Why Do They Do That? The 4 Functions of Behaviour in Children

As a fully grown and developed adult, we often pull our hair when our children intentionally misbehave. We know they know better, but yet they still manage to exhibit inappropriate behaviours and get on every last one of our nerves.

Inherently, children are not jerks. They do not act out simply to make us angry or upset. When they do behave in ways we do not approve of, they are likely fulfilling one of these 4 functions:

Simply remember the anagram SEAT (Sensory, Escape, Attention, Tangible) in order to determine the root cause of your child’s behaviour.

Remember, children are little people with feelings too. Be sure to rule out genuine emotional upset before exploring the possibility of one of these functions:

Sensory

The sensory function of behaviour is seen moreso with children on the Autism spectrum but can manifest in all children as well. Sensory behaviour is used to fulfill a sensory need by creating a pleasing sensation or avoiding adverse ones.

In children with Autism, this is called “self-stimulatory” behaviour and often looks like repetitive noises with the mouth, chewing, rocking or pushing the body against another object.

These behaviours can occur in a wide range of settings and while the child is alone. They basically do it because it feels good to do.

When it comes to children not on the spectrum, you may notice common behaviours such as blanket chewing or the refusal to wear clothes.

What To Do: You can help to decrease this behaviour by redirecting it to something more appropriate. Chewing of blankets can be replaced with therapy-grade rubber chewies and nakedness can be rectified by finding a more pleasing and comfortable material for your child to wear.

What Not To Do: Do not ignore the behaviour. You’re child is not trying to gain your attention and ignoring it will simply give them the unspoken permission to continue the behaviour.

Escape

How many times a day do you ask your child to do something they simply do not want to do? If you said “millions” then you are not alone. Depending on the task, children will often do whatever it takes to get out of doing it.

Escape behaviour can apply to more than just a task – it can include avoidance of people, places and certain environments. Children will try anything from whining to having a fit to avoid something they don’t want to deal with.

What To Do: If the demand is overwhelming for your child and causing an inappropriate behaviour, try decreasing the demand. For example, if you are locking horns with your child over cleaning their room, try having them put away their books first. With some praise and encouragement, you may find them independently completing the task.

What Not To Do: Do not give in. Children are smart and if you give in once they will expect you to give in again – and when you don’t, the behaviour may escalate.

Attention

Children love attention – the good, the bad and the ugly. If they feel they are not getting enough positive attention, they will behave in ways to gain negative attention.

Attention seeking behaviour is dependent upon access to other people or interactions with other people.

If a child is constantly nagged for having a messy room, and never praised for having a clean one, they may intentionally turn their room into a disaster zone just to get feedback from his or her parents.

What To Do: Ignore the behaviour when possible. Of course, if it is a matter of health and safety then you must intervene. Otherwise, ignore the behaviour you don’t want but praise the behaviour you do.

What Not To Do: Don’t reprimand the behaviour – this is just providing the negative attention they may be looking for.

Tangible

Something tangible is anything physical that can be gained, whether it is an item or activity.

We’ve all done it as children – asked our Mom or Dad for a toy at the store and pitched an absolute fit when we didn’t get it. Sure, we were probably genuinely upset but it’s likely we were hoping our kicking and screaming would force our parents to give in.

As parents, we have been on the other end and have probably given in just to make the madness stop. Well, when we do, we teach our children that acting out will help to get them what they want.

(I’m not saying that doing so infrequently is going to encourage this behaviour all the time. We’re only human, after all.)

What To Do: Deny them the item first and foremost. If it is an item or activity that is frequently the root cause of behaviour, include it in a reward system. For example, denying my daughter access to my phone used to result in a meltdown so I made it part of a reward system (specifically for pooping in the toilet).

What Not To Do: Don’t give in. However, if you have to give in, do not give in right away. Wait until the behaviour subsides and try to give the item or activity as a reward for a positive behaviour.

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