Chicken or egg?
Most adults seeking advice on "behaviour modification" are usually looking for ways to change the inappropriate behaviour of the children for whom they are responsible.
There is a wealth of opinion and advice on what to do to change the child's behaviour which tacitly places the fault within the child.
I have spent my professional life (30 years plus) working with children, families and educationalists who were having difficulties with children's behaviour. In a small number of cases, I was totally baffled as to why the child behaved the way s/he did. Some children seem born "naughty", but I think they are very rare.
In the great majority of cases I have met, the child was merely responding to its environment and the adults within.
There are obvious cases where abusive adults almost consciously wreak havoc on children which do not need further description here.
However there are often much more subtle forces at work. So subtle, that some well meaning adults who are in charge of children, are unaware of the extent to which they contribute to the problem.
Below are some examples which I believe demonstrate the point.
"Not my bag"
I once worked with a "disruptive" child whose father told me to speak to the boy's mother as his son's management was not "his bag".
He presumed that leaving the mother a clear field, would keep the lines of command simple (or at least exonerate him from any responsibility). In reality, it gave the child mixed messages about who was in charge of what and tempted the child to explore boundaries further through misbehaviour. Had the parents come to consensus about standards and then enforced consistency, the boy would have felt more secure and less likely to disrupt.
"Couldn't afford the time"
A teenage girl asked me to negotiate designated one to one time with her mother as a reward for handing in her homework on time. (The mother had a new partner.) This arrangement worked well for a while and then the homework dried up. The girl later told me that her mother had offered her money instead of the meetings as she "couldn't afford the time".
The mother presumed that giving her daughter money would work equally well as a reward. It did not. The consequence was that the girl stopped handing in the work forcing the mother into one to one attention, albeit of the nagging variety. Had the mother fairly considered her daughter's emotional needs, a more even balance could have been struck which would have maintained appropriate behaviour on both parties.
"How many times have I got to tell you.....?"
A secondary school involved me in its in-service day of devising strategies for encouraging appropriate behaviour from the girls. Despite my protestations, the day focussed on rewards and sanctions for the girls related to their behaviour.
The following week I was in the Special Needs Office and all hell was breaking loose in the corridor outside. Being an "Educational Psychologist", I stayed well out of the action and just observed :-)
Ten minutes late for the lesson, a teacher arrived with a mug of tea in his hand and started barking at the girls about their poor behaviour in the corridor whilst waiting for him.
The teacher seemed unaware that the poor behaviour of the students was down to him. Being late for his lesson, unprepared and with a drink in his hand showed the girls that they were low down on his list of priorities. Consequently they responded in kind and showed, through their behaviour, what they thought of him.
Had he been waiting at the door of his class to meet and greet the girls, having previously written up the work for the lesson on the board, then all parties would have had a much better start due initially, to mutual respect.
"There's a man coming!"
At a supermarket checkout recently, I watched a mother and toddler approach an array of sweets on a handily placed display.
Mother: "Don't pick up any sweets"
Child: Picks up sweets.
Mother: "I have told you. Don't pick up sweets!"
Child: No response
Mother: "If you don't put the sweets back I will smack you!"
Child: No response
Mother: "Look, there's a man coming and if you don't put the sweets back, he will smack you".
Child: No response
Mother: "The man is getting closer and if you haven't put the sweets back, he will hit me!"
Child: Child eats sweets.
The mother starts the interaction by telling the child what she does not want him to do. When he begins the actions she has forbidden, she threatens him with violence. When he refuses to co-operate she does not carry out her threat and gives away any authority she may have had, to a mythical man. When this next threat proves useless, she appeals to the child's better nature by turning the potential violence onto herself. The child responds to this third empty threat by eating the sweets.
Had the mother negotiated the transaction before by promising rewards for appropriate behaviour then the situation could have been avoided. e.g. "When you have helped me with the shopping by sitting quietly at the checkout, we will call at the library on the way home so you can choose a book". The essence is to describe what you want to see (not what you don't want) and promise rewards for appropriate behaviour (not threaten violence for naughtiness).
Angela, a reception class girl, was sitting on the carpet drinking her milk from a packet through a straw. Nobody made any comment. She then took the straw out of her mouth and by squeezing the packet was able to direct a jet of milk into her mouth. The Classroom Assistant then said "If you keep on messing about with the milk I will take it off you". Angela turned the straw through 90 degrees and squirted the milk over another child. What was left of the milk was duly removed from Angela.
The children moved to the work area. After class discussion, each child was required to come to the front of the class to draw on the board. Child number one duly came out, performed and was praised. Angela then had her turn in the same process. While the next few children were at the front, Angela seemed to be looking at the length of the waiting queue. She got up, crossed the room and slapped a girl's face. Straight away the teacher instructed the Classroom Assistant to take Angela for "Time Out". The Classroom Assistant asked Angela which book she would like to have read to her during "Time Out". Thomas the Tank was agreed upon and the pair left the classroom.
Once again descriptions of inappropriate behaviour are being fed to the child. Eventually very inappropriate behaviour results in one to one attention from an adult with Angela's choice of book. "Time Out" is most effective when it is a short period of an apparent withdrawal of adult attention.
Most children's behaviours are designed for the "maximum mileage". They do what they do, because from their perspective it is the most efficient. It may be a hard pill to swallow but young humans need attention and if they can't get it one way they will certainly get it the other.
There are many books, publications and web sites full of tips about how to make things "better". I think that this is cart before horse - shutting stable doors too late etc.
The above examples are used to show how the adults may actually be responsible for the behaviour they wish to extinguish.
Once adults have consciously accepted that they are responsible for arranging a set of circumstances that are likely to bring about positive changes in children, then success is more likely.
demonstrate the behaviour they want to see,
agree consensus and show consistency,
catch the children being good and explicitly comment on their appropriate behaviour when it occurs,
tell the children what they want to see and promise and provide rewards for delivery.
be hugged at every appropriate opportunity!
modification starts with adults.
Only when the adults have appropriately modified their own behaviour, are the children likely to follow suit.
These are my personal opinions which
reflect my experience of 35 years in education
including the last 21 years of practising as an educational psychologist.
Chartered Educational Psychologist
Cert. Ed., BSc.(Hons), MSc.,
C. Psychol., AFBPsS.
British Psychological Society No: 34097
© 2007 All rights reserved
Chartered Educational Psychologist
"advice, assessment and an independent opinion"