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Students of Occupational Therapy at Jacksonville University

HEALTHY LIFE: Why Children Act This Way

By Sandra Brown, PhD, OTR/L, BCP, BCBA

Nursed to Health, a recurring feature in The Florida Times-Union, has a new name—Healthy Life. Jacksonville University Brooks Rehabilitation College of Healthcare Sciences faculty discuss symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments based on patient cases handled by instructors, students, and alumni.

As a parent, maybe you’ve been there. As an Education major, Healthcare Sciences student in clinicals, or caregiver you may have seen this scenario unfold. A child sees a toy and asks for it. You say no. He or she asks again loudly. Still, no. Then a normally sweet child erupts into a full-blown screaming, kicking tantrum in the middle of a public place.

What do you do? Do you give in? Do you leave? Are people staring?

The situation is uncomfortable for you, the child, and those around you. So, why do children do this? The simple answer is: because it works. Regardless of the outcome, you still reacted and responded to the child’s tantrum. In essence, the child just won.

But it doesn’t always have to be that way. How you respond is crucial. There are four basic causes or functions of why a child acts the way they do:

  • Attention – When a child does something to get you to pay attention.
  • Sensory – When something internal is making the child behave a certain way. For example, when the child is hungry, tired, or overwhelmed.
  • Tangible – When a child wants something physical, like a toy.
  • Escape – When a child is feeling confined, challenged, or frustrated and wants to get away.

As a caregiver, you need to identify the cause and provide the appropriate response before the situation escalates. In the situation with the toy, it starts out as a reasonable request for a tangible object that quickly escalates to attention-seeking behavior. One strategy is to anticipate the request and have the child’s favorite toy on hand to offer instead. Or you may just avoid the toy aisle of stores in the first place.

As a caregiver, you need to identify the cause and provide the appropriate response before the situation escalates.

If it escalates, be firm, and don’t give in to the demands. Don’t react. Don’t respond. If you do, the next time your child wants something, he or she will go directly to the “bad” behavior because that’s what worked before.

Attention-seeking behaviors can be powerful and frustrating. Think about it. When do you give a child the most attention? When do you let a child “get away with” something that normally isn’t allowed? Have you found yourself putting a movie on, or handing over your cell phone just so you can have a few moments of peace? When a child is quietly doing homework, or children are playing nicely together, do you find yourself taking that moment to try to try to catch up on all the things you couldn’t accomplish earlier?

How many times are you interrupted when trying to prepare dinner, read a story, teach a lesson, or conduct an exam? What happens when that child walks away from his assignment or children start arguing? What do you do?

You respond. Without even thinking about it, you have granted attention to a behavior that is not ideal.

Life is busy and hectic, especially at the holidays. As parents, you feel like there are not enough hours in the day and you are pulled in several directions at once. As students, caregivers, or teachers you may feel the same,

Children can feel that way, too. So, take a moment when a child is doing something that is expected, or doing something well, and acknowledge it.

When a child is doing homework, offer a quick hug, or a pat on that back. Tell the child, “I’m proud of you for working so hard.” Tell your students that it makes you happy to see them being nice to each other and playing so well together. It only takes a few seconds of your time.

The children in your life will quickly start to connect the dots and realize he or she was given attention for doing something well. Children generally want to please adults, so they may even start looking for things to do to get a high five or feel needed. A little bit of appreciation goes a long way.

Sandra Brown, PhD, OTR/L, BCP, BCBA, Assistant Professor of JU’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) Program

Today’s column is by pediatric occupational therapy and behavior expert, Sandra Brown, Assistant Professor in the Doctor of Occupational Therapy Program at the Jacksonville University Brooks Rehabilitation College of Healthcare Sciences. Email your questions to juotd@ju.edu.

Names and specific medical information in Healthy Life have been changed to protect private health information. Readers with specific questions or health concerns should seek the advice of their healthcare provider.