The terms “inappropriate”, “challenging” and “difficult” are often used to describe behaviour that we (parents/teachers/society) deem to be unacceptable. The debate about who defines and enforces these parameters is beyond the scope of this article, so I will confine myself here to the practical issue of how we deal with these behaviours.
Many people focus on what they can see. For example, a child is having a temper tantrum or a teen is being kicked out of class for bothering other students. We then often try to reduce the incidence of the challenging behaviour through solutions that have been passed down through families, a previous generation of school teacher or read about in books. The problem with these kinds of approaches, though, is that they fail to determine the function of the behaviour; why is the child acting like that? What purpose does the inappropriate behaviour serve and what does the child get out of acting that way?
We must understand the “why” if we are to implement procedures that will reduce or eliminate challenging behaviour. Without this understanding, the techniques we use will, more than likely, not work or, worse still, cause the behaviour to increase in frequency and severity. We are all different and have unique needs. The way we move forward when working with children to decrease challenging behaviour should reflect this. So, how can we find the solution that will be specific to a particular child?
First, we have to figure out the function of the behaviour. The term “behaviour” here also includes the use of language, so it includes all types of activity, such as speaking, crying, hitting and hugging.
The applied behaviour analysis approach, based on the work of B.F. Skinner, looks at four basic functions of behaviour. These functions explain the reasons why we engage in behaviour, as well as what is maintaining the behaviour. Essentially, they are the guiding force behind all that we do.
It is crucial to understand that the function of the behaviour, the reason we engage in it, is never “bad”. It is the way that we go about communicating the function to others that can causes problems.
Generally, the reason we engage in inappropriate behaviour is because we lack the skills to go about things in an appropriate way. We all have skill deficits and each of us needs help in learning new behaviours along the way. If children have language, academic or social difficulties, they are more likely to require support in this area. If we can determine the function of the behaviour in question, we can teach children how to get their needs met in an appropriate manner. So, when trying to decrease the incidence of a challenging behaviour, we always want to teach appropriate replacement behaviours.
Function one: socially mediated positive reinforcement
This is often referred to as “attention maintained” behaviour, and involves engaging in behaviours that in the past have been successful in adding things to our environment through other people.
Wanting someone to pay attention to us is a good thing, but how we go about it is what is important. Children who are verbal may be able to approach a peer and say, “I want to play basketball”, but a child with limited verbal skills may not be able to accomplish this and instead may throw the ball at the peer. This may seem mean if we just look at the action itself, but if we take a step back and realise that the child just wanted to play but lacked the skills to accomplish this, we can see that we just need to teach the child how to ask a friend to play.
Function two: socially mediated negative reinforcement
This is often referred to as “escape maintained” behaviour and refers to removing things from our environment by using other people. Here, we engage in behaviours that in the past have been successful in removing things from our environment, for example making someone go away or stop speaking to us, or making a sensation stop.
This function is often dealt with incorrectly, leading to an increase in the inappropriate behaviour. For example, a boy who struggles with maths has been asked to complete a maths test. He does not have the skills to complete the test and doesn’t know what to do, so he wants to escape the task. He begins to kick the seat of the person in front of him. The teacher warns him: “If you keep doing that, you will be sent to the office”. The child continues to kick, so the teacher says, “That’s it. Give me your test and go to the office”.
While this outcome may seem undesirable to many of us, the child has actually got what he wanted: the quiz to go away. In this situation, the boy has learned that when you do not want to do a worksheet, you kick the seat in front of you and you will be allowed to leave class. However, if the teacher had been successful in determining the function of this behaviour, s/he would have identified that the boy did not have the skills to be successful in the test and s/he might have approached the problem by teaching the child how to ask for help or voice concerns when he is feeling overwhelmed. S/he might also have arranged for the boy to receive some extra tuition in maths.
Functions three and four: automatic positive reinforcement and automatic negative reinforcement
These two functions have been grouped together because they do not require the addition of another person for the function of the behaviour to be completed. Under these functions, we go about adding or removing from our environment independently. For example, a girl is bored, so she turns on the TV. Alternatively, a boy is overwhelmed by meeting a lot of new people at a family gathering, so he hides out in the basement and plays video games.
Many children with language or social difficulties often go about meeting their needs and wants on their own. While this can lead to independence, it can also lead to isolation and loneliness. If children do not see other people as a means to improving their environment, it is very important to intervene and implement techniques to teach them that engaging with others is the best way to make their lives better.
In conclusion, by looking past the “bad” behaviour and discovering the real reasons that children engage in a particular action, we are able to support them into new, more appropriate ways of behaving. At the end of the day, we all have similar needs, and finding out what children need, and supporting them to access it appropriately, is a challenge that is well worth the effort.
Louise Kadayer is Managing Director at behaviour consultants Network Interventions: