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Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, November 26, 2018

Preschool Child Defiant or Disruptive? Some Ideas You Might Want to Use

When preschool children are defiant, disobedient, and disruptive, there are a lot of difficulties created for everyone. Nothing goes smoothly at home, from getting dressed to bedtime. For today’s multitasking families, having a child who gets expelled from preschool or day care can be a disaster. Parents become concerned over the child’s future--  what happens when he (usually, but not always) gets bigger and it’s impossible to force compliance? And the child too suffers from a constant barrage of disapproval and punishment, gets kicked out of story hour at the library, and is not allowed to play at the houses of friends whose mothers have had enough of dealing with bad behavior.

What can be done to help these children and their families? It’s clear that more punishment, time-outs, even spankings are not the answer, but tend to make the situation even worse.

In response to the high number of expulsions and suspensions of preschool children, positive behavioral intervention and support (PBIS) has been developed. It seems to be an effective way for schools and teachers to deal with problem behavior in preschoolers, and it can be used by parents as well. This approach depends on figuring out why and under what circumstances young children misbehave—something they can’t explain to you no matter how much you ask them.

Very few children are actually defiant, disobedient, and disruptive all the time, even if it sometimes feels that way to adults. When they do misbehave, the problem may be as much or more about the circumstances, the time, and the place, as about the child’s own nature. Unfortunately, frequent child misbehavior makes adults mad, impatient, and in a hurry to punish even though nothing has happened yet. This makes matters worse, as both child and adult begin to anticipate trouble and to expect bad experiences with each other, and both may become less and less able to deal effectively even with small problems.

However, if we can pinpoint the situations where preschoolers have trouble  behaving well, we may be able to take special care with those situations and slow down or stop the development of serious social problems. Anticipating that a child may find some experience difficult to deal with can allow an adult to “buffer” the situation, reduce its impact on the child, and guide the child through the troubled time. How do you pinpoint and anticipate hard times? It’s difficult unless you have some systematic way to do it.

you can find a template for observing a child’s behavior and keeping a record of what you see. Doing this systematically for each behavior problem can let you see a pattern of behavior that will help explain why the child is having trouble and what you may be able to do to help improve things. Records like this should be made when children are physically aggressive to adults or other children, when they run off from where they should be and don’t answer adult calls, and when the child does things like head-banging or self-biting that could cause injury—really important problem behaviors that need to be stopped for the good of everyone concerned. (You may also want to keep records of tantrums, inappropriate language, hitting, destroying property, and disruptive behavior if children persist in these even as they get older or if your usual methods do not seem to handle them effectively.)

The form stresses the circumstances that accompanied the behavior problem, for example, large or small group activities, nap time, or meals. Young children often have difficulty in handling transitions of any kind, whether it’s getting dressed, leaving home in the morning, having Mom leave and Dad or a baby-sitter arrive, the beginning of mealtimes, and so on. If this is the case, the cure may be for adults to anticipate the transition and give a “distant early warning”—tell the child what will happen five or ten minutes early, or use a timer of some kind to help the child prepare (this gets easier when they can tell time). The child may have had exactly the same experiences the day before and we might think he will know what’s happening, but this may not be one of the skills of a 3- or 4-year-old, who needs to be reminded in order to accept changes that adults want without so much difficulty. Sometimes transitions are allowed to be too open-ended, as when an adults tells the child it’s time to leave but then gets caught up in a phone call or other adult event, which can create almost as much trouble as failing to give warning.

Positive behavior interventions and supports also involve giving praise when children are behaving as we would like them to, rather than just taking good social behavior for granted and getting angry at or punishing unwanted behavior.  Although people usually concentrate on what children do wrong, it may also be important to record the times and circumstances when a child does very well, and to be prepared to praise and thank the child for that desirable behavior.

The point of PBIS is to watch carefully to figure out preschoolers’ social strengths and weaknesses. When there are clear weaknesses under certain circumstances, we can often tweak the circumstances or use friendly guidance to make things a bit easier until a child masters a social or self-regulatory skill. We would do this for educational or athletic skills, for example by reminding an older child to “sound out” a word she can’t read, or by helping a child practice dribbling a ball. But we often forget that children have to learn how to behave as well as to read or play a game.  

Although PBIS methods were created for use in schools, they can work for parents too, and can help stop the vicious circle of child misbehavior and parent anger. And, if your child is expelled from preschool or day care, remind the school that PBIS is available--  and it works.

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