.
We recognize that we won’t always be there when a child has a conflict with a peer, nor do we want to always have to step in and solve their problems. Instead, we try to give children agency to solve their problems, and thus we do not step in right away (unless their is a potential safety issue).
We give children language to express themselves, often we call it SEEC Speak. This language encourages and empowers children to communicate their feelings through language instead of physically. This looks different depending on the age group. For example, the toddlers are encouraged to say, “Mine!” or “Space!” in a big, strong voice if another child is trying to take something away from them or invading their personal bubble.
We also think about the language that we as adults use with young children when we are asking them to change their challenging behavior to more appropriate behavior. For example, if a child keeps standing up at lunch time, instead of saying, “Sit down” repeatedly, using more developmental language such as, “Bend your knees and put your bottom in the chair” might help children better understand what you’re asking and follow through.