Behaviour Grows where Attention Goes

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As parents, we often find ourselves wearing many hats in a day. As the saying goes, “Parenting is probably the most challenging task as you are thrown into the deep end with no instruction manual”. From managing the household, our careers and ensuring the child is clothed and fed, we are also left to deal with developmental phases involving tantrums, defiance and an array of behaviours. Using a trial and error method of dealing with these behaviours can not only make things confusing for children, but also jeopardizes our relationships with them.

In this blog post, I will be discussing the big A – Attention, and its role in behaviour management.

Attention is a big underlying cause for almost all behaviours, positive or negative. As humans, we all thrive for attention and it often does not matter how we get it. When a child is misbehaving (remember, this is different to an emotional outburst if they are feeling hurt, sad, unsafe or angry) and testing the boundaries, removing attention to the negative behaviours and focusing instead on the positive ones can be extremely helpful.

Some ways in which this can be done is by ignoring the negative behaviours completely by:

  • Physically turning your body away from the child to send a strong message to the child that you are not going to get into a power struggle with them.
  • Redirecting your attention to another person i.e. praising another child who is complying to the rules
  • Redirecting your attention to a completely different topic instead of focusing on the reason of the argument / misbehaviour.
  • Refraining from engaging in negotiation of the rules and feeding into the negative behaviour (no arguing, shouting etc.).

Why?

Because behaviour grows where attention goes!

The bigger your reaction is to the tantrum, the longer it will last. Often when a boundary is placed and the child throws a tantrum because they are not allowed to have things their way, the crying shows that they have accepted the boundary and are upset by it. By giving in or reacting to their tantrum, we are sending out mixed signals and teaching our children that if they tried hard enough, the rules can be bent. Cutting out the ‘audience’ from the scene of tantrums can often reduce the length of the tantrum.

Focus less on the tantrum and more on positive behaviours.

Why?

Because once again, remember that behaviour grows where attention goes! By channeling your attention to a child’s strength and/or positive behaviours, you are encouraging the growth of positive behaviours. Your child will be more motivated to engage in behaviours that will gain your attention.

For tricky parenting issues such as toilet training or refusal to eat, try letting go of the issue and focusing on other aspects of the child that is going well. Channel your energy to look for positive things happening throughout the day. The intense focus on the ‘problem topic’ will only enhance the problem. By focusing on the many other strengths your child presents with, you are taking the stress of toileting/eating away from the child. By praising their other strengths,you are building up their confidence to be able to do well in those ‘problematic areas’ when the time is right for them. Avoid a power struggle as this often leads to a lose-lose situation and breaks down your relationship with your child. If the only time the child is getting any attention from you is during a meltdown or misbehaviour, then they will find every opportunity to have a meltdown or to misbehave.

If your child is young and unable to keep themself safe during a meltdown, stay close to them and comment on what you see happening in a neutral tone rather than react emotionally to the situation. For example you may say, “I can see that you are feeling really upset. It makes you want to cry.” Doing so will help your child understand their feelings better without suggesting that you are affected by their tantrum.

As soon as your child shows signs of being in control of their emotions again, turn towards them and shower them with positive attention (praising their effort, talking to them, eye contact, smile, cuddle etc,). This method will shape your child’s behaviour by teaching them a healthy boundary (where the rules remain followed) and helping them understand that the only way they are getting attention is in a positive way.

Some behaviours this technique will work with are:

  • Children who find it difficult to accept rules in the house/cannot take “No” for an answer
  • Disobeying instructions just to get a reaction, testing boundaries to see if you will give in
  • Arguing or name-calling behaviours
  • Whining behaviours
  • Engaging in behaviours of wanting to be in control (e.g. toileting refusal, refusal to eat, refusal to wear clothes, refusal to go to bed etc.)

This method should not be used for behaviours related to a distressed child or behaviours related to sensory integration as these behaviours are often not motivated by attention.

If being in control is an issue, ensure that you provide the child with many opportunities to make decisions and feel in control of their lives throughout the day. Through your choice of words when talking to the child and by offering the child opportunities to have a say in their daily routines (e.g. being able to choose their outfit for the day, having a responsibility such as feeding the pet or completing a household chore etc.), you will be able to build your child’s self-esteem.

Reversing the cycle

-ve A+ve

If your child has previously been successful at getting their way by crying and whining, it will take more effort to reverse the association. A child who has learned that they can get attention by engaging in negative behaviours will often rely on that technique due to predictability. The challenge is to turn the tables and help your child to understand that they will now receive attention only in a positive manner. When ignoring a child’s attempts to gain attention, we have to ensure everyone in the house reacts the same way to the behaviours because consistency is key!

Toddler Milestones

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Development is a journey where each child moves forward in a series of steps. Early milestones are important when one is assessing a child for any areas of concern and their achievement holds true even when the child is older. I would like to continue from my earlier post on infant development and the milestones to look out for. These milestones are guidelines to help you observe your child as he/she goes through these stages or even if you have an older child and they have not successfully completed these stages. Please use the below checklist as a way of understanding whether there is a need for a further evaluation of your child’s cognitive, motor, social and emotional skills. It is always best to consult a pediatrician or a clinical psychologist for further assessment.

We are now going to look at the major developmental tasks and speech milestones in the toddler phase. Do not worry if your child has not completed one or two tasks but look at the overall picture of his/her development. Please use the below checklist only as a guideline to observe your child and if you find any concerns, do visit your doctor today.

Developmental tasks Expected age Completed
Walks well without support 2 -3 years  
Carries toy while walking 2-3 years  
Squats to pick up a toy 13 – 18 months  
Recognizes self in the mirror 2-3 years  
Stacks two objects or blocks 13-18 months  
Refers to self by name 2-3 years  
Feeds self using a spoon or own hands 2-3 years  
Drinks from glass unassisted 2-3 years  
Occupies self in play 2-3 years  
Goes up on steps using two feet at a time 3 years  
Walks on tiptoe 3 years  
Runs easily 3 years  
Unwraps candy 3 years  
Pulls off socks as part of undressing 3 years  
Helps adults put away toys when asked 3 years  
Turns pages one at a time 3 years  

*Table taken from the “Academic Problems in primary school children enrolled under SSA-Karnataka”

Speech and language milestones in the toddler phase:

Expected Age Receptive language Expressive language Completed
13-15
months
Follows 1-step
command
without gesture
Points to 1 body part; Immature
jargoning; Can say up to 5 words
 
16-18
months
Point to 1
picture;
Points to 3 body
parts and to self
Mature jargoning; Up to 25 words;
Giant words: “all gone, thank-you”
 
19-24
months
Begins to
understand
pronouns;
Follows 2 step
commands;
Points to 5-10
pictures
Up to 50 words;
2-word sentences;
Early telegraphic speech,
for example: “Give water”, “Want mama”
 
25-30
months
Understands “just one”;
Points to parts
of pictures
Uses pronouns appropriately;
uses plural words;
speech is 50% intelligible
 
3 years Knows opposites;
follows 2
prepositions
250+ words;
3-word sentences;
Answers “what” and “where” questions;
speech is 75% intelligible
 

At InclusivEd, our endeavour is to support children through an Inclusive approach to learning. Follow us on Facebook to know more.

Myths about Children

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When children are born, we believe that there needs to be an instinctual way of parenting them. Very often, we adopt the one-size-fits-all notion and group children as one type. Hence, applying the same techniques and strategies to parent them. We also tend to fall back on age old stereotypes and myths, that can be detrimental to a child’s development. Here are some of those myths busted: 

Myth 1 – Children do not experience stress or
depression like adults

Child Depressed

Truth – Every person goes through some form of stress.  The expression of that stress is also different. It may be hard to understand or observe depression in children, but it can happen. Depression can affect individuals as small as infants where it is recognized as ‘anaclitic depression’.

Anaclitic depression is a severe deterioration of the physical, social and psychological development of the infant when separated from the mother for a long period of time. Not all children who are sad, can be diagnosed as depressed. But parents should look out for drastic sudden mood changes, lack of appetite, a feeling of hopelessness, sudden outbursts of tantrums and anger. If you have noticed that your child is experiencing some of these changes and it is affecting his/her daily life, please consult a mental health doctor.

Myth 2 – Children have to be the ‘best’ in their field

Child reaching for the stars

Truth – It is natural to want your child to be the best. But you are also putting undue pressure on a child who will grow to believe that making mistakes or failing is the worst thing in the world. Children experience unspeakable amounts of psychological stress when they are subjected to high amounts of pressure. Encourage your child to improve themselves, have goals, accept their failures and most of all, just love themselves as they are.

Myth 3 – A slap never hurt anyone

Punished Child - Skao

Truth – Parents have a challenging task of disciplining their child with all the pressures from the outside world. So no one can blame you, if you in anger, raise your hand against your child to discipline him/her. But parents, it is never a good practice to start. What you are teaching your child, is that whenever he/she experiences anger or frustration, the way to solve the problem is to physically react. Children learn from the behavior of the adults around them and will replicate that behavior in front of their peers and other individuals around them. Discipline is good but it can be inculcated in better ways.

Myth 4 – Children who practice problem behaviors will eventually outgrow them

Angry Child - Misbehaviour

Truth – Misbehavior is not uncommon in children. We all want to break rules, play pranks, do things independently but the concern starts when some of these behaviors get worse or start physically and mentally hurting the people around us. Children with severe problem behaviors grow up to continue those behaviors if not treated. Parents, when you notice that your child has been acting out or misbehaving to a point of hurting someone else, either physically or mentally, please seek help immediately. Sometimes these behaviors can go unnoticed and therefore unresolved.

Myth 5 – Children who develop late can grow out of it later

Child Studying

Truth – In my experience, there are a few children who develop later than the appropriate age and have managed to catch up to their developmentally appropriate peers. But a majority of children who develop late need extra support in bridging that gap so that they are able to perform like their peers. More than three fourths of children with disabilities have a history of delay in their developmental milestones. Parents, if you observe that your child has not developed appropriately in terms of motor skills,speech, language expression, please consult a clinical psychologist today. There is nothing better than seeking the right kind of support for your child at the right time.

The opinions here are of the Author. 

At InclusivEd, our endeavour is to support children through an Inclusive approach to learning. Follow us on Facebook to know more.