Katie Holloran is the founder of The Behaviorist Next Door and has run her own business supporting families as a teacher, special education teacher, behavior specialist and sleep coach since 2005. While she had worked with many children and helped many families since starting as a classroom teacher in 2000, having her first child in 2008 helped her to see first-hand how confusing and overwhelming parenting information and advice from other mothers, friends, family, and the internet could be. Katie’s passion is helping other families to understand the foundations of a supportive sleep and positive behavioral environment, and then learning how to apply that to their own specific family dynamic. As a coach with a specific background in education and special education, Katie works with families with and without children with exceptional needs. Katie’s sleep and behavior work centers on supporting specific children and their needs with their family, and working together with tired parents everywhere to create a more positive – and more restful – home life.
Becoming Your Child’s “Personal Behavior Detective”: Addressing the link between language and challenging behavior
We’ve all had “those moments” in our parenting – we’ve had a fantastic few hours chatting, singing, and playing with our kids. Life is good. This parenting thing is the best. And then…in one moment…out of nowhere…everything changes. Our sweet, mellow toddler or preschooler immediately takes a turn for the worse; and screaming, kicking, biting, hitting, flopping on the floor, or some terrifying combination of all of the above, ensues. We don’t know what happened, but we are all-of-a-sudden thrown into the mix of a real-life tantrum. Within seconds, that sweet child moving her arms and singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” is replaced by what can only be described as a hot mess. And she’s not the only one. We try to stay calm and neutral because that’s what we’ve read we have to do in all challenging parenting situations, but how does that work when we have a child screaming at us? Even worse, how do we stay calm when we’re in public and we feel the judgy eyes of every single one of the 45 other people (who clearly would never let their child scream at them like that!) in the grocery store upon us? How does this happen? And what do we do? One thing to examine is the role of language in your child’s behavior, especially the behavior that challenges and confuses us.
Much research has been done around the role of language and behavior. In 2013 for instance, researchers published an article in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology with the finding that language ability was linked to challenging behaviors in children. This article included two longitudinal studies researchers conducted, both of which found that if children struggled with language, there was an increased likelihood that they would exhibit challenging behavior. Thus, researchers suggested that targeting language may be an effective way to decrease challenging behavior in children.
While it is certainly helpful to know that researchers have found that language and behavior can be linked, let’s talk about what this means for us as parents. To do this, let’s take a step back and discuss what challenging or problem behavior is, and how understanding it better can help us as parents.
As a Behavior Analyst, I talk with parents and teachers daily about the importance of looking at all behavior as communication. Meaning, all human beings exhibit behaviors (“good” or “bad”) in order to communicate something to those in their environments. I also tell families and teachers that it is important to remember that behavior is anything that one person does in an environment, and that this can include: talking, singing, moving particular body parts, or of course, some of the aforementioned grocery store antics.
To illustrate how behavior is communication, think about how you know your child is hungry. Let’s examine a few scenarios.
- Perhaps, she comes to you in the kitchen and says, “Mommy, I hungry” or “Dada…eat!”.
- Perhaps you have worked with your little one on sign language, and you set him up in his high chair at the table and he makes the sign for “eat” or, for his favorite food.
- Or…Perhaps you notice that she is playing with her brother, and all of a sudden she starts to cry and scream that her brother isn’t playing nicely (you observed that nothing had changed in the game they were playing, and he was actually being extremely nice and patient with his younger sister!). You realize it took you longer to get dinner organized tonight, and it’s 30 minutes later than she usually eats dinner, and she must be crying because she’s so hungry. Sure enough, she eats her dinner, and is back to playing with her brother in 30 minutes, happy and calm.
In all 3 of these scenarios, your child exhibited behavior and you were not only Mommy or Daddy for that moment, but you were your child’s personal Behavior Detective, and you figured out what your child needed. In the first two scenarios, your child used what we might describe as “positive” or “good” communication skills to tip you off that it was time to eat. In the last scenario, the behavior of crying and screaming might be described as “challenging” or “problem” behavior. However, even this behavior served as a form of communication that you picked up on (as Parent-turned-Behavior Detective) as a signal that it was time to eat.
Becoming this Behavior Detective for our children is key to understanding why challenging behavior is happening, and then what we can do about it. Once we know why our children are screaming, kicking, biting, and/or hitting, we can work to support them with more language to fill in the “gaps” they are experiencing between “using their words” and exhibiting one of their less-desirable behaviors.
The good news for us as newly-appointed Behavior Detectives is that there are three main reasons why challenging behaviors usually occur. If we can figure out which “bucket” a behavior is likely falling into at any given moment, we can then match our own behavior to help our children use language instead of challenging behavior to meet their needs. Let’s explore these through a few common examples.
THE BEHAVIOR DETECTIVE’S BEHAVIOR BUCKETS:
BUCKET ONE: We can see challenging behavior is that our child is trying to tell us he needs or wants something. This could be a tangible item (food, drink, toy, etc…), an activity (sitting on our lap, being held in our arms, etc…) or someone’s attention.
Example: Your 11-month old is sitting on your lap and you are singing songs together. You hear the dryer beep and put your child on his play mat to go get the laundry. Once you set him down on his mat and start to walk across the room to the dryer, he starts whining, crying and screaming.
Behavior Detective Thought-Bubble: “He wants to keep singing on my lap”
Behavior Detective Action: You say “I know you want to sing some more, buddy, let me get the laundry and I’ll be right back!” You get the laundry situated, come back to your son, and put him back on your lap and start singing.
Result: He immediately smiles and laughs once back on your lap. Behavior Detective to the Rescue.
BUCKET TWO: We might be seeing problem behavior is that our child is telling us she doesn’t want to do something. This could mean that she does not want to clean up when you tell her it’s time to do so, or she does not want to go somewhere, or that she wants to keep playing even when you’ve told her it’s time to do another activity or transition to another part of your day.
Example: It’s time to leave the house to pick up your older child from school. You tell your 2-year old daughter to put her stuffed animals away and get her shoes on so you can go in the car and get her older brother. She immediately cries and screams, “NO!!!!” repeatedly, louder and louder each time.
Behavior Detective Thought Bubble: “She doesn’t want to stop playing with her animals, and doesn’t want to get into the car”
Behavior Detective Action: You say, “I know you want to play and that you don’t want to leave your stuffed animals. How about you choose two friends to come into the car with us?”
Result: She takes a deep breath and chooses her two favorite friends, and you still make it to school pick-up on time. Behavior Detective strikes again!
BUCKET THREE: The behavior itself feels good for your child.
Example: Your child is eating his lunch happily and telling you about his morning at preschool. You’re chatting and asking him questions while he eats, and you notice that he is suddenly not eating, crying and whining a bit, and starts sucking his thumb. You ask him a few more questions, and he continues to cry and whine, and suck his thumb.
Behavior Detective Thought Bubble: You look at the clock. “Oh no, I started lunch a bit late and now it’s 30 minutes into his usual nap time.”
Behavior Detective Action: You say “let’s get ready for your nap, buddy” and take him up to bed.
Result: He’s asleep within minutes. Boom. Behavior Detective FTW.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The primary buckets to focus on are the first two examples – the last bucket with the crying and sucking thumb example is not necessary challenging behavior as much as the first two examples. (Also, the thumb-sucking did likely feel good, but if there was communication going on, it was likely that your child needed sleep too, so a combination of buckets!) Most likely, when you are experiencing challenging behaviors, the Behavior Detective work will likely fall into one of the first two examples – your child either wants or needs something, or your child wants to avoid something.
Once you have become skilled at being your child’s Personal Behavior Detective, you can start the teaching process. Specifically, this is when you can move from figuring out what your child is trying to tell you to modeling language for them based on their behaviors and what they are trying to communicate, and supporting them in using their communication skills through signs or words, instead of their behavior. Once kids can find and use words to tell you what they want or don’t want, they will not need to show you the less-than-fun problem behaviors they once did. This process is called teaching replacement behaviors in the field of behavior.
Let’s look back at those first two examples. Being the fabulous Behavior Detective you are, you modeled and narrated your child’s needs based on what they were communicating to you through their behavior. Now that you have figured out what’s going on and have found the ways to successfully address their needs, you can then start to support them in using their own words, instead of you modeling and narrating it for them.
Back to Example 1: Your child wants to sit on your lap, not on the floor
Depending on your child’s speaking and language skills at this time, you have some options of what you could teach him to do in this scenario when he wants to be up on your lap:
-you could teach him to say “up” by saying “up?” or “do you want up?” and waiting for him to repeat your word as best he can.
-you could teach him to put his arms up to signal he wants to go up by saying “do you want up?” and putting your own arms up and wait for him to imitate your movement.
Again, depending on your child’s language skills at this time, you could teach either or both communicative responses so that your child is using language through his words or movements, instead of through crying. This shift will help your child see that using positive behavior such as language or signs with his body is more effective in communicating what he wants and needs with you. As he gets better at these newer communication skills, be sure to show him that this is more effective by responding quickly to his language and body movement, and not responding to the crying and whining.
Back to Example 2: Your child does not want to stop playing with her toys and go in the car
Again, depending on her skills, you can teach a few replacement behaviors for your child when she does not want to stop playing and move locations:
-you could teach her to say “mommy, can I have one more minute of play time before we go?”
-you could teach her to say “dada, can I bring a friend with me in the car so I can keep playing?”
For both of these replacement communication behaviors, you may have to provide choices as a way of teaching the new behaviors. It may be best to model the language at first, and then say, “Okay, you can choose, do you want to bring a friend with you in the car, or do you want 1 more minute of play time?”. The key here is to mean what you say, and if you set the 1-minute limit, then follow through. Also, it is important to honor your child’s language when she uses it instead of the less-than-positive screaming or whining behaviors. If she screams, “NO! ONE MINUTE!” you can first honor her effort by saying “I am glad you are choosing to use your words, but instead of screaming, let’s practice asking for that nicely” and then you can model “momma, can I have one more minute?” and have her repeat it. Then, you can turn the timer on. By addressing the fact that yes, she did use words, but that you expect those words to be in a calm conversational tone instead of screaming, you are both honoring her use of her words and supporting her to use those words effectively to get her needs met.
Once you start to build your child’s language, you will also start to see his problem behavior decrease. Becoming your child’s Behavior Detective is the first step to understanding what she needs, so that you can support her by teaching her the best replacement behavior to get her needs met in a more effective way.
For more information on how to teach language skills, follow this link for more of my tips on “How to Build Your Child’s Language and Decrease Problem Behaviors”.