“How do I deal with this child’s disruptive behaviour?” It’s a common question. Before I give my answer to it, I think it’s really important to understand the question that is really being asked.
The most telling clues about what is behind this question are found in the conversations that occur around it. Comments like “they are interrupting the class”, “they won’t stop asking questions”, “they are being rude”, “I don’t know how to get them to stop”, “I wish they would just…. sit still/ be quiet/ concentrate/ do their work when they are asked to/ listen to instructions the first time….”.
These comments tell me that the person is looking for compliance. They want the child to just do as they are told, no questions asked, no further effort needed. Compliance is a highly valued thing in many contexts. Schools, sporting clubs, and other community groups rely on it to run smoothly, many families value it as an indicator of “good” parenting, government systems enforce it as a form of control, and retailers bank on it when they advertise.
Unfortunately the value placed on compliance means we are asking the wrong question when it comes to disruptive behaviour. All behaviour communicates a need. Children are so very rarely disruptive simply for the sake of being disruptive. Their behaviour is telling you something about how they are feeling, and usually that they have an unmet need that they can’t articulate. Sometimes though, they are clearly saying what they need, but are ignored because their behaviour is deemed to be “inappropriate”.
Instead of trying to “deal with” it- trying to control the behaviour by enforcing compliance- we should be asking “what is the child telling me with their behaviour and how can I respond to support them?”
Looking at disruptive behaviour as a communication of need rather than a desire to cause inconvenience instantly compels us to change the way we respond. If we aren’t caught up in thinking the child is causing us a problem, but instead assume the child is having a problem they need help with, we can approach the situation with compassion and begin to look for ways to help them.
An approach that values the child as a unique human with rights, rather than as a problem to be overcome, means that we are no longer comfortable with offering strategies that “deal with” disruptive behaviour using raised voices, time outs, ultimatums, consequences and punishments, and forced or coerced compliance.
Importantly, letting go of the idea that children should be controlled allows us to open our minds to the realisation that not all children are capable of compliance. There are many valid reasons a child may be disruptive. Their neurological make up might be such that they do not have the same attention span of others in the group. Their sensory processing style might be making it impossible for them to focus in on your voice in some settings. Their individual learning style might not be the same as most of the group. Their anxiety might get in the way of them being able to process information delivered verbally in large chunks.
Understanding that there is significant diversity in any group of people leads us to ask some new questions.
Maybe we need to look at altering some of our teaching strategies to better suit the students learning style? Maybe we need to talk to the student and find out what they are finding difficult or overwhelming so we can better understand what might help them to engage more productively during an activity? Maybe there are things we can change in the environment that will reduce the challenges students face? Maybe if we alter our own communication style we will be more effective in making ourselves heard by all students?
I find that often disruptive students are the ones that thrive when given more reassurance, encouragement, clearer instructions and a bit of one on one attention. A gentle approach to people who behave in ways we find confronting is not only more respectful, it is going to be more beneficial to all parties in the long run. Finding ways to meet the child’s needs will mean the child will be able to participate more fully in the experience being offered and will reduce the occurrence of disruptive behaviours.
It might seem counter-intuitive when things are stressful as a result of disruptive behaviour, but making less of an effort to control and more of an effort to connect helps us all.