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When are persistent behaviour issues problematic from a well-being point of view?

by Jane Evans on August 2

Under developed brains are bound to make mistakes!

It is part of being a child to learn the what, how and when of life. Mistakes are normal but when a child repeatedly seems to struggle with simple things like engaging in an activity, being around other children, eating, toileting and having fun then we need to be extra curious about what might be going on for them.Children are all about connection and communication, their developing brains mean that they can generally only share and show their complex feelings, needs and thinking via their behaviour. We need to bear in mind that the brain is believed to finish developing towards the late 20’s for women and almost into the 30’s for men! Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that a 3 year old may well not have a clue as to why they pushed Jack over, or how Jack is now feeling. Likewise they won’t understand why they are being moved on to the sad, cloudy part of the behaviour chart! They will feel ashamed and a disconnection from the adult they depend upon, but little else.

Why do children persistently behave badly?

When children can master things, they do. Neurons in the brain wire together based upon the input from the outside world, especially from a child’s relational experiences. The brain and body organise based on key developmental ‘windows’ at certain times and the input they experience from those they are closest to. Once a child learns to walk they continue walking. Once they begin to talk, unless traumatised or shamed, they carry on talking. Once they master being able to wait for a turn, (many adults are still working on this) then mostly they will. Genes play a part in this but the quality and quantity of relational experiences are most important.

If they could they would

Children are predisposed to enhance their survival by getting on with others, especially those they rely upon for safety and nurture. If they keep pushing a child over, not sitting when asked to, refusing to pick up toys, getting very emotional about daily mishaps then we need to be curious not punitive. Why are they struggling so much? It helps to remember they are doing the best they can, and that “If they could they would.”

Attachment research and theory shows that children are all about seeking connection with key caregivers. Secure attachment with a caregiver is important for a baby or toddler’s lifelong physical and mental well-being. When a child’s relational experiences cause them too much stress as there is an uncertainty about being ‘seen’ emotionally and physically they get overwhelmed and become prone to ‘toxic stress’. The quality and quantity of the interactions they have, or don’t have, with key caregivers will increase or decrease their anxiety levels whilst profoundly shaping their body and brain development.

Many children who present with behaviours adults find difficult to accept are anxious children who are mostly in fight or flight. They need adults who are compassionately curious about what lies behind and beyond these presenting behaviours.

Key questions are:

·         What do they need from me to help them feel safe?

·         When and what are they most stressed by?

·         What comforts them?

·         What is, or has been, happening for them?

What do they need from us?

Children need every one of their behaviours to be met with a compassionate response from the adults around them. Then they feel safe to learn and to show more of their needs and struggles. If a child is being emotionally and/or physically abused at home they may well be lashing out or be withdrawn, unresponsive and at times immovable. These can all seem like ‘challenging behaviours’ which can lead to a child being seen as angry, aggressive, sulky, one who doesn’t listen, stubborn … the list can be a long one.

If we stand squarely in the space of what has happened to this child, or what is happening to this child then that is much more respectful and beneficial to them. After all, they can rarely tell us what’s wrong, they can only show us. Our job is to be curious and see their behaviour through a ‘compassion filter.’ The same goes for their parents or carers who may also be presenting with irrational, difficult, reactive or withdrawn behaviours that making forming relationships with them a real challenge. Again, be curious.

·         What are they afraid of?

·         What do they need to feel safe enough to begin to interact with you?

Curiosity is the key

To be able to access and stay in that space of ‘compassionate curiosity’ it is vital to have peers, supervisors and managers who are able to offer this freely. Working with children and their parents and carers is far from straight forward and takes a great deal of emotional and physical energy. No one can pour from an empty cup so this needs to be part of the ethos of an early years setting for everyone.

What compassionate curiosity-based care can look like in practice:

For the fourth time in a row Emma takes a toy from another child. She is two and a half years old and Mum is worried she is not going to be good at sharing. The other child is crying and Emma seems unaware and is playing with the train she now has.

You comfort the other child.

At the same time check in with yourself and take a breath so you can be calm and compassionate with Emma.

Check in with Emma, “Are you OK Emma?”

You move towards Emma.

“Was as it hard to wait for a turn with the train Emma? How are you feeling now? Shall we take a deep breath together?

You breathe deeply saying “I’m feeling calmer now, how about you? Would you like me to rub your back Emma?” (It is likely she did get a sense of the other child’s distress so is stressed as well)


“Is it OK if I sit/lie near you?”

“I think Sam might be feeling a bit worried now as the train she was playing with got taken away? What do you think? Does she look worried and may be a bit sad? How about you Emma were you getting worried you wouldn’t get a turn with the train?”

“I wonder what we could do next time to help with all these big feelings about having a turn with the train.”


“May be you could look for a grown up to help you? Or, look for a toy to offer to Sam to play with?”

Emma is 2 ½ years old so her capacity to verbally respond and intellectually process all of this will be limited but that is not the point here. What you are aiming at is building her awareness of her own, and of other’s feelings.

Empathy is built in to a child’s brain through experiences of empathising and being empathised with. Over time Emma’s brain will wire up to be more able to wait as she eventually can sense her anxiety about ‘not getting a turn’ and learns that it will upset the other child to have a toy taken away.

I have known very able 4 year olds who are very insightful about others feelings and their own because they have been through this process for all situations and behaviours. Connections are made between brain cells based upon repeat experiences which take time. It means as practitioners we have to be calm and ready to put the best possible meaning to a child’s behaviour and not a negative one.

Working together

As a setting and as a team it is important to have discussions about:

·         What it brings up for you to move away from consequences for behaviours

·         Whether you can ‘trust’ a different approach

·         How you will work with the children’s families to explain this

·         What you will need from each other to put this in place and sustain it as a setting

Remember, “If they could they would”.


W: Twitter: @janeparenting2

Jane Evans

In Jane's own words, she has 'walked the ‘lasting life change’ walk. Transforming from being shy, stressed and scared, to going head to head live on TV with Piers Morgan and others. Calmly, confidently and competently holding my own, and sharing my expertise, whilst challenging the norm.'