Observation is Key in Understanding Child Behavior

All behavior has meaning. All behavior meets a need. And needs can change over time and with progressive experiences.

Infants and young children behave to get something, or to get away from something. Sometimes the behavior for both looks the same.

For example, an infant will cry to get picked up (get something) and also cry in response to a wet diaper (get away from something). A preschooler may hit a child to get a toy (get something) and also hit a child to make that child go away (get away from something). Many factors influence what a child needs as well as how that child meets his or her need(s).

From birth, infants are “wired” to respond to and promote attachment with their caregivers. Crying, calming, cooing and gesturing in ways that their caregivers are motivated to interact, respond, nurture and provide comfort.

Over time and development, infants begin to learn simple cause and effect. Toddlers and young children vary in their cognitive abilities to understand and follow through in getting their needs met. Their basic “problem solving” skills and subsequent behaviors are shaped and learned over time by the interactions and responses of others.

Even in the care of responsive, nurturing, trusted adults, the acquisition of social, emotional and behavioral skills take time, are developmentally sequential and require extensive practice before a child becomes proficient in the use of behaviors to initiate desired response outcomes from others. And even then, a young child is not completely cognitively aware of the meaning of complex behavioral and response “chain of events.”

Children experiencing high stress, trauma, relationship disruptions, out of home placement, multiple transitions, changes in routines and developmental delays, have complex needs that can be difficult to interpret and unpredictable. Each child has different experiences, each child interprets those experiences differently resulting in different needs — to be loved, attended to, comforted, understood, nourished and much more — resulting in a wide range of behaviors to meet those needs. The behaviors that result, can be confusing, frustrating … even annoying for a well-intended caregiver.

Many behaviors can be addressed through nurturing and responsive caregiving, consistent and predictable routines and environments that are adapted to a child’s unique needs (for example, bright lights and/or loud noise may be over stimulating but can be easily adapted). However, there are times where infants and young children require a higher level of attention and intervention. Any time behaviors interfere with daily functioning, relationships and/or development, are not responsive to typical prevention and promotion practices (nurturing responsive caregiving, consistent and predictable routines, adapted environments and intentional teaching), and are repetitive and prolonged, it is important to engage providers that can help identify and attend to underlying needs.

Noelle Hause

While it may be necessary to consult with a professional, providing information about the child’s behavior will be useful in determining the meaning of the behavior and how to assist in meeting the child’s unmet needs. Observation is key. Collecting information about what happens before (what triggers the behavior?), during (what maintains the behavior or what is the function of the behavior?) and after the behavior (did the child get something or get away from something?).  As well as learning the extenuating conditions such as amount of sleep, health, transitions, new medication, visits and others is critical in developing a plan to address the behaviors.

The more data that is collected across relationships and environment, the better. For example, does the behavior happen at home and in child care? Does it happen with all caregivers or just one particular caregiver? Creating a checklist or easily accessible chart that can be used by all caregivers to observe and collect information, will assist in developing consistent and responsive practices and interventions that meet the child’s needs. Ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of interventions can help to refine and adapt these practices over time because needs can change. Remember, all behavior has meaning … all behavior meets a need … and needs can change over time and with progressive experiences.

Noelle Hause is an Irving Harris Infant Mental Health Fellow graduate and has provided infant and early mental health services including supervision, training and consultation for more than 30 years.

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