Behaviour Guidance from my point of view

By Sandi Phoenix

The Short Story

My approach to guiding children’s behaviour comes from understanding behaviour as communication to meet human needs. I believe that once educators have a deeper understanding of this, they begin to view children’s behaviour differently.

My approach to behaviour guidance supports the capacity of educators to understand children’s behaviour and to learn to respond intentionally to behaviour as a function to meet their life needs (and in turn, their rights) and develop optimally.My approach is to support educators with the following, to ensure they’re well equipped to tackle behavioural concerns in their learning environment:

1) have a realistic expectation of children according to their development;
2) have knowledge about developmental red flags – then know where to find more information to support the child by connecting with allied health professionals;
3) have knowledge about sensory processing differences – including typically different sensory profiles and the need for sensory experiences to foster development;
4) have knowledge about children’s play - especially play that is viewed as a “behaviour problem”; and
5) have knowledge about the child’s need for movement and connection with the natural world as necessary for their development.


The Long Story

I have been intrigued by human behaviour since I was in my teens. As a psychology student, while working in an inclusive School Age Care setting, supporting the inclusion of children with Autism and other developmental differences, my approaches to behaviour was that of behaviourist methods of reinforcement and punishment. This shaping of children’s behaviour through positive reinforcement, time out and withdrawal of reward, had me questioning the behaviours we “wanted to shape”. We were influencing things like 'Mat Manners', which I believe to be essentially compliance and obedience. What if we were wrong? Although I persisted with this method and successfully changed behaviours, I held onto this view that perhaps this wasn’t the best way to address challenges with children’s behaviour. During this time, I also provided respite in my home every second weekend for children with a diagnosis of Autism. My love for and deep connection with children who have Autism originated here. It was during these next few years that I learnt the hard way that if you change, remove, or extinguish a behaviour you don’t like without first considering how this behaviour is serving the child, a new behaviour will emerge. It soon became evident that the child would replace the behaviour with others that were likely even less desirable than the original behavioural challenge. This realisation amplified my concern that we might be wrong in shaping behaviours like one would a lab rat.

As I was the only educator who was studying psychology within a large organisation of 19 school age care services and as I was particularly effective at 'shaping' behaviour, I was quickly escalated to the rank of Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) Officer. This meant that, at 23 years of age, I spent most of my time at one of 19 services that were experiencing the most crisis on any given day. It was a steep learning curve. The first thing I realised with my strategic positive reinforcement systems – it wasn’t just the practice of providing constant and frequent positive reinforcement that was shaping behaviour. It was the resultant strengthening of the relationship between the educator and child. This was an epiphany for me about how the educator’s relationship with the child combined with their image of the child was the key to behaviour change – not the giving of rewards.

My work involved closely liaising with inclusion support agency, and evolved into a position as Inclusion Support Facilitator. It was here that my appreciation of strength-based practice grew into a passion. I also learnt much about Autism and approaches to'manage' autistic behaviours such as ABI and FBA. While I appreciated the effectiveness of these approaches, I continued to reflect critically on the ethics of shaping behaviours that ultimately serve a function.

The National Quality Framework was drafted then implemented, and my role as ISF evolved to supporting this roll out. After six years as an ISF of supporting inclusive environments within education and care programs across hundreds of services, it occurred to me that services that exceed the quality standard, seem to have less behavioural challenges. I have been heavily involved in supporting educators and teams to understand the National Quality Framework and Early Years Framework since.

It was Maslow’s work that intrigued me during the first years of my study. I was introduced to the work of William Glasser by Dr. Margaret Carter more than ten years ago. I have studied his work and used his work within Choice theory as well as Maslow’s to explain behaviour as a function to meet human life needs to educators ever since. I also draw upon work around the guidance approach from Tom Gordon, Alfie Kohn and Dr. Louise Porter. The work of all of these researchers has to lead me to strongly advocate for a shift in our behavioural expectations with children. I am interested in reconsidering behavioural goals of compliance and obedience. Recently, my work involves supporting a pedagogical shift toward expectations around cooperation and consideration through thoughtful, intentional teaching within functional and aesthetic learning environments for children.