A young child throws a toy aimed at another child. His teacher, of course, reacts either by raising her voice or giving a stern look. The child stops the behavior instantly. However, as soon as the teacher calms down, the child throws the toy again.
In my twenty years as an educator and martial arts instructor, I’ve witnessed the same scenario time and time again. What is it that makes the child want to repeat a negative behavior for a second, third, or forth time? The answer is simple – attention.
I was recently invited to speak on this topic at the New Jersey Education Association’s yearly convention held in Atlantic City for continuing professional development. My seminar entitled, “Take Your Classroom Back,” gives teachers insight into the actions of young children and the reactions they are trying to elicit from adults when they misbehave. Time and time again, the bottom line will be that the child is looking for attention.
For behavior management strategies to work effectively, one of the key components to my workshop is for a parent and teacher to learn empathy. Put yourself in the child’s place. Think of a preschooler who might be distracted and just plain bored in school. They play, they eat, drink, and for a little excitement they learn to push the adult’s buttons. Ultimately the child looks for a reaction. Even if the reaction is negative, that does not matter to the child, if the reaction leads to attention. If they do get attention in whatever form, they remember the action, store it in their mind and focus on this way of behavior in the future. If repeating the same behavior and getting the same result is working for the child, you can expect the child to try his best to get the same reaction over and over and over again.
Usually, the more aggressive the behavior the greater the adult reaction. Therefore it is not uncommon for a child to continue to be more disruptive as a way of getting a bigger reaction, hence, greater attention. As children grow and socialize in schools, they pick up behaviors from others that they would not normally learn on their own. When I see a four year old teaching a three year old how to stomp his hands and feet harder and scream louder, I have to laugh. I find myself always in awe of their extreme intelligence and their adaptability. It’s incredible how a negative behavior is learned and mastered.
A director of a preschool asked me to speak to a mother who was perplexed by her child’s behavior. The mother asked what I would recommend for her one year old daughter who continually slapped her across the face. First, I needed to know where the behavior was learned. The mother confided that her three year old daughter was in the habit of practicing the same behavior. Second, I asked the mother what her reaction was when her child hit her. She replied that she would get mad and angry and carry on. Third, I asked, “When you get angry and upset about what your child is doing, I would be curious to know what his reaction is”? The answer of course was not surprising. The mother said, “Well, he laughs, he loves it.” I hope that you are starting to get the picture. In a child’s mind, defiant behavior is all about getting a reaction from an adult, a reaction that leads to attention.
So what is the solution? I informed the frustrated mom to simply stop reacting. I explained to her a technique which has been quite successful in my life skills workshops. There is an acceptable action I call a power look. To do this yourself, when addressing your child, look above the child’s forehead instead of into their eyes. This removes all emotion and micro expressions from your face, thus stopping the continuous reinforcement of the negative behavior. Practice this look in the mirror and master it. I also sing a song in my mind so that no self-talk sabotages the power look. The more you practice, the better you will be at showing no emotion when a child decides to test you, and believe me, you will be tested. Repeat this power look over and over if the aggressive behavior continues. In conjunction with the look make sure that the child is verbally told, in a calm manner of course, that the behavior is not allowed. It may take a little while, but eventually, when there is no reaction from the adult and ultimately no attention given for a defiant act, the intelligent child will realize that his approach is just not giving him the desired effect. It is not worth the effort and soon the behavior will stop. Remember that you should expect to get tested, but don’t give in.