It is normal for children and adolescents to make mistakes and test limits. However, if you notice ongoing behavioral problems in the children and adolescents in your care, the following questions may help.
1. Is behavior related to changes in developmental stages? As children and adolescents make their way through specific developmental stages, it is common to see some behavioral challenges. With support and nurturing, most behavioral struggles related to developmental changes last only a short time.
2. Is this behavior related to biological factors? An example might be a child who is hard wired to be highly physically active. It would not be uncommon for behavioral difficulties to present themselves if he or she were asked to stay sitting for a long period of time.
3. Is this behavior related to a mismatch between the child’s temperament and his or her environment? No two children are alike and as such no two children will behave the same way. Sometimes a mismatch between a child’s temperament and his or her environment can cause behavioral problems. For instance, if a child is very shy and is put into a very social setting he or she may withdraw.
4. Is this behavior related to a problem in the environment? Sometimes the environment a child lives, plays, or goes to school in can itself be the cause of behavioral difficulties. Paying close attention to the specific settings where the behavior occurs can help to identify environmental factors that may be contributing to the child’s struggles. For instance, a child who has no bed time enforced at home or a classroom with no behavioral order will likely have behavioral challenges.
5. Is this behavior related to lack of knowledge or skills in the child? Sometimes we assume that our kids know more than they know. Teaching new skills, including behavioral skills, requires explicit instruction, with examples. When a behavior problem emerges, it is a good idea to double check that the child knows what is expected and has all of the requisite skills to meet the behavioral expectation.
6. Is this behavior related to unmet emotional needs? Perhaps the most complex of all of the root causes of problems in children’s behavioral development are those that are related to unmet emotional needs. A child’s behavior sets into motion a series of responses from his or her environment. Whether caused by positive or negative behavior, if the responses to the behavior meet an unmet need, that child will likely repeat the behavior. For example, if a child is lacking a sense of being loved and cared for, he or she may engage in negative behaviors designed to get attention. This process is not a conscious one, but a very common one. In this instance, it is up to the caring adults in this child’s life to prevent the need for this behavior by assuring that the child has many positive opportunities for attention, care and love.
7. Is this behavior related to an attempt to get something the child wants or avoid something the child does not want? Often times behavior is shaped because a child is able to get what he or she wants or avoid unpleasant things if they do a specific behavior. For instance, a child may start fighting with her siblings right after dinner because she is able to avoid having to do the dishes when she is sent to her room to read quietly. Or perhaps the child enjoys the company of the principal. He or she may do a behavior they know will get them sent to the principal.
8. Is this behavior being inadvertently reinforced? Sometimes the most well intentioned caregiver actually reinforces, and therefore increases, the very behavior they are trying to diminish. For instance, if a child is missing and longing for the attention of his or her parent or teacher and has to spend time with his or her parent or teacher any time there is a behavior infraction, that child is more likely to misbehave because of the reinforcement of getting what is desired.