Challenging Behaviour in Young Children – If This is the Tip of the Iceberg What Lies Beneath?

Typically, 80-90 percent of an iceberg lies beneath the ocean, not visible unless a person dives below the water surface. So too a child’s outward behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg. We need to dive below the surface to consider factors that are causing the behaviour, allowing us a better understanding of what is happening in the child’s mind, which in turn leads to more effective methods of managing the challenges.

A Learning Experience
Challenging behaviour is a child’s way of testing the waters to see where their boundaries lie. What limits have been set and how far can they be pushed? They are experimenting, looking for a reaction, and learning socially appropriate behaviour for each circumstance they are in. For example, a child walks into a new play environment, picks up a toy and throws it on the floor, then looks at the caring adult. Two things come to mind in this scenario. One is that the child may be allowed to display this kind of behaviour in their home environment. The boundary is wide and they want to know if the same wide boundary applies here.

The second is that the child looks to the adult’s reaction. In one sense, the adult may look at this as an act of defiance, but by understanding that the child is wanting the adult to give them a boundary, the adult can deal with the behaviour much more calmly. If the child picked the toy up and did the same thing again after the adult had set the limit, they are looking to see how far they can push the boundary. If the child continued the behaviour I would then suggest there is something else lying beneath.

An Underlying Emotion
Sometimes children tell us about their fears, but sometimes they don’t know how to express them. This can then result in challenging behaviour. One example of this I recall was a 6 year old boy who threw rocks at his neighbour’s dog on a daily basis. On the surface this may seem like animal bullying or cruelty. It took some time for the boy to express that his actions were because he was afraid the dog would come and attack his family like in a movie he had seen (without his parent’s permission!).

Sometimes it’s not so much a fear causing the behaviour but a lack of understanding in new situation and not knowing how to react. New social situations where children not only have a new environment, but are also expected to meet new people can cause anxiety. They can display this anxiety in a number of ways such as withdrawing (‘the shy child’) to becoming loud (‘the show off’) or mischievous (‘the class clown’). Understanding their fears can help us prepare children for new social situation and experiences.

Young toddlers particularly display challenging behaviours because they are frustrated, but any child who is attempting a skill beyond their capabilities will experience frustration. A toddler’s mind and desire to accomplish tasks is often more advanced than their language ability. This is why the ‘terrible two’s’ are well known because it is at this age children’s verbal language is racing to keep up with their cognitive ability.

Children can also be frustrated by a lack of resources in their play, other children interrupting their play or taking their play in another direction. While the behaviour itself is not excused because of the frustration, it is important to understand this to assist children express their frustration and develop the skills to overcome them.

Gaining Attention
My toddler often displays the worst of her inappropriate behaviour when I am on the telephone…a very common experience of parents. A child who is seeking the attention of an adult can either gain this through positive or negative means. If a child is behaving well, occupying themselves, and doing the right things, let’s face it, in the busyness of our daily lives, we often give them little attention. Children realise that by acting out they can gain our attention, albeit negative attention in some form of reprimand. If we understand this well, we will give a little more of our energy to giving attention for positive behaviour and reap the rewards of a settled child.

Role Modelling
The television advertisement with the catch cry “children see, children do” is very clever. Children learn by mimicking behaviour they observe. If a child is observing negative behaviours through their daily lives, then is it any wonder they are displaying those same behaviours? Children who see adults show frustration by throwing things are highly likely to be children who throw toys when they themselves are frustrated. By understanding the reason for this behaviour in a child, we know that our best management approach is to model new ways to express frustration.

Illness or Tiredness
There are very few sick or tired adults who show pleasant and happy natures, so should we expect any more of children? Again this does not excuse the behaviours, but reminds us to be considerate of tired or unwell children and not expect them to be dragged through the shopping centre, or helps us register to give them extra cuddles or sleep time. Sometimes it’s only in hindsight that we realise the child was coming down with an illness when they displayed poor behaviour the day before, but we can still work to encourage children to express that they feel unwell or tired so that we minimise the guessing game.

Learning Difficulties
I am hesitant to include this point, as it can lead to either a learning difficulty being seen behind every poor behaviour, or to scaring parents that their child has a learning difficulty just because they show their frustration easily. However, there are times when children’s development in a particular area or globally is delayed and, if not recognised, then the child can be labelled as “naughty”. For example, if the adult has an age appropriate expectation of a child’s language comprehension skills, and the child has difficulty understanding what the adult is asking, then this can easily lead to challenging behaviour because of frustration or low self esteem. If there is a concern about a learning difficulty, it is important to consult a child care educator, or specialist such as a paediatrician who can give advice.

When children display challenging or poor behaviours we can react to the behaviour itself with any number of appropriate methods and strategies. If we want to be successful in managing the behaviour in the long term, then we need to develop strategies which target what lies beneath the behaviour and reframe how children express their underlying emotions, desires and experiences.

Cassandra is dedicated and experienced childcare professional and writes for Onsite Early Childhood Training. You can visit our website for more information on challenging behaviour in children and childcare staff training.