The Meaning of Behavior

Recently I had what I call a developmental feast: an opportunity to observe three classes of children one after another.  The first was a group of “babies” who were from twelve to fourteen months old.  Next was a class of children not yet two, and finally children who were two plus years of age.  Most striking was the development and change in behavior that takes place in such a short period of time.  Even more amazing are the individual differences that stand out so clearly within the various areas of development.

Among the babies were those for whom crawling was still the most comfortable means of locomotion, some who were clearly delighted in a newly found ability to walk – or toddle – and some who still preferred the lap of mom or caregiver.  Their behavior  ranged from seeming somewhat dazed by all the people and sounds, to seeming mesmerized by the teacher, to finding exploration of the room more interesting.  It is interesting to see the kinds of interactions that take place as some children will pick up an object in front of one child and give it to another, or give his own object to someone else.  No sense at all of yours and mine.  

In the almost-two class the children were already much more able to relate to the group setting, following the teacher who was leading, and participating in activities to varying degrees.  Still, it is clear that there are children for whom motor activity is most important, and some whose ability to attend to what is going on is stronger than it is for others. Also clear is that some children need to stay closer to their own adult while others unselfconsciously move around and approach other children.  At this stage there is increasing awareness of what object was intended for which child.  This is also made clear by the adults who are more invested in this issue.  Still, it is apparent that some children are puzzled by this.

Finally, the two-plus group seems quite settled into the routine of the class and connected to the teacher.  The children follow the teachers lead and instructions and participate more fully.  Here, too, individual differences stand out as some children prefer some activities to others and one or two children remove themselves from the group at various times.  Children at this age have a strong need for physical activity and may from time to time break out of the group and run around the room. 

Most interesting to watch is the way the children interact.  Taking hands in a circle or to walk with another child can be very challenging.  Some children refuse, others want only the teacher’s hand, some only that of a particular child of their choosing.  On the other hand, one child may approach another and attempt a big hug.  Or, when it is time to sit down, will squeeze in between two children where there is no room, instead of another spot where there is plenty of room.  Some children may be very sensitive to others invading their physical space while others may make unwanted physical approaches as a way of establishing contact.  

It is not hard to understand why it is sometimes difficult for parents to understand their children’s behavior.  Observing children at different stages of development it is clear that the meaning of behavior at one stage may be quite different than that of the same behavior at a different stage.  Beyond that, each child within himself may be at different stages with regard to different areas of development.  A child with good motor skills may be less mature socially, or a child with good language skills may be less well coordinated physically. 

Often what is confusing is what we think of as social behavior.  As adults our expectations can go awry if they don’t match where children are in their development, but also if we don’t recognize the variations in the abilities of our own child.  For example, children clearly are interested in other children from very early on.  However, the way they express that interest varies considerably as their behavior is affected by other aspects of their development.  A child who is still limited in language ability may protest by pushing or hitting if another child takes his toy.  In the same way, a child with good language may be struggling with controlling his impulses and unable to use words to express what he feels or wants.

Parents often worry when a child seems to do something, such as hitting someone for “no reason”.  The “reason” may be clear to the child if not to the adult, such as something the other child did earlier of which the adult is not aware.  Or it may be an expression of a child’s wish to gain the attention of another without yet having the skill necessary to make a better kind of approach.  Or it may even tell us that a child is tired and out of sorts, and is expressing it by striking out at the nearest target.

It is challenging to sort this out, especially in moments of stress or when dealing with behavior that upsets us as adults.  But it is worth thinking about, if not in the moment, then after the moment, because understanding  their behavior is what best can help us help our children.

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