Does your child hit, kick, bite, scream? Does your child have sleeping or eating problems? It is really difficult to manage challenging behaviour and young children are very good at testing us. Persistent challenging behaviour can be very stressful for everyone involved. It is also very easy to get upset and angry and not deal with a situation in the way you would have liked. Children are still learning how to express themselves and it is really normal for them to push boundaries.
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Unfortunately when a child is behaving in a challenging way we may not know why it is happening. Or how to deal with it appropriately at the time. This can be very upsetting, it can also be embarrassing. When my son went through a phase of biting other children at Pre-school, I would dread going to pick him up and be faced with yet another incident report! It can also cause feelings of failure as a parent and become very depressing. This is all normal, it is hard to deal with but you will get through it and it will get better. In my experience young children do learn what appropriate behaviour is although some will take much longer to do so. However I have also found that once you get over one challenge there is another one round the corner!
Common types of challenging behaviour
Hitting – hitting others, hitting heads against things, hitting their own head!
Kicking – others or objects / walls etc
Biting – others, themselves (hands / feet / nails), objects, clothing
Licking – objects, the floor, own face or body parts
Running off – running away from people, running into roads
No danger awareness – jumping / climbing in a dangerous way, going with strangers, following instructions they shouldn’t
Eating – not eating, limited diet, eating too much, eating objects or items they shouldn’t
Throwing or breaking things – usually something expensive!
Self-harm – not always intentionally
Sleeping – not sleeping well, sleeping too little or at the wrong times
These are just some challenging behaviours, often these are normal but if they become regular behaviour or are quite extreme they can be a sign of a wider problem. Every child is different and challenging behaviour will be for different reasons, the way to help and reduce these behaviours is to understand why they are happening. Unfortunately this may not be straightforward but over time you will get there.
If you are struggling with your child’s behaviour speak out, talk to your health visitor or doctor. I really struggled with my son’s behaviour and thought I must be the worst parent in the world. Getting my son’s autism diagnosis made such a difference as we started to look at things differently and with new information.
How to analyse behaviour – why is it happening
When you understand why something is happening it means you are in a much better place to deal with it. It does mean some trial and error, patience and determination on your part but it is worthwhile, when you know why it opens up so many doors on how to deal with a situation.
When my son was biting other children at nursery I just didn’t understand it, he was such a passive child why would he do it? After a while we worked it out, my son struggles with speech and language and has problems communicating with others. When other children were annoying him or taking a toy from him he would bite them, this was his way of communicating he didn’t like what they were doing. The problem was it worked really well, when you bite someone they tend to back off and leave you alone. So how did we work this out? After several incidents we started to piece together the common themes and it was always after another child was taking over something he was doing or getting too in his face (as kids do).
For a long time my son would get upset when we sang nursery rhymes, I found this really strange and assumed he hated them or didn’t like my tuneless singing. It was only later that I realised he knew he was supposed to join in and didn’t fully understand what he needed to do and so he was actually becoming distressed. That light bulb moment can take forever but it really helps when you get there, I did feel awful that I had got it so wrong but at least now I know he actually enjoys nursery rhymes just needs lots of support to join in.
The STAR Approach to behaviour analysis
S – Settings
T – Triggers
A – Actions
R – Results
I first came across the STAR approach when I went on my Earlybird training offered by our local authority after my son had his autism diagnosis. I have found it really helpful. You need to look at the behaviour with an open mind, we naturally make assumptions based on why we would do something but we need to understand the person to see why they would do something (look from their perspective).
To use the STAR analysis you need to look at a specific behaviour or situation in order to analyse this. You won’t be able to do it when the situation is happening but do it later when you are calm and have time to think. The point is to understand it so we can work on reducing challenging behaviour in the future.
1 – Actions
What is the behaviour, what actually happened? Why is it a concern? Is this actually a challenging behaviour that needs to be changed? Some challenging behaviour is about us changing, my son making strange noises and flapping his hands it not actually him doing anything wrong. It is not a concern to him or others, I just need to work on my own feelings of being embarrassed and coping with people looking at us (most are just looking because they heard a strange noise not because it is a problem). However when we are out and he runs off this is a concern and puts him in danger so this is something we need to look at.
Once you have identified what the actual concerning behaviour is that needs to change or be modified then you need to look at the setting.
2 – Setting
Where are you when the behaviour happens? Who is with you? Are you in a busy environment or a quiet one? What was the child doing at the time? Look at the atmosphere of the environment (was someone upset or shouting as you passed them)? Was it hot / cold / bright / dark? Some children with autism can have sensory issues and can struggle with noises or things that we may not even notice so try to be detailed. Once you have looked at the setting – are there any common themes, things that stand out? Then move on to look at triggers.
3 – Triggers
Did something change? Was the child given an instruction? Are they feeling OK (tired, hungry, thirsty, need the toilet, bored)? Did the social dynamics change (did someone else do something)? Were the expectations of what is happening clear? Understanding and speech and language can be a really difficult area with young children and we may not realise they don’t fully understand something. Then look at the results.
4 – Results
What was the outcome for the child? For example after my son bit another child they went away – he got what he wanted so why wouldn’t he do it again! If the behaviour has a positive response the child will do it again. If a child is overwhelmed in a social situation they may act out and we naturally take them out of the situation (maybe a time out) but this is what they wanted so we are rewarding the challenging behaviour.
Ok so what now?
When you have looked at the behaviour and decided what needs to change we need to be clear why it is happening. Keep thinking of reasons and ask others for their thoughts too – is it a sensory issue, anxiety, communication issues, lack of understanding – confused, not prepared? Does the situation need to change or the environment? Sometimes these won’t be possible but there are always things you can do to help a situation.
Resources to help manage challenging behaviour and Tips for dealing with challenging behaviour in children with autism.
Communication and understanding, does the child fully understand what is happening or what is going to happen, do they need clear instructions about changes? Using visual aids to support a child’s understanding can be really beneficial, particularly for those who struggle with verbal language. You may need to prepare them for certain and new situations.
Social stories are a great method for teaching children about acceptable behaviour in a format they understand.
Are you modelling and praising good and appropriate behaviour enough. If your child runs off regularly, praise them every time they walk nicely with you (‘good walking, well done’).
Replace the behaviour / use aids
Make sure you are replacing the behaviour with something, what do you want them to do instead? Make sure your expectations are appropriate and realistic, you may need to teach new skills.
Can the behaviour be replaced with something? For example if a child has issues with biting that is for sensory issues you could try giving them something they can bite that is appropriate. This could be chewy food like dried fruit, a cloth or fabric to chew. Personally I like the Hexichew.
Or can you provide something that will help, for instance a child acting out because they are overwhelmed by an environment may benefit from noise cancelling headphones when visiting busy places.
Also reins can be really beneficial for young children who may run off. We used the Goldbug harness up until my son was 4, we really got on with this one. Thankfully he now walks well holding our hands, I still panic (my husband would say unnecessarily) every time he lets go.
Does your child have a communication method that they understand? We had to implement picture exchange communication for my son as he has speech and language difficulties. Make sure you give a child time to process / pause and give clear instructions when we have expectations they need to meet. You may need to make adjustments in the way you behave – others may not but try to get them to understand. I have had to teach myself to be very patience and give my son lots of extra time.
Share any information and / or methods you are using with other people caring for your child. Consistency is really key, my son needed to really understand that biting someone was not appropriate. We worked with nursery to ensure he was being told ‘NO’ very clearly after any incident. The typical approach at nursery was to ask children to be kind to each other and use ‘gentle hands’. This is great but it wasn’t the right approach for my son. I remember feeling so upset as he didn’t even understand the word no – but give it time. He got there and everyone being very clear with a simple ‘NO’ along with a hand gesture to signal stop made a big difference. After a while I would sense he was getting upset and could stop an incident before it happened.
Once you understand the triggers for behaviour you can be pre-emptive and reduce the inappropriate behaviour. There will always be challenging behaviour but when we understand it we can do something and it gives us back the power to manage situations and teach what is appropriate. I am sorry I cannot provide any magic answers but using consistent methods and analysing what is happening really has worked over time for us.
Talk to other parents
I would also suggest talking to other parents about challenging behaviour. Speak to your friends or use Facebook and Mumsnet groups. There are lots of other people who have been there and can give advice. You are not alone and it will get better, parenting any child is challenging and we all struggle to do the right thing.
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You can get more information about challenging behaviour from:
Violent and Challenging behaviour resources from Yvonne Newbold