Tips &

Tips &

Seven things a child's 'problem' behaviour is trying to tell you.

March 2022
Janthea Brigden
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Is the science we need to understand the developing brain already shown to us daily in the natural behaviours of children?

When my eldest son was little, I was constantly asked "Does he not 'do' walk?!" I remember  the discomfort of facing other people's disapproval at my son's constant desire to be on the move. Climbing, running, jumping, exploring... he rarely walked!

Once he went to school, he struggled with 'carpet time' unless a story was particularly adventurous and exciting, and the poor child was constantly 'in trouble'!  

Understanding of behavioural science is improving all the time. Some of what is being discovered may have the power to completely change the way that we teach and nurture children. 

7 behaviours that children do (and get ‘told off’ for), that may actually be beneficial to their development. 

1. Wriggling and writhing 

When children are twisting and squirming on the floor, and refusing to sit still, are they actually protecting an underdeveloped nervous system and preventing spinal damage?

2. Repetition

When children repeat things over and over, are they instinctively using a method of self-therapy that gets their need for acknowledgement met?

3. Tantrums

When they shout scream and punch things are they effectively releasing toxic chemicals from their small bodies? 

For example, punching a pillow floods a child’s system with endorphins which temporarily numbs the core nervous system dysregulation. 

4. Yawning

When children yawn during class, are they naturally increasing blood flow, cooling their brains and improving mental efficiency?

5. Eye-contact

When children won’t look at us whilst we are speaking to them and move their eyes side to side, are they naturally using EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing), which lowers the heart rate, slows the breathing and creates relaxation? 

6. Selective eating

When they sometimes refuse to eat or only want one particular food, is it that they know their bodies and might be intuitively ‘intermittent fasting’ or giving their body a particular food it needs at the time to grow?

If they won’t eat certain foods, like mushrooms, strong cheeses or spices, is that actually an evolutionary mechanism to protect against potential poisoning? 

7. Daydreaming

When children ‘daydream’ are they actually improving their brain’s problem-solving network, and increasing working memory and productivity?

Sadly, many adults, including teachers and parents, judge the above behaviours as ‘negative’, and flaws that need correcting. These beneficial natural behaviours are often things that they are stopped from doing or 'told off' for, from a very young age. 

You don’t have to be a neurobiologist to appreciate that the motivation behind your child’s behaviour isn’t just because they’re being ‘naughty’, or ‘difficult’. The greater appreciation we have for the complexity of a child’s behaviour, the more we can understand and respond in a way that supports development and self regulation. 

Tips for approaching reactive behaviours

1. Remove judgement 

Judging these behaviours isn’t going to help you or your child. A judgemental reaction is often to stop the child from doing the behaviour and maybe even punish them for it. If the behaviour is natural and instinctive, then the child will learn to stop trusting their own body and perfectly natural reactions. 

2. Avoid labelling 

Avoid labelling a child, or their behaviour, as 'good' or 'bad'. Labelling is incredibly unhelpful to the development of a child’s identity. Calling a behaviour ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is subjective at best. At worst, repeatedly telling a child that they, (or their behaviour), is ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘naughty’ or ‘quiet’, causes them to internalise these labels and believe that they are part of who they are. 

3. Let the behaviour happen 

Attempting to stop reactionary behaviours such as writhing on the floor, punching a pillow, or screaming, when they are in full swing, is unlikely to be very successful. 

This is due to ‘emotional flooding’, which is when a child becomes overwhelmed by the emotional part of their brain.

Trying to reason, using logic, or - worst of all - attempting to ‘fix” someone’s problem whilst they are emotionally flooded, is pointless. They won’t be able to function rationally and actually listen to what you are saying. 

Try instead, letting them continue with the behaviour and get it all out if they need to, followed by some deep breathing to reduce anxiety, and a cuddle if they want one. 

4. Ask questions

Instead of just telling a child that they need to ‘sit down’, ‘listen’ or ‘eat their food’, be curious and try to work out why they are behaving the way they are. Compassion and empathy are key in these moments!

It may be that they are feeling particularly anxious about something that day, or they didn’t sleep well last night. 

At Nipperbout, we train our staff to use these methods when communicating with children in our care. Opening up a dialogue can be helpful for you to understand the child’s behaviour, and encourage them to be more open about how they’re feeling in the future.