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Blog: Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

The Challenge of Defiance and Tantrums

by Marie VanDalfsen - Principal, Sandy Hill Elementary

As you are aware, our main school goal focuses on social-emotional learning for our students. We are helping our students understand that they are able to learn to regulate their learning and their emotional responses to situations. They are learning to identify feelings such as worry, frustration, anger and related behaviors as well as the strategies that they can use to help them regulate their behavior responses to various stimuli or situations. We are also teaching students that having a growth mindset, that looks for progress towards a goal, including behavior focused goals, will help them become more self-aware and self-regulated in learning and social settings.

For those of us who are parents, grandparents, or teachers, there is nothing so frustrating as trying to manage a child who has challenging behavior. For many of us, it is often a mystery as to what the child is striving for when he or she acts out. Other times we know the child needs attention, and that she will accept negative attention because it is attention and is predictable and more obvious than the soft positive attention provided. We also understand that for some children their frustration levels or their emotional responses to situations results in outbursts and meltdowns. Parents and teachers also realize that tantrums can be a compelling escape motivated strategy for a child not wanting to face a difficult, or boring, or overwhelming task. And then there is the oppositional-defiant responses of the child who needs to be in control and appears to argue or defy purposefully just because he or she can. Most parents and teachers, through experience, become adept at identifying the challenging behaviors and at times may even correctly identify the function of the challenging behavior over time. Where we tend to stumble is in our knowledge of how to help the child learn more successful response strategies to getting his or her needs met.

Changing behavior is a significant challenge—for both the child and the parents or teachers.  Behavior change is predicated upon adults correctly understanding the function of the behavior and on understanding the role teachers and parents have in helping to change a child’s behavior responses.  Taking a growth mindset towards behavior change, recognizing that with a deliberate plan of action, one that includes accommodations, interaction strategies and adult responses based on the function of the child’s behavior plays a critically important role in that behavior change. One classroom strategy used that reflects a growth mindset and positive behavior reinforcement is the Super Improvers strategy where teachers (and parents) catch the child making positive choices—any positive choice. For example, if you ask the child to pick up their toys and they do so without delay and complaint, you celebrate it with, “I was impressed with how you looked after your toys so quickly.” If the child helps out in some way, acknowledge it specifically, “You were so helpful when you___.” Some classroom teachers implement this strategy as a whole class building both student and class community growth in making positive choices and others will implement it for specific children. This strategy helps us reinforce desired behaviors rather than the usual focus on undesired behaviors.

We plan on sharing other tips and strategies for supporting children with challenging behaviors at the upcoming PAC meeting in April. Hope to see you there!