Behavior Due to the Child Not Knowing but Being Ready to Learn

How do I know if my child’s behavior may be due to the child not knowing what to do, but being ready to learn?

Sometimes, children behave the way they do because they simply do not know any better! They may not know or remember what the new rules are or what they mean. Or they may not understand what is expected of them in a given situation. Young children are continuously learning things for the first time and often need many, many reminders. Think of the many times you may have found yourself sighing, “I’ve told him a hundred times!” Rules that you have known for so long make perfect sense to you but may not for your young child. These rules need to be learned and internalized, which takes time.
Ask yourself:

  • Have I ruled out that my child’s behavior is not mainly due to a developmental stage, an individual difference, or the environment?
  • Is my child in a new or unfamiliar situation? This may create confusion and uncertainty in children who are unaware of what is expected of them.
  • Is my child facing a new task or problem? Mastering new tasks requires new ways of problem solving and understanding, which takes time.
  • Is my child’s age contributing to the behavior? Is my child very young? It may sound simplistic, yet for young children almost everything is a new task, situation, or relationship!

What is my child communicating? How can this understanding help me know how to respond?

Does your child not know the rules or expectations of a new situation? If so, his behavior may be communicating to you that he needs your help to explain something to him. He is unable to figure out what is needed on his own. You can support your child in these situations by providing consistent, supportive guidance in the following ways:

  • Be willing to teach your child what is expected. In this situation, stopping the behavior is not enough. You need to help your child to know what to do instead. Example: I can’t let you draw on our walls. If you want to make a big picture, let’s put up some paper on the wall outside and you can draw on the paper. Crayons are for drawing on paper.
  • Explain WHY. Providing a simple explanation helps children to understand why something is okay or not. Knowing the “why” helps children to understand a limit or expectation and more quickly accept and internalize the concept. Communicating to children the reasons for particular rules, limits, or expectations also helps model for children decision-making and problem-solving skills.
  • Give encouragement for small successes and always offer help when needed. Children are continuously faced with new and challenging tasks and situations. Providing praise for small successes helps to foster their sense of self-esteem and can encourage them to keep trying when things are difficult.
  • Be patient. While children may “know” a new rule, limit, or expectation the first time they hear it from you, there is a difference between knowing and genuine comprehension. True comprehension takes time. Try to be patient with yourself and your child during these times.

A FRAMEWORK FOR UNDERSTANDING CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOR
THE CHILD DOES NOT KNOW BUT IS READY TO LEARN: SKILLS & KNOWLEDGE

Why Is This Happening? What Questions Can I Ask? What Is My Child Trying to Communicate? Steps/ Strategies for Interventions
Sometimes, children behave the way they do because they simply do not know any better! They may not know or remember what the new rules are or what they mean. Or they may not understand what is expected of them in a given situation.
  • Could the behavior be due to a developmental stage, an individual difference, or something in the environment?
  • Is my child’s age influencing the behavior? Is it because my child is very young?
  • Is my child in a new or unfamiliar situation?
  • Is my child facing a new task or problem?
“I need you to explain something to me. I don’t know what you expect of me.”
  1. Teach.
  2. Be ready to explain over and over and to explain why.
  3. Give reasons.
  4. Give encouragement for small successes.
  5. Be patient with failures.
  6. Always offer help.

Links & Resources » Behavior / Discipline

References
The framework for understanding your child’s behaviors is based upon an adaptation of James Hymes’ Understanding Your Child by Kadija Johnston, LCSW, Director of the UCSF Infant Parent Program, and is used with her permission.

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