How to Deal with Difficult Public Behaviors #1

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

We have all battled, or at least witnessed, a tantrum throwing toddler showing off her best vocals in a crowded public arena. As a parent of said screaming child, we often feel incredibly frustrated, an appropriate and normal reaction to a situation in which we are no longer in control of our environment. How we react to a loss of control, staying calm, yelling, pleading, bribing is our behavior. What we should also realize is that the child is also reacting to a loss of environmental control and her tantrum is her way of communicating.

Recognizing that our children's behaviors are a reaction to their attempt to control their environment is an essential tool in creating parenting strategies and teaching our children socially appropriate behaviors. In order to help parents navigate this often tricky interaction, I have written this and another blog post addressing difficult behaviors and identifying strategies for helping children and parents create positive patterns of behavior. We will explore how to guide children in the process of learning to control their environment in a socially appropriate way. I will illustrate a specific situation and provide a solution I have found to work in my teaching.

As we go through this series, I’d like us all to be mindful that most parents are working hard for their child and their family. All too often I see glaring glances or hear ugly comments made to parents who are doing the best they can with a child that is having a meltdown. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be supportive rather than judgemental?

Photo by Marco Albuquerque on Unsplash

Let’s try this: When you see a parent working through one of these situations, walk up to them, give a little smile, tell them you know how hard it is, and say “Well done.” Simply offer your solidarity through a quick positive interaction when a parent is feeling at their lowest.

Now that we all have a common goal, let’s get back to the purpose of this series.

Let’s start this blog series by discussing the two main behaviors children present when faced with a loss of environmental control.

Paul is a kindergartner who struggles with transitions. For example, when entering the classroom Peter has difficulty with the daily routine of removing his jacket, placing his snack in the designated snack area and entering the free play zone. He will often remain in the entrance, interacting with and often distracting other children until the teacher can direct him through the process. In the field of behavioral science , difficult behaviors in children are understood as a mechanism children use to control their environment. It is understood that behaviors can be boiled down to two purposes: to gain access to something or avoid something. Sensory stimulation and attention seeking can also be layered on top of the two main reasons for behaviors.

This week, try to identify if a child is trying to gain access or trying to avoid.

‘Paul’ is 5 years old and loves to go to the park down the street from his house. He typically goes with his big sister and his mom after school, especially when they are off on Wednesday afternoons. Paul’s favorite activity at the park is the swings. Sometimes when they get to the park, the swings are being used by other children. Paul reacts in one of two ways when he realizes he cannot access the swings immediately: he either throws his body to the ground and starts to yell and scream or he tries to push someone off the swing.

As a result of Paul’s behaviors his mother has become anxious when going to the park. In order to help change Paul’s behaviors she has decided to start talking to Paul before going to the park to help prepare him for this possibility. She tells him that when the swings are full he will not yell and scream or push someone off the swing. Paul always nods his head and seems to understand his mother fully. However, even after these conversations at home, Paul still becomes very upset when the swings are full. Paul’s mother is considering discontinuing their visits to the park because it is causing everyone involved so much stress.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

This is a common issue, especially as children attempt to control their environment and make themselves comfortable. All humans aim to establish a certain amount of control in order to navigate their environment and maintain a level of comfort that minimizes anxiety. Children are learning this process and there is a spectrum where comfort lies.

In this case, Paul is trying to gain access to a ride on the swings. Paul’s mother is feeling helpless because she doesn’t understand why he is continuing to have these behaviors even though they have talked about what not to do when the swings are taken.

Paul is probably thinking about the park long before they arrive. He pictures himself arriving at his favorite park and running directly to his favorite swing. He can feel the wonderful sensations of the swing and becomes very excited to get there. His mom is talking to him about the park and says that there may be other kids on the swings, but all that Paul can picture is his perfect scenario. At this point, Paul’s thoughts are fixed...he will ride on the swing the second they arrive at the park. These thoughts become repetitive and bring Paul happiness.

In this situation, my suggestion would be for Paul’s mom to help Paul create a Plan B.

A few days before going to the park, she should discuss with Paul that there may be other children on the swings when they arrive at the park. It is essential that they have this conversation when Paul is calm and not preoccupied. She should also use short 5-7 word sentences with pauses between each sentence. Adding too many details and speaking too quickly can be confusing. Sentences should be short, sweet, and to the point!

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

I would also recommend to Paul’s mother that she have him draw a picture of the park or or if drawing is difficult for Paul, have him describe where all the different playground equipment is located in the park while she draws for him. She can then ask Paul to decide on which pieces of equipment he likes to play and number them from his favorite to his least favorite.

Now it is time to pretend (physically act this out) that the swings are full. Place items around the room that Paul’s mom and Paul decide to represent all the pieces of equipment at the park. The parent is now the actor. Armed with the picture of the park in her pocket, Paul’s mom can walk into the representative park saying out loud what she knows Paul is thinking in his head, “I’m so excited to swing at the park!” She should stop quickly upon seeing the swings are full. Then stomp her foot on the ground and say, “I don’t like it when the swings are full!”. She can then take the drawing of the playground out of her pocket, look at the picture of the park and see where her second choice is located and calmly walk away from the swings. When her modeling of appropriate behavior is completed it is Paul’s turn to practice the scenario.

I would recommend to Paul’s mom that they practice this scenario a few times before going to the park together. Paul needs to have this routine comfortably established before re-entering the park. When they arrive at the park Paul’s mom should stand back and let Paul work out the scene on his own. However, if he begins to struggle she can , act out the steps so he can see the correct behavior. For example, Paul has just stomped his foot and yelled the prescribed line. He doesn’t seem able to move to the next step, his mom should make eye contact with Paul and silently point to her pocket to signal that he should take the paper out of his pocket (or have a similar piece of paper in her pocket). Not only is she allowing Paul to continue the process as they have established and practiced, but he can also continue to feel independent in resolving the situation on his own.

As soon as Paul arrives at the piece of playground equipment, positive reinforcement is important. Paul’s mom should praise him with a huge smile and include words of encouragement including how hard she knows he worked. Also, she should keep watch out for when the swings open so he can enjoy the delayed reward of swinging!

Photo by Myles Tan on Unsplash

Creating a Plan B is a great resource for families. Not all troublesome scenarios can be planned for, but working on situations will help create a pattern of how to make a Plan B. The biggest take away from this idea is that we cannot take for granted that children are able to make these plans on their own. Creating a format which includes thinking through the problem, creating a plan and then role-playing is a strategy we all use in our daily lives. Children often need help understanding and learning how to use this process when faced with a variety of factors in different environments.

April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. April helps globally mobile families as they search for the best school for their child with special needs. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link:

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