EARLY CHILDHOOD — Why do children do what they do?

By Jaci Foged, Extension Educator

Have you ever really thought about how many times you have performed, or practiced, a particular task? Take opening a door for instance. How many times in your life would you say you have opened a door? 1,000 times? 10,000 times? This is something you now, most likely, do with very little thought.

However, just the other day, I watched an adult struggle with a door as he tried to enter our local grocery store. Even though this door had a sign on it telling the opener to “PULL,” he pushed, not once, not twice, but three times, before he stopped and looked for a clue as to how to get into the store.

Why did the man stop his behavior of pushing on the door to get in the grocery store? As adults, we have been able to practice this behavior over and over again, and for the most part, we are quite successful when it comes to using doors. Practice really does make perfect. That — and a good understanding of how doors work — help us to be successful with this task.

Learning for children comes with practice and repetition. They will not be good at opening doors (or any skill for that matter) until they have had many opportunities to practice the skill.

Children are also learning and practicing how they should respond to adults and their peers. This is done the very same way as learning to walk or open a door — through repetition and practice. They are observing and practicing what they need to do in order to get what they need, (i.e. from one place to another or through the door to the backyard).

Sometimes, as young children are practicing new skills, they engage in “challenging behaviors,” such as throwing tantrums, biting their friends and pushing over block towers. Why do children exhibit these and other challenging behaviors? The answer may surprise you.

Think about it. When children do not have an appropriate way to communicate (talking, singing, using pictures), they may resort to challenging behavior as a way to communicate.

The behavior your child exhibits sends a powerful message in which the child obtains something physical (toy, food, attention) or where the child gets to avoid or escape a situation (attention from grandma, a demand from a parent or finishing a chore).

When learning more about your child’s challenging behaviors, it can be helpful to put on your detective hat. Detectives are investigators who collect information to solve a problem. Over the next week, I would encourage you to become a detective, investigating at least one of your child’s challenging behaviors.

Watch their behavior carefully. Keep a tally of how many times it occurs each day. Take note of what happened before the behavior, how long the behavior lasted and how you reacted to the behavior. How did you handle it? Did you ignore it? Did you use redirection? Did you put your child in time out? Also note how often you react the same way to the same behavior.

The next step will be for you to ensure your expectations are clear. Keep it positive. Tell your child which behaviors they SHOULD do. Do not tell them which behaviors they SHOULD NOT do. Be clear and simply state the behavior you expect.

Make sure your expectations are appropriate for your child’s age. For instance, you may have a two year old and would like them to hang their towel up after a bath. However, they may be too short to reach the towel rack. Make sure you tell them in a positive way what to do with their towel. You may want them to hand it to you and ask for help, hang it over the side of the tub or even place it into the hamper.

When your child does what you ask them to do, be sure to praise them. Be specific, and again, be positive. For example, “Great job Cindy! Thank you for putting your towel in the hamper!”

It is important to have a few household rules. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) recommends 3–5 rules. These should be flexible enough to apply in any location, such as school, grandma’s house or a restaurant. Keep rules positive and use pictures whenever possible.

Help your child be successful; teach them what to do by practicing the household rules when they are NOT in trouble. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy your time together!

Nebraska Extension’s The Learning Child website at
https://child.unl.edu has
many resources, including:
• NebGuide: “Strategies for Helping Young Children with Self-Regulation” (G2287)
• NebGuide: “Self-Regulation in Early Childhood” (G2288)