Why ‘Behaviour’ is a set of clues

Behaviour is, in its simplest form, a set of SYMPTOMS. Behaviours are an indicator that something else is happening inside the child, that we need to identify and help them to work through.

Behaviour is a response to feelings.

Behaviour is a way of communicating needs

Feelings come from an inner need in the child which need to be fulfilled. Whilst there are some behaviours, as we become older, that are purposeful, in early stages of brain development, children are rarely attempting to hurt people.

Therefore, when we consider our historic approaches to behaviour management, particularly in younger children, we have frequently punished children for having feelings.

We can look at behaviour as a set of CLUES.

Behaviours are a child’s way of communicating to us that they need something. This is an action that they learnt when they were very young.

As a baby, we would scream and cry to inform parents and carers that we were hungry, tired or needed to be changed or cuddled. Those behaviours, of upregulating to draw attention, allowed us to understand that they needed something. The child had a need which was not being met.

Therefore, behaviour was used to help us know that they needed help. As children grow up, and before they learn to express needs, behaviours remain their form of communication.

An aspect of behaviour which needs to be considered is that of upregulation. Upregulation refers to behaviours of a child (or adult) which are used to gain closer proximity to adults or trusted people.

In the absence of words, or the ability to express themselves, children will utilise behaviour to seek out connection or closeness to their trusted person to increase their sense of safety, believing that that person is better able to cope and can help them when they feel unsafe or threatened. It may include:

  • Tantrums, screaming or yelling
  • Being over controlling
  • Seeking constant reassurance or attention
  • High levels of distress or inconsolable crying
  • Wanting to cling to or be attached to the carer
  • Screaming
  • Shouting
  • Starting arguments
  • Hitting
  • Being in your personal space
  • Agitation
  • Panic
  • Fear
  • Needing reassurance

Traditionally, behaviour management has utilised a carrot and stick approach:

Good behaviour – you receive merits and rewards.

You did not adhere to rules – you were given detentions, suspensions and were expelled.

With the belief that these punishments, or threats there of, would motivate the child to perform in the desired way. Research has shown that this approach does not work. In fact, studies have shown that the carrot and stick methodology of reward and punishment can actually diminish performance. A “carrot” approach incentivises good work with rewards, while a “stick” approach uses punishment to push people towards goals. Many children will express that punishments have no impact on them. So, what do they need instead?

#1 – Connection – At our source, we require connections and a sense of safety to allow us to feel seen, heard and understood. We require people who we can trust, who seek to understand us. This allows us to co-regulate through our connections.

#2 – Nurture – In order to understand what is happening inside us, we require adults who take time to understand and nurture us, guiding us to support us to find answers, solutions and learn from our experiences.

#3 – Understanding – At our core, the majority of our learning arises from the mistakes that we made. When we are supported to understand how/why we did things, we are better able to find resolutions.

#4 – Emotional literacy – When children do not have the ability to recognise, understand, label and respond to their feelings, they are more likely to respond to their needs with behaviours. This is the same with adults who may use food, alcohol, shopping etc to manage stress/worries etc. When we invest in supporting child emotional literacy we support them to use their language to express their needs.


Want to learn more? 

Are you looking for a deeper understanding of child mental health? Our Level 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coaching Diploma takes you into an in depth dive of child mental health and how you can support.  You can join our Level 4 training (here).


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