The Secret to Bouncing Back from Big Behaviors for Parents and Teachers

The Secret to Bouncing Back from Big Behaviors for Parents and Teachers

We have been talking about resilience–what it is and how to grow it–for the past couple of weeks. Resilience is needed when we are faced with adverse or stressful events. Parents and teachers are no strangers to stress. A toddler who is having her fifth meltdown of the day or the 1st grader who cannot sit still and disrupts the rest of the class with his constant motion can cause the adults caring for them to feel overwhelmed. It can be so easy to feel that the child is purposefully misbehaving and being defiant. And then your blood starts to pound in your head. What can you do if this kid just doesn’t want to behave? You want to be able to bounce back and believe that you can change big behavior, because believing that you can change unpleasant situations is part of being resilient, right? But HOW when that child is howling in your ear or just knocked his desk over for the second time today???

We have a trick for you. It’s not quite a Jedi mind trick. But it is a simple phrase. First we’ll give you the phrase and then we will tell you how it works:

Big behavior isn’t who the child is; it’s just a skill deficit.

Here’s the how: When we believe that children choose big behaviors, we start to see misbehavior as part of his or her personality, who she or she is. And it’s hard to know how to change that. Do you try to convince the child not to misbehave? Do you punish the child? But you can’t reason with a toddler. And you can get into a cycle where you just seem to be punishing the same behavior again and again. It can start to feel pretty hopeless.

When you see big behavior as a skill deficit, then it’s a case of the child not knowing or not being able to always use the appropriate skill yet. So it doesn’t have to feel like a permanent part of the child’s personality. The child just doesn’t yet know how to do anything else in the situation. Yet. Parents and teachers help children with new skills all the time. Once you believe that the behavior is changeable, you can figure out how to do that. That gives you some control over the situation.

Think it sounds too simple? Well, teaching new skills does take time. And patience. And the ability to keep going even if the child actually acts worse for a little while (it is hard for kids to make changes, too). But it is easier to be patient and resilient during the third toddler meltdown of the day if you focus on the idea that she just hasn’t mastered the skill of using her words to say “I am mad” yet. And you can remember that yesterday, when you told her that she could not have a second cookie, she said “I am mad”. But she didn’t throw herself on the floor and scream. So she has gained skills. She just doesn’t yet use them all the time. Yet.

Resilience is about optimism and hope and the belief that you can change things for the better. When you think of big behavior as a skill deficit, you are telling yourself that this is not permanent, that this child can learn the skills so that he CAN sit still, or share, or do whatever will make his life (and yours) smoother. You may not be able to move rocks with this mind trick, but you may be able to make a big difference for a child.

Here are some posts with details about how to teach kids different skills:

Encouraging good behavior-

Balancing Limits and Reinforcement-Part 1: Making it Easy to do the Right Thing

Balancing Limits and Reinforcement-Part 2: Encouraging Cooperation and Avoiding Power Struggles

Cooperation-5 Tips for Teaching Cooperation

Sharing- Learning to Share (Sanely)

Social skills-Tips for Teaching Children Social Skills

Self-control-Helping Children to Build Their Self-Control

Image: © Flair Images |



Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.


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