Teachers and parents are aware that it is very possible to find yourself stuck in a negative cycle of behaviour. It may be behaviour in general or it could be specific aspects of behaviour that get struck into a negative cycle. With parents and children, for example, it may be around bedtimes or mealtimes that negative behaviour cycles emerge. In schools, it could be particular lessons, or activities within lessons, reading or writing, for example, can be a flashpoint for many children and young people.
Out with the negative
Before you can begin to get rid of negative behaviour cycles there needs to be an understanding of what is happening and why it has become negative. The list below shows what might be happening in a negative cycle – once you reach the bottom the cycle may well start again.
Negative behaviour cycle
- Childs behaviour is undesirable, may be a response to the context or situation, to their feelings
- Carers feel angry/confused/frustrated
- Carer responds in a negative way – punishment/isolation/rejection
- Message to the child is negative – I am bad, my feelings don’t matter, I can’t do it
These messages cause negative feelings which either perpetuate the cycle or make it begin again on another occasion, gradually worsening over time.
Many parents will recognise this – it comes to bedtime, for example, and suddenly the child starts delaying and objecting, possibly crying or throwing a tantrum if young, the parent reacts angrily (understandably) and of course it doesn’t just happen once it happens repeatedly so then there is the added dynamic of adult stress, where often the adult will dread the situation, and be anxious as the time approaches. Children often pick up on that anxiety and this makes the child feel insecure and they will be even more likely to behave negatively.
A similar cycle can occur within classrooms and there can be a similar dynamic of adult stress and often anxiety for the child/young person as a particular lesson, situation or task approaches.
In both cases, unless action is taken the cycle will continue, very often becoming worse over time.
What can be done?
The first step is to recognise what is being communicated by the behaviour. Sometimes children will simply ‘challenge’ – they will push to see how far they can go and what the response is. But there are also many times when a child is communicating something, often a feeling or emotion, through their behaviour.
If it is in a school context then it may be they feel inadequate in some way or find the work too hard. Maybe they feel insecure, fear failing and being humiliated, lonely or feel that the teacher or other students don’t like them? Maybe they even like the status of being the one in trouble. Maybe they are behaving in a particular way because they have a whole range of unmet emotional needs or are worried and stressed about different situations outside of school.
So begin by acknowledging that they are behaving in a particular way for a reason. That will often mean that it is easier for you to remain calm.
It is important also not to let your own emotions dictate your response. It’s fine to have the emotion, and acknowledge it, but don’t let the anger, or frustration that you may feel cause you to respond in a negative way which often fuels the situation. That doesn’t mean you reward their behaviour it simply means that as the adult you make certain choices about how to react and ‘manage’ the situation.
Also, make sure that you ‘respond’ to the behaviour NOT the child, make explicit to them that it is the behaviour that is ‘problem’ not them.
Very often the children with the greatest needs exhibit the most challenging behaviour, but what will bring change is for them to have some of those needs addressed. To be reassured, to know they are accepted and are of value even if they can’t do the work but everyone else can. They often need to feel secure and reassured that things will be ok. If children have experienced rejection trauma or issues with the attachment they will need to know that they are valued and cared for and they may have the belief that they will be rejected and ‘push’ to make you reject them too.
By taking these steps you can change the cycle from a negative one into something much more positive not only for the child but for adults involved as well.
Positive behaviour cycle
- Child exhibits difficult or challenging behaviour
- Adult experiences negative emotions anger/frustration/disappointment
- Adult acknowledges behaviour may stem from a child’s needs
- Adult notes own feelings but respond with acceptance and reassurance
- Message to the child – they are valued and accepted and they can trust the adult
Over time child can develop new ways of behaving in a safe secure context
The responsibility to change the cycle must lie with an adult, after all the way that the cycle can change relies on someone managing emotions and making choices about behaviour, which is sometimes more than a child or young person can manage. In fact not having strategies to articulate or manage emotions may well be the very reason why they are behaving in a way that is challenging.
Teachers & Parents
Although the relationship of a child or young person with a teacher may be very different from that with a parent, it is possible in both for the behaviour cycles to become negative. In schools it is likely to be over behaviour within the classroom, non-compliance – not doing as they are asked, behaviour which stops others learning, or hostile behaviour towards adults or other children.
At home, non-compliance may still be an issue, or it could be there are problems when going out, playing with other children, mealtimes, bath times or when leaving the child for a short time or at any other point in the day.
Whatever the context try taking a step back, putting yourself in the child’s shoes and working out what they may be trying to communicate to you through their behaviour. Make sure you can stay calm and approach the child with a caring, nurturing manner.
We have probably all seen, or experienced situations that quickly descend into a negative cycle that is repeated often, and they can be very exhausting for the adults involved so try a different approach and see if it is possible to change the cycle.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Sheila Mulvenney and published with kind permission. The article was originally published in 2015, and updated in 2020 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with website and policy updates. The original post can be found here.