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A Guide to Behaviour

This week we are going to zoom in on behaviour. Behaviour can be such an area of frustration for parents and teachers because without the formal education of the science behind it, it can seem impossible to control and frustrating to understand!

Before diving in, let's talk a little bit about behaviour theory. Behaviour theory, in lamens terms, is the ability to condition someone to modify certain behaviours using a series of principles. It sounds a bit like dog training - but without demeaning it too much, it's fairly similar when you break it down to the bare science of it all. Although based in tons of science, theory and research, it doesn't take a pro to apply these principles to everyday life in your home or classroom!

One thing to bear in mind is that a person experiences thoughts and feelings which lead to behaviours. Note the cognitive triangle below to see the relationship between these pieces.

The first key to understanding behaviour is that there is almost always a function behind it. Kids don't typically exhibit a behaviour without function - the hard part can sometimes be figuring out what that function is!

There are four functions of behaviour and they can remembered by the acronym SEAT:

Sensory - Providing a preferred sensory experience.

"I like this. This feels/sounds/looks good to do."

"I feel energetic and need to move."

Escape - Remove the undesired activity.

"I don't want to do this."

"This is too hard."

"I don't like this."

Attention - Access to people or interactions.

"Pay attention to me."

"I feel lonely."

Tangibles - Access to a preferred activity or item.

"I like that toy."

"I want to play with that."

"I want to touch/feel/eat/smell/see this."

Almost all behaviours can be traced back to one of these four functions as the explanation. Sometimes, it takes a bit of formal tracking or extra attention to really see the patterns. To do this, you can use something called an ABC chart, or an Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence chart to track the behaviours and identify patterns. You can use it to try and track the source behind one particular new or repeated behaviour, or a series of different behaviours exhibited by a child.

Check out this great resource for:

Take this scenario as an example. You are homeschooling your child and you notice that there is an increase of paper tearing during work time. It's not during every subject and has only started in the last week or two, but it is happening almost every day. In order to find out why, you can use an ABC chart and take note each time your child rips their paper. On the chart, you'll track what happened just before they ripped their paper (the antecedent), the behaviour (paper ripping), and what you did as a response (the consequence). What you may notice is that each time you assigned a task involving addition and subtraction, your child ripped their paper. You recently started two-digit addition and subtraction with regrouping and your child has not mastered the skill yet. This may mean that they are escaping the task because it's a concept they find too difficult and they need more review, but are having trouble expressing their frustration so they rip their paper to avoid the task altogether. Once you go back and review the addition/subtraction concepts and clarify the gaps in knowledge, you do fewer questions at a time, with more support until your child builds the skill. Your child becomes more confident in their work and stops ripping the paper during work time.

Here is a different scenario - your child has a recent increase in negative behaviours. Seemingly out of nowhere, your child has started having meltdowns and tantrums that involve lying on the floor, kicking and screaming, and throwing items. You have no idea why they are doing this, so you start to use an ABC chart to track the behaviours. You've filled it in after one week of observations and you check out the chart to find patterns and trends. What you notice is that the meltdowns are occuring after finishing preferred activities. This is because your child is a) trying to gain access to tangibles. They don't want to be finished with the preferred activity and so the transition out of it is difficult for them. They are also potentially trying to escape the new activity because it is a non-preferred so they are trying with all of their might to avoid it. Now that you know the function of the behaviour, you can implement strategies to try and remedy it. You can use visual schedules, use transition warnings, visual timers, verbal strategies like "First, Then" or give choices to help your child feel empowered and in control. In addition, you can help them understand their own feelings by using visuals (see below) and strategies to help manage emotions as they arise and de-escalate before the explosion.

Finding the function behind the behaviour will allow you to step in and help your child learn to modify their behaviour based on the chosen interventions.

A big part of behaviour theory is helping children become self-aware and give them tools to understand and manage their thoughts and feelings as they arise as a form of de-escalation (managing the negative feelings before they explode) as opposed to reaction (trying to manage the feelings after they've exploded). Think of it like a volcano before the eruption.

Visuals help with this!

Check out this free feelings thermometer from Coping Skills for Kids! It's a great resource that you can work on with your child to help them recognize their own escalating feelings and additionally, add in strategies that they can use to help de-escalate the negative feelings.

More on this next week as we dive into Positive Reinforcement!

If you need support, please feel free to reach out!



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