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Making sense of children's behaviour

Have you ever felt confused, frustrated or getting to the end of your tether with your child's behaviour?

If so, you are not alone. This resource is intended to help you to make better sense of why your child behaves in the ways they do. It is based on a model of how we grow up called the cycle of development. It was first developed by Pam Levin who was fascinated with how children grow up, the needs they have at various points - and also how the adults around them respond to them.

There are 6 different stages:

For each stage there is a set of jobs or tasks the youngster instinctively tries to get to grips with. For a baby, for example, her main jobs are linked with making sure that the adults around her know what her needs are - food, sleep, clean nappies etc - and that they will take care of these. Similarly, a toddler needs to get out and about, exploring the world around them - and that's just what he will do. So his hands will be into everything - and everything will be going into his mouth!

Just as children know what they need to do, the adults around them will often be responding to their needs quite automatically. They will indeed make sure that the baby is fed, that the toddler can play safely in the sand or build towers out of bricks - and knock them down again and again as they explore! All of these opportunities encourage the child to get to grips with the developmental task in hand. Levin described the way adults encourage children -both with their words and their actions as 'affirmations' - positive messages that encourage the child - 'Go ahead and learn - and we will take care of you as you do so'.

Whilst many encouragements are given, the reality of life is that sometimes these might be in more limited supply. The stresses and strains of everyday life, never mind more challenging life experiences such as money worries and relationship difficulties, can sap the adults' energy. Returning home from work, tired and stressed, you find your toddler sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by piles of your books and CDs, several of which have obviously been in her mouth. She has indeed been exploring and developing her sensory awareness, two very important developmental tasks. But expressing the affirmations 'You can use all of your senses to explore the environment' and 'You can explore and experiment and we will support and protect you' is perhaps not the first thing that you say. Perhaps more realistically the words 'How many times do I have to tell you Emily? - don't touch my things!'.

One of the strengths of the cycle of development theory is that it is both realistic and positive. It's all too easy for parents and carers to be particularly hard on themselves, feeling that they aren't doing a good enough job. This model of growing up is particularly optimistic. Here are the 3 beliefs that it is based upon:

  • it takes a lifetime for all of us to grow-up - including our children
  • what children don't receive enough of the first time round in the way of encouragements they will have opportunities to get at various subsequent points in their lives; similarly there will be future opportunities to develop skills that they didn't quite get under their belt the first time round.
  • it's the responsibility of the whole community to raise children

With these beliefs, parents and carers can focus upon being 'good enough' in caring for and bringing up their children - and perhaps drop some of their unrealistic expectations. No child is 'finished product' by a specific age - indeed, according to this model, we are all continuing to grow up, whatever our age. And the job of helping the growing up process is one that is shared by all key adults in the child's life they are all sources of encouragement/affirmations.

A lifetime to grow-up
One example of the opportunities youngsters have to refine their skills and receive more encouragements in the process is moving school. This common experience will trigger a range of needs:

  • to get to know the new teacher(s) and children, working out who they will trust etc (just as the child did the first time round in the Being stage);
  • to explore his new environment, working out where the different rooms, toilets etc are (having done this at least once before during the Doing stage);
  • to check out where the boundaries are - 'what am I allowed/not allowed to do here?' - in a way similar to the Thinking stage.

'Help - my 9yr old is behaving like a toddler - she's regressed by 7yrs!'
It can be very frustrating when a child seems to have reverted back a stage - it's not uncommon to hear parents/carers talk of how their 9yr old - or even teenager - is behaving just like a toddler. When these observations are made, it's actually a very useful piece of information as it's pointing to the likelihood that the youngster has some unfinished business, for example around the whole area of testing boundaries. This is a new part of their lifetime of growing-up - and they are perhaps looking for something they didn't quite get enough of the first time round.

Using the cycle of development
As long as we hold to the 3 principles described above there are no right ways of using this material. Try to focus upon what your child can do, as well as areas they need encouragement and help with. Also, focus upon what you are already doing to help them - how are you already expressing some of the affirmations?

Below are some suggestions for using the ideas from the cycle of development:

Problem-solving particular behaviours:
If there is a behaviour that particularly bothers you, looking at where there might be links with some of the developmental tasks can be of help. For example, if your child is demanding a lot of attention, it might be helpful to look back at the Being and Doing stages, which have tasks related to calling for care etc.

Looking through the stages, you might actually come to see that the behaviour that is bothering you is actually 'normal' given the stage your child is currently going through.

It can also be helpful to think about which tasks your child pretty much has under their belt - what are their strengths - and how might these be used to address the behaviour that's proving troublesome?

(If you have access to the behaviourwall.com website, clicking on 'Start Using The Wall' will enable you to do some problem-solving using the Wall itself.)

Which of the messages do you think your child would particularly benefit from hearing/hearing more of at the moment? How might you do this, especially non-verbally?