There are times when adults see certain behavior in children that is puzzling. If we follow the premise that behavior is learned, then it goes without saying that some behavior is taught and others behavior is learned by observation. By observation, it is meant that learners view models and act in similar or exact ways. Additionally, how you as an adult respond to a child’s behavior will play a part in how they behave in the future. Keeping adult behavior in mind can go a long way in understanding and shaping the behavior of children.
With this in mind, whether you are a parent or professional, if you are an adult, children will learn how to behave by observing how you behave. We are not merely talking about “role-models” that children see in their favorite actors or sports figures, we are talking about modeling in general. Many times, simply saying how certain behavior should occur is not enough -- we need to play the part as well.
Let’s take, for instance, vocal protest. A child is not born saying “No” and refusing to comply. They may see this behavior modeled by another peer, but they may also have learned it by observing adults. Maybe, a spouse asks their significant other to take out the garbage, and the significant other says “I’ll do it later,” and it never gets done. For children observing this, they may have just learned one strategy for getting out of non-preferred activities.
Another consideration for your behavior is how you consequate a child’s behavior. Under the behavior analytic model, we are far more concerned with what follows (the consequence) a particular behavior, rather than what comes before (the antecedent). There is an entire science (Applied Behavior Analysis) devoted to studying this Response-Consequence connection that is far beyond the scope of this post, but it is important to delve into topically.
For the same example of vocal protest illustrated above, if a child protests and gets out of the activity, the probability of them complying in the future is decreased. This goes almost without saying; however, if you become frustrated, or start nagging and pestering, you may have inadvertently shaped up escape behavior AND added an additional attention component (the nagging).
The important thing to keep in mind with attention is that there are different types of attention. Some children, for whatever reason, may prefer negative attention because they know that what follows (the consequence) is avoiding the task at hand. Some children would rather spend 40 minutes tantruming and being yelled at than one minute complying. If you remain calm and follow-through you will increase future success. Even if the episode has escalated into a tantrum, following through on even a small detail as it relates to the initial demand may increase future success for completion of the larger goal.
There is also a consideration for how adults behave even with children they do not know. If a child is flopping and screaming in the grocery store, and you are staring at the child and parent/caregiver, you have just become an audience member to that situation. Judgments aside, providing an audience for an acting out child may increase the intensity of their tantrum. Think of how you behave when you are being watched. If you are at work, and are doing something correct or efficiently, there may have been an instance where you increased your intensity to be noticed when your supervisor walks by. Examples like this are pertinent to compare and contrast adult and child behavior because they are similar in that there is a motivation component, only the observable behavior is different (tantruming vs. working).
A lot of how a child behaves is going to depend on the model you provide and your reactions in situations. If you can make activities fun and worthwhile, remain patient, and always remember to think about how your actions will affect a child’s behavior, you are already one step in the right direction for teaching appropriate behavior and squashing the inappropriate.
Lastly, and this may take some reminding, but you are the adult. Remembering to act like an adult, even in difficult, uncomfortable, or frustrating scenarios will have an impact on a child’s behavior. And this remains true whether or not you even know the child.