Behaviour management

Behaviour management is often talked about in groups where people are looking for ways to reduce challenging behaviours in children. When I see these conversations the people talking are often parents and teachers and “experts”, and the children are neurodivergent kids struggling to cope in their homes or classroom settings.

I see people asking for ways to protect themselves from being hit, ways to stop children from being oppositional, ways to get children interested in new activities, ways to stop children from stimming, ways to get children to do this or that and generally not to cause any trouble for the authority figure in their lives.

The strategies suggested generally are things like Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), Positive Behaviour Support (PBS), or are suggestions of strategies that to me seem based in the same methodology. That is, people’s recommendations generally are that the child needs to be taught to behave differently through some system of reward trade off for behaviour deemed desirable, or consequence trade off for behaviour deemed inappropriate. These styles of approaches are often called behaviour modification therapy or strategies.

I have to say, I don’t like them, and I think they are completely unnecessary . I’ll explain why.

People who advocate for the use of behaviour modification strategies, in my experience, are expecting the child to make changes that others want them to make. Often, if you look closely, the changes are for the convenience of the parent or teacher and are decided on by them. The strategies to induce change are also devised by the parent or teacher. These strategies are said to be helping the child learn a skill or develop a strategy. In truth, they are an externally imposed expectation the child will do something differently because someone told them to. The consequences of not complying are the withdrawal of something the child likes or wants. This kind of coerced compliance is dangerous for many reasons {I talk about some of them in  my ‘inclusion in the classroom’ series here}.

Coerced compliance produced by behaviour modification strategies starts with blaming the unwanted behaviour on something internal within the child. Some of you will say “no no, we look at external causes and then make changes”. If the changes you make are to the environment, then you are not doing what I am talking about. However, what I see too often is an unwanted behaviour being identified, a cause determined (maybe external and environmental) but then the responsibility being put on the child to learn a strategy to help them cope with the external trigger.

This is often a process that happens without the input of the child, and is an imposition of someone else’s opinions, priorities and desires onto the child’s life. At the core of the process, despite being a system touted as helpful, is the belief that the child is not competent to know what they need. The result of this belief is the child’s desperate attempts to communicate their genuine distress being labelled as misbehaviour and seen as something to be eliminated.

The ultimate results of all this are that the child learns their communication will be ignored, that they are seen as unable to determine, monitor and advocate for their own needs, and that to survive they need to do what they are told without questioning or face the consequences.

Sadly all this is perpetuated by people who genuinely do care and think they are doing the right thing. If the experts say this is the best approach for a good long term outcome, then they think they must do it, or be responsible for poor outcomes. But this is not true.

I am not saying that we ignore challenging behaviours and let kids do whatever they want when they are upset. It is important that children learn ways to cope with stress and distress. But, it is not true that if we do not force compliance in neurodivergent children that they will certainly have poor outcomes in their lives. A child communicating distress through challenging behaviour now is not a child who without intervention will grow up to be a lost cause.

So, what is the alternative?

There is a different way to support change in a child’s behaviour than imposing our own will over theirs. It begins with letting go of the temptation to manage behaviours, and replace it with the goal of meeting needs.

This shift in approach requires a shift in thinking. We must view each child as a person who has needs, and has the right to have those needs met, even if they are different than other children’s needs, different than expected, or even if they are in fact difficult to meet.

We must accept that it is a normal behavioural response to having our needs unacknowledged and unmet to lash out aggressively, to engage in attention seeking, and to do things others find annoying. Any of us would do that (and do) if put under enough pressure and if we feel unvalued and unheard. We must admit that as adults we expect children not to do things that are typical human behaviour, and that is not fair.

As adults, we must accept the responsibility of altering things about the environment we can control in order to meet the distressed child’s needs. We must acknowledge that sometimes we need to change things about ourselves and our behaviour in order to better support the child.

We must allow the child autonomy and respect their communication, even though it may not be a communication style that we think is ideal. We cannot ignore the message because the style of communication makes us uncomfortable.

We must listen to them with intent to hear and understand what is causing them discomfort or distress, then remove that cause. This will reduce the frequency of behaviours the parent and teacher find challenging or confronting.

Only after they have their needs met, and they feel safe, cared for and valued, is the time for looking at supporting children to make internal changes that will facilitate less challenging behaviours in times of stress.


If you found this article helpful, you may also like to read: 5 ways to meet neurodivergent children’s needs without using behaviour modification strategies




6 thoughts on “Behaviour management

  1. FireBrightStarSoul says:

    Reblogged this on Fire Bright Star Soul and commented:
    This is so needed.

    “These strategies are said to be helping the child learn a skill or develop a strategy. In truth, they are an externally imposed expectation the child will do something differently because someone told them to. The consequences of not complying are the withdrawal of something the child likes or wants. This kind of coerced compliance is dangerous for many reasons.”


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