When children present us with their most challenging behaviors, it’s easy to fixate on what they’re doing that gets under our skin. We claim the behavior as the source of our frustration: he throws tantrums / she won’t listen / they constantly argue. But change rarely comes by focusing only on the symptoms. We have to care enough to get to the real source of the behavior.
Some of you just read that phrase and thought, “Source of the behavior? That three-year old kicking and screaming on the carpet– THAT is the source of this behavior!” Let me be clear in saying that I am not suggesting that we absolve kids of all responsibility for their own actions. But at the same time, if we can be observant and take note of the triggers that lead to the behavior, we are better prepared to use important teaching opportunities and take preventative steps in the future as well.
A Little Detective Work
I grew up watching Perry Mason with my parents during Dad’s lunch break, and Murder She Wrote with my Mom and Grandma on Sunday nights. It was always a race to put together all of the pieces and parts to solve the puzzle before the protagonist (or anyone in my family).
Sometimes a story that seemed to point one direction would suddenly take a turn on one tiny detail, and immediately the whole picture became clear. It was the missing button, or the time-stamped receipt, or the flashlight without batteries. Inconsequential things in and of themselves, but within the context of other information, they brought the full story to light.
Sometimes the source of our child’s difficult behavior is staring us right in the face. (“Of course he’s tired and cranky, he’s been up since 5:30 am!”) But sometimes we can not, for the sake of our sanity, figure out what could be motivating our child’s maddening behavior.
When we have a hard time figuring out the source of the behavior, it can help to take a look at all the other pieces of the puzzle to see if they help to create a clearer picture. Just like a detective uses that cool little notebook to track the clues, you can jot down some of your own observations to help you understand your child’s behavior, and get to the bottom of its mysterious cause.
Using the acronym CARE, and this CARE form I’ve created, can help you do just that.
CARE stands for Cause, Action, Reaction, and Expectation. If I really want to get to the root of a behavior, these are the clues I’m looking for. Let me walk you through each one.
I’ll sometimes hear parents or teachers comment that a child behaved a certain way “for no reason”. That’s an answer I just won’t accept. The reason may not be apparent, but there is always some type of motivating force for behavior. Some may want to attribute it to “spite” or the child just being “naughty”, and while that’s not entirely impossible, there’s usually still more to uncover.
If you aren’t willing to examine behavior for its source, you can only respond in generic ways, which won’t do much to effectively change behavior. It’s like slapping a band-aid on a sore finger, when all the while there’s a sliver still there, festering.
I wrote previously about sources of behavior in more depth here, but to sum up, any single difficult behavior may be a response to a variety of factors.
- Environmental factors like music, room arrangement, number of people in the room or general chaos may influence behavior. (A child may not be listening because he is distracted.)
- Physical needs like the need for sleep, movement, or food. (The same child may not be paying attention because you have expected him to sit still for too long.)
- Behavior may be an indicator of a lack of social skills that need to be taught and developed. We have to ask ourselves if the child has been taught proper behavior, as well as whether or not that desired behavior is appropriate to the child’s age. (The child may not have been clearly taught how to pay attention.)
- Challenging behaviors may also be the result of emotional influences like feeling rushed, insecure, unwelcome, or frightened. (A child may have trouble paying attention because he may not feel engaged or connected with the speaker.)
- Children may misbehave as they seek power or attention. (The child may not be giving attention because he is still seeking attention.)
While the cause is the first thing listed– the antecedent to the action– it is sometimes the last thing we can decipher. If you’re filling out a CARE form, you may need to start with a question mark in that category and move on to the others. In fact, sometimes, it is the process of filling out the other aspects that helps you to uncover the root cause.
This is where we usually fixate, but it is really the simplest part of the equation. What is the behavior? The answer is purely objective. Avoid inserting interpretations and simply describe the facts.
Next comes the reaction. This is another objective aspect. What happened next? How did the child react? How did the other people involved react? How did you react? Particularly when a behavior is repetitive, the payoff for the child often comes from the reaction. Whether it’s a playmate’s scream or a parent’s bribe, the reaction may be the reinforcement. This can give you some insight into what may be feeding the behavior.
Challenging behaviors are only challenging within the context of relationships. When people interact with each other from different perspectives and with different expectations, that is generally the point where problems arise. That’s the great exercise in being social! As a reader pointed out in a recent discussion, “when talking about difficult behavior, the big question is, “difficult” for whom?”
We can take a look at this relational factor by examining the child’s expectations (what they expected would happen as a result of the behavior or what frustrated expectation may have led to the behavior), as well as our own expectations (how the behavior is different from what we expect them to do). As we consider what the child’s expectations are, we can find ways to teach them to get what they desire in a more appropriate way.
We can also look at what we expect of them so that we can first check to see if our expectations are developmentally appropriate, and also clearly define what skill or behavior needs to be taught and encouraged to make up the distance between what we expect and the behavior that’s being displayed.
Let’s look at how this applies to some specific scenarios.
First Scenario : Emily is frequently stubborn and openly defiant. You observe her and fill out your CARE sheet this way:
C: Need for power
A: Emily was told to put on her shoes and she responded with “No! I don’t want to!” She sat with arms folded, staring at her mom.
R: Mom forced Emily’s shoes on to her feet, to which Emily responded by throwing a fit.
E: Mom expects Emily to comply. Emily expects to call her own shots.
Once you’ve collected the information, and considered that Emily’s needs and expectation are for power, you can make a more informed decision about how to address future situations. If Mom needs compliance but Emily needs power, give Emily fair warning before the transition, and then allow her to make some with clear boundaries. (Here’s a whole post on how to do just that.) Rather than”put on your shoes“, the child seeking power may respond better to, “We need to leave in five minutes. You will need shoes on before we go. Do you want to wear these shoes or those shoes?”
Here’s another scenario: Tommy has been hitting friends at preschool. An observation may look like this:
C: Hmmm. Let’s put a question mark here for now. Why is he hitting? Let’s look at the rest of the picture and see if that helps.
A: Tommy’s classmate is playing with a toy dog. Tommy walks up, watches for a moment, then punches his classmate and takes the dog.
R: Tommy’s friend screamed. The teacher returned the toy to the first child and helped Tommy choose a new toy.
E: The teacher expects Tommy to be kind to his classmates and to negotiate turns politely. Tommy expected to get a reaction from the child and to keep the toy.
So we look at the situation again, and question ourselves about the cause. The most effective response will only come if we address the right cause. In situations like this, my first guess is usually that the child hasn’t been taught how to share or negotiate. So I might start off by reinforcing that it’s not OK to hurt others, and then coaching Tommy through a script for sharing or teach him how to negotiate a trade.
However, if after a series of observations, we find that Tommy hits children he’s actually trying to play with, he needs to be coached in appropriately getting attention or entering play. OR, if he takes toys away from the same child, or always from smaller or younger children (particularly if he’s been taught proper social skills and has shown that he can use them in other situations) Tommy may be seeking a feeling of power. I would recommend talking to Tommy about your expectations for the way people will be treated, and then giving Tommy opportunities to feel positive power by giving him jobs and responsibilities, asking him to help you and others. Commend him for his helpfulness, and point out how much his help is influencing you and the class.
We can best determine our approach for teaching, helping, and changing behavior when we can pinpoint the real cause behind it.
You may not always need a CARE form to analyze behavior, it may just be that you consider the four aspects mentally. But if the same behavior is recurring, it may be helpful to jot down some details over a few instances and then look for patterns.
Over time, you’ll find that when you care enough to carefully consider what’s behind each challenging behavior, your response will be more effective, and you’ll begin to see real changes in your child’s behavior!
*Updated and revised from an original post dated 9/29/10