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How to See Beyond a Child's "Bad Behaviour" and Find a Practical Solution

5 questions to ask any child (or yourself) to reset for a better day

Parents and schools call me when they don’t know what to do with a challenging child.

I’ve seen a few things after working with children on and off for twenty-five years. And almost always what’s happening on the surface isn’t the whole story.

The challenges children face are not that different to those experienced in modern workplaces or when you wake up on a Monday morning and need to go to work.

Here’s five simple questions to ask when working with any child or adult. Most young children will not be able to answer these questions verbally, but they’ll quickly show you through their actions.

What you’ll see is that the surface behaviour is rarely the whole story. Human behaviour reveals other causes when you look closely.

Is your brain getting enough sugar?

A school I’ve been working with is dealing with violent outbursts amongst a group of nine-year-old boys. They explode into fist-fights leaving the boys upset, parents angry, and teachers at a loss with what to do.

I visited to watch how the boys interacted. At a key moment of escalation, I handed each of the five boys a juice box (natural apple and blackcurrant juice with no added sugar).

Within 30 seconds the boys calmed down and managed to sit a moment to chat. The human brain requires glucose to function. Slow-process thinking required in the classroom (e.g., mathematics) burns a lot of glucose. Once the glucose stores are depleted, the brain defaults to fast-process thinking, which includes reactive emotional responses.

To learn more about this, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I’ve also seen this in adults. I once had a colleague with the nickname, “Snickers.” Colleagues would have a store of snickers bars in their desk for moments when “Snickers” became hangry.

Often this happened in the hour before lunch as it was a sign that her glucose levels were crashing. To be clear, a nutritious diet requires more than sugar and my juice-box solution is a temporary fix.

When I observed the boys at lunch break, I noticed they were coming to school with either an un-nutritious lunch (e.g., popcorn) or none at all. Before judging a child (or adult) as misbehaved, check on their diet.

How are you taking care of transitions?

Most challenges happen in the school yard when the bell chimes to return to class. In fact, the boys get along well for most of the lunch break.

Specific learning difficulties and disabilities carry inherent challenges around being able to manage transitions. Outside of any diagnosed “disorder,” transitioning from one activity or task to another can be a challenge for any human.

It can happen in the big transitions from one job to a new career and in the daily transitions from one meeting to another.

Several studies have shown that heart attacks are most likely to occur on Mondays or Fridays — key transition times. Research points to stress and doesn’t specifically mention transition as a cause.

For me personally, I have an extended morning ritual to get myself prepared for the day. Transitioning straight to work is not a recipe for happiness.

I also avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings. I hard-schedule transition times to prepare for sessions so that I can be fully ready and in a good “space.”

A key piece of work I have been doing with the school is looking at how to manage and support the boys in their transitions from lunch to class.

Are you managing your expectations?

One of the boys struggles with high expectations placed on him by his mother, which in turn, he places on himself. At nine years old, “Jackson” is expected to help raise his two-year-old brother.

At school, Jackson feels a responsibility to manage the reactions and experiences of the other boys. When things don’t work out, he regularly melts down into sobbing tears.

I shared with Jackson that, as a nine-year-old, his only responsibility is to play and have fun. He looked at me as if I was speaking another language. So, I asked what it would look like if he let go of the need to rescue the other boys.

Again, this is a very human quality many adults struggle with. I could have easily listed the question above as, what can you let go of?

The “letting go” question feels so cliched, and often doesn’t get to specifically reflect on the expectations we create or carry for ourselves.

Are you aware of the company you keep?

Jackson also struggles with the quality of introjection. Many are familiar with the defence pattern of projection, where one projects their own issues onto others to deflect responsibility.

Introjection works in the opposite way. To introject means to take on the issues of others as if they are our own. When this happens it is difficult to discern what is mine from what is not.

Jackson is a highly sensitive child. Last week I observed his emotions escalate to a point he could no longer control himself. He was feeding off the energy of another boy.

This can be a challenge for adults too, especially if one is highly sensitive.

Children have little control over the company they keep — they are forced into small classrooms with other children who may not always be the best company. The thing is, Jackson likes other people and naturally gravitates towards people with strong emotions — even if they aren’t healthy to be around.

As an adult, I pay attention to how I feel in relation to the people I spend time with. Over time, I have come to manage time and relationships in a way that is healthy for my emotions.

Do you get enough silence?

There was a moment last week when Jackson was in the height of his emotional escalation and ran hide under a sofa. On the surface it appeared to be an avoidance of going to class, while I saw it as something deeper.

Jackson found a space that was most removed from the outer stimulation of the chaotic room and school.

Silence is a deeply human need, especially for those who are more sensitive or identify as introverted.

Time on devices is not silent time. We live in a culture that has all kinds of digital means of doing things alone. Rarely do these provide the genuine silence required to de-stimulate.

Workplaces are seeing an increasing need for mindfulness practices. Studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness can dramatically improve workplace productivity.

It is not always possible to control our outer environments, so it becomes important to be able to control our inner states and ability to create silence and stillness within.

Seeing the system beyond human behaviour

Human behaviour is often the final expression of deeper issues and causes. The boys I’ve been working with have a complex array of challenges including trauma, poor nutrition, learning difficulties, and unstable home lives.

Adults are no different. When someone shows up at work and acts in an undesirable way, it is likely reflective of deeper systemic issues. As a coach, my role is to help reveal and explore the one’s challenges in relation to their goals and the systems within which they live.

It is easy to look at the surface behaviour as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.” When a teacher or parent calls me about a child’s behaviour, I start with this awareness. It helps bring more compassion and clarity and can often lead to better results.


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