Understanding behavior

How do we change 'difficult' behavior and encourage 'good' behavior?

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Buckley, S. (2004) Understanding behavior. Down Syndrome News and Update, 3(4), 117-117. doi:10.3104/practice.323

Social strengths

Most researchers and observers agree that social understanding is usually a real strength for children and teenagers with Down syndrome. From the first months of life, they are smiling and enjoying interaction with everyone around them and they tend to be good at understanding emotional cues and social behaviors. This does not mean that they are well behaved at all times - like all other children and adolescents, they will often want more independence and control than is safe or appropriate for their age - but longer term, most teenagers and adults are socially competent and friendly individuals.

Behaviors are learned

Almost all of our behavior is learned - much of it from imitating others in our social worlds from infancy to adult life. Social behaviors are mostly learned from imitating the behavior of those around us, and other more educational, vocational or practical skills are usually taught. Rewards play a significant role in shaping our behavior - think of the reaction of infants when we clap and praise them and how this almost always leads them to repeat the action. We are usually very responsive to pleasing others and being praised, and equally sensitive to being criticised or making someone cross, especially a loved one.

Psychologists have made systematic studies of behavior over many years and shown that behaviors that are rewarded tend to increase and appear more often, while behaviors that are not rewarded tend to disappear. The technical term for a reward that increases a behavior is a reinforcer (this may seem unnecessary jargon but some of the most common reinforcers are not always obvious rewards e.g. just getting attention is often reinforcing for a child even though the attention may involve being told off).

Behaviors can be unlearned

It follows that if behaviors become more persistent when rewarded that they should disappear if not rewarded. In the jargon - if we want to extinguish (change) a behavior, we must stop rewarding it. Once this is understood, it becomes clear that the adults around a child (and possibly the other children) need to change their behavior if they want the child's behavior to change. It is no use 'blaming' the child and expecting the child to change because we ask them to - especially when the child has limited language comprehension. We need to think about how we are reacting each time the child behaves in a difficult or inappropriate way and to realise that our reaction is usually rewarding - then decode how to stop rewarding the behavior.

Behaviors need to be replaced

Often 'difficult' behaviors occur because a child does not have the positive or appropriate behaviors for the situation. For example, a child may throw toys or may disrupt other children in preschool or school because he or she does not yet know how to play constructively with the toy, or how to join in with the lesson. It is often, therefore, more important to decide what positive behaviors to teach a child rather than spend time deciding how to get rid of a behavior you do not want.

The first two articles in this issue are both concerned with ways in which we can help children to develop appropriate behaviors. The first article is on sleep and covers more than behavior issues, but the authors do explain that many of the bedtime and night waking difficulties are behaviors that we, as parents inadvertently end up reinforcing - thus turning them into learned behaviors. The second article is concerned with managing daytime behavior, with an imaginative emphasis on strategies for classroom or home which really focus on rewarding positive behavior rather than spending time on the negative behaviors.

Build on the social strengths

Often children with Down syndrome are using their good social understanding to be 'naughty' or 'in control'. It is because they know how to get the adult to react they way they want that they are often so successful at the 'naughty' stuff! What we need to do is to help them to use their strengths to be fully socially included and successful, and this starts with not 'babying' or 'making excuses' for their inappropriate behaviors - a word with granny, aunty or even dad, may be needed here. It certainly helps to be sure all teachers, school staff and other children also do not 'baby' a child but expect age-appropriate behavior.

It's worth the effort

Behavior change programs such as those described in the two articles really do work if you plan well and you are consistent. Difficult behavior creates much stress for everyone and we are certainly not acting in a child's best interests when we allow difficult behavior to continue. Being able to behave in a socially acceptable manner allows a child or teenager or adult join fully in the social life of the family, school and community - to have friends and to be happy.