Behavior and the Importance of Listening

Years ago, when my now adult son was in grade 1, I got the dreaded call from his school that I would need to go in and discuss my son’s behavior. For a reason I will never know, he took a pile of glue and attempted to glue his bum to his chair. The chair and his pants were full of glue. My conversation with him and his teacher at the time went something like this:

Me to my son: “What were you thinking?!?”

Still Me: “I’ll tell you what you were thinking. You weren’t thinking!”

Me to his teacher: “I have no idea what he was thinking. I am so sorry!”

His teacher: “Yeah, I don’t know why he did this.”

Me to my son: “You know what? You need to clean up this mess AND help clean up the classroom and clean more at home for awhile! That’ll teach you to never glue your bum to a chair again!”

Still me to both my son and his teacher: “I will never understand why anyone would glue their bum to a chair!”

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beahvior and the importance of listening; Angry child

What’s Wrong with This Scenario?

What’s wrong with the way this was handled? Why do I still not know to this day years later the reason behind the glue incident? It is BECAUSE he was never given a chance to speak! Consequences to “fix” the behavior were thrown at him without hesitation.

Did he do this on a dare? Was it a cry for attention? Was he innocently attempting to be able to sit absolutely still for his teacher? Perhaps he was trying to get his peers to laugh? Was there something else going on?

It wasn’t long after the bum-gluing incident that I attended my first workshop led by Dr. Ross Greene. (I’ve since attended a couple more of his workshops and would love to attend even more in the future.) This was the beginning of me transforming how I view and communicate with children. If you are not familiar with Dr. Ross Greene’s work, I highly recommend reading  The Explosive Child, Raising Human Beings and/or Lost at School.

parent-teacher meeting

Behavior as Communication

Whether we choose to see it or not, behavior is a method of communication.

Is the child too young to communicate what is happening? Often adults think this to be true. However, I know of a kid in a kindergarten class that refused to sit on the carpet during carpet time. He would throw some type of tantrum anytime carpet time was expected. Using the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Approach recommended by Dr. Ross Greene, it was discovered that this child was bothered by the way his pants felt on his legs when he sat cross-legged on the floor.

The solution was a simple fix in that he would sit on the carpet when wearing sweatpants. When wearing the pants that bothered him in the cross-legged position, he would sit on a chair right next to the carpet.

Was this solution much better than having this child cry, scream, hit others or cause some other type of scene every time carpet time came around? Definitely! Was this solution harming anyone? Not at all!

By involving the child and getting to the core of what was going on, further problems were prevented. The entire class could function in a positive manner. Furthermore, the child did not proceed to grade 1 with a label of being defiant or frequently acting out.

More Extreme Example

I will now give you a much more extreme case involving a teenager I worked more closely with years ago. This was a student who transferred into the school I was at partway through the school year. He was definitely a “flagged” student in that his file was a nightmare. He had an extreme special funding code for having extreme social/emotional needs. I opened the file and was bombarded with “evidence” of how bad his behavior was.

This student had been sent to behavior schools in his past in an attempt to gain control of his behavior. His file contained numerous photos of evidence of cruelty he had inflicted on others over the years. The dates and consequences that followed each incident were noted. Bites, hits… the pictures of bruises and pain he had caused were plentiful! There were also numerous professional reports with suggestions for dealing with his behavior.

The Big Problem!

The problem with all of this is no one had ever asked this student what was going on. All of these years, the adults and professionals in his life consulted and wrote reports for combating his behavior without ever involving him directly in any way!

One of the first things I did once this individual started at the school was meet with him directly to develop his behavior plan. It didn’t take long at all for him to put the pieces of his past behavior in perspective. He acted out and hurt others when he felt like he didn’t belong (which had been a frequent feeling for him in his past). 

This boy also told me that he had been the product of an affair. He was left to live with his dad, who was still with his original wife and their children, his half-siblings. His biological mother only raised him for a short time before dropping him off to live with his father. Even though everyone seemed to treat him well in his home, he felt he didn’t fully fit in. He became angry when in a situation in which he felt left out or that he didn’t belong in.

The Simple Solution

Wow! We were then able to have a discussion about what he could do when these feelings came up for him instead of externalizing them and inflicting pain on others. We were also able to make sure he gained a sense of belonging within the school by making sure he was given opportunities for extra-curricular activities that appealed to him. His teachers were made aware to be sensitive to the fact that he needed to feel like he belonged within the classroom. All of this became his behavior plan INSTEAD OF simply the “when he hits others” type of jargon.

This was a true success story in that this student went through his year at the school without displaying any of the behaviors that his file had convinced us he would display. I am still amazed to this day that, with all of the programs involving both in-school and out of school support for him and his extreme behavior, that no one had asked him what was going on for him when he inflicted so much physical pain on others.

Lessons Gained

I don’t want to convey that every behavior is an easy fix or that there aren’t serious mental health struggles that parents and/or schools see. I also don’t want to convey that I am any different or better than anyone else out there when dealing with kids because I’m not. In the above example, I simply talked to the child about his past behavior and then reached out to him to come up with his own solution. He was allowed to have a voice, that’s all.

It is important to note that these discussions mentioned above DID NOT occur when the students were escalated in any manner. Having in-depth conversations about one’s behavior does not occur when the individual is escalated or even 5 minutes afterward… they need to occur when things are going well!

It is crucial to listen to what is going on instead of to tell what is going on. In doing this, powerful lessons can be gained. Kids do have a voice and, when listened to, will often help the adults working with them gain perspective on what may be going on for them. I know this is cliché, but I guess people really have been given two ears and only one mouth for a reason!

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How About You?

I welcome your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment below.  I also welcome you to check out some of my other posts such as Bad Behavior Does Not Mean Bad KidsSupporting Children in Working Through and Preventing Meltdowns, and You Are… More Than ADHD.

Another resource you may wish to check out is https://livesinthebalance.org/. There are a number of free resources accessible there for parents.

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20 Comments

  1. This is super interesting to me because of an experience I had in a therapy training class. There is apparently a therapeutic technique of basically letting someone throw a tantrum and actually physically restraining them—but all on purpose. My teacher was doing a demonstration therapy session with a student. The session went that direction, and my teacher decided to use this technique (that we had not learned about or been oriented to). Afterwards, we debriefed and several people, including the practice client, thought it was great. Some people like me were weirded out. And some people were downright traumatized and therefore quite angry. I think that what it comes down to is whether you have a choice in bearing witness to a tantrum. If you don’t have a choice and it is inflicted upon you, it is essentially abuse. My teacher had gotten consent from the client but not from all of the observers. It’s very interesting that the same experience was healing or abusive.

    1. Wow, that would have been a very difficult class for me to sit through to be honest. Thank you for sharing! It is interesting how some therapists believe restraining is therapeutic. I fail to see how restraining can be of benefit unless there is a serious concern for safety… but that still would have no therapeutic benefit. Restraining is simply one person gaining control and exerting force and power over another.

  2. I love to read your insight into children. Your last post about bullies, and not this one about why children behave the way that they do, are both very insightful. I wish that more people thought about children this way. It also causes me to reflect as I will begin to care for foster children soon.

  3. “It is crucial to listen to what is going on instead of to tell what is going on.”

    – Understanding immersive bubble logic helps inordinately. Inside that limited context, logic and reason are governed by limited ideas and perception, and most often, by one overwhelming notion grossly distorted. We see the whole of the issue, and not from inside that distortion, a perspective shift which makes all the difference.

    In addition, for the individual who had been caught up in that immersion, they too can shift from inside the envelope to outside, sometimes at the very moment the behaviour is perpetrated, but too late to prevent. Now we have a guilty or aware perspective, but at the time, it all seemed sensible, even if that time was a few seconds ago.

    “It is a particular challenge of awareness to understand unawareness.” – TYM

  4. This is so important. I have a six year old and eight year old, and we talk about everything. Understanding each other makes our house and our lives run smoothly, although very slowly. If u need to stop and talk about “everything” like we do. But I am no rush, this kind of work takes time.

  5. It’s so hard NOT to react to your kids in situations like this. But I agree listening is the key to understanding behavior. Even if they don’t entirely understand it themselves. Loved this post!

  6. I am truly nervous for when my kids start school. It’s a real fear of mine that they will not know how to act in public or in school. Thank you for a little reassurance, though! You’re handling it like a champ!

    1. Thank you! It is always a work in progress. My child I mentioned here is now a respectable adult. Thankfully, I learned to respond more positively so I didn’t always respond like this as he grew up. Adulting can be tough!

  7. Yes yes yes. Listening is so important! I love your insightfulness ! I just did the same thing with my 4 year old then realized I was the one not listening.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! I think every parent goes through this. As much as we try to be aware of the need to listen to our kids when they are misbehaving, it can still be difficult to respond in a way that we know is best when in the moment.

  8. As a parent, this is a wonderful reminder for me. Sometimes we get so lost in the day to day parenting we forget about something so simple as asking the child “why.” I used to work with children in the foster care system and know how necessary it is for them to have a voice and be heard. Thank you for the reminder. I’m so glad I read this.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience with this, Ashley! I agree that it is easy to get lost in the day to day and forget about the importance of listening to the child even though it is so important to do so! Thank you for reading this. 🙂

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