Children mostly act out behaviours with one of two motivations – to get something (gain), or to get away from something (avoid). This isn't really unique to children! It does however serve us to think this way regarding difficult behaviours in children, because more inroads can be made if the questions are asked:
What does she want to gain from doing that? Or is there something she's trying to avoid?
- A child whines incessantly because they have learned that often adults get so sick of listening to whining, they eventually give the child what they've been asking for (gain), simply to get some peace (adult gains something too and avoids stress).
- A child with auditory sensitivities will often be noisy in order to drown out (avoid) noises that are bothering them.
- Another child with proprioceptive challenges might constantly touch everything and everyone all day long, despite being told repeatedly to keep hands to themselves. They might also be constantly on the move. (These behaviours are usually to gain sensory input and feel at ease or safe in the world).
- One child might be shy and standoffish because they want to avoid making social faux pas which could leave them vulnerable amongst their peers.
- Another child might take a long time to go out onto the playground at recess because they are avoiding a bully, or not enjoying the prospect of hot weather.
If we can look at all behaviours with this “get versus get away” question in mind, it often makes it easier to firstly get to the root of the problem, and then find an appropriate solution. It also often makes what at first seemed like a really difficult and bothersome behaviour, become a much more understandable and less troublesome issue.
So, lets look at a particular behaviour. A child gets up and wanders around the room several times during a teaching session. This behaviour could be explained in a myriad of general ways – he could be wanting to look at others' work, he could be restless, he might have attention issues, he might be looking for an escape route, he might not want to do the work, and so on.
But for each of these possibilities, what would he be hoping to gain or get away from? Knowing that he has attention issues, while it helps us be more understanding by introducing compassion, doesn't really get to the root of the current problem. It simply describes an over-arching problem which might be behind the current need. If he's restless, what has made him restless? Is he avoiding discomfort? Is his seat uncomfortable? Is he cold? Is he avoiding anxiety? Is the work too difficult or overwhelming? Is he avoiding getting started (and if so, that's a large behaviour-set on its own, which needs the same questions asked of it). Is he trying to have a break from sensory inputs? Are the lights bothering him? Is he upset? Has someone who sits near him been bullying?
The possibilities are endless, but if you can narrow down what he might be trying to avoid/get away from, or gain/get by moving around the room, then you're halfway there.