The Two Questions to Solve ANY Behaviour Issue

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I’ve noticed a trend lately, and this is probably because everyone is so overwhelmed and cabin-fevered.

Hyper-focus on solving very small problems: MICRO PROBLEMS.

Micro problems are super-specific issues.

This creates a problem because when we focus down on super small issues, we miss the bigger picture. We get so focused on what’s happening here, that we miss all of this context. The context is what makes behavior make sense.

Behaviour is communication, it doesn’t happen in a vaccum.

When we focus on those micro problems when we get all caught up in what our child can’t do. We lose sight of the context. We tend to start spinning our wheels because we’re missing a lot of vital information. We go down these rabbit holes assuming we know what the behavior was trying to communicate. As you know what they say about happens when you assume – you make an ass out of you and me.

I get why this is happening though, especially right now, because we’re with our kids all the time! Those micro problems keep slapping us in the face. They’re everywhere we look. We get caught up in trying to put out all these tiny fires instead of standing back and realizing that it’s actually one big blaze.

There are two questions I’ve used my entire career to get out of this habit. It happens to everyone, nobody is immune to it.

Even when I was doing early intervention, every single child I worked with had a goal on a legal document that failed to remember these things. Usually, when a child I was working with wasn’t making progress towards their goal. It turned out that just the act of rewriting that goal with these two questions in mind would change how we were working towards meeting that goal, and then, of course, the child would start making progress again. It wasn’t that rewriting the goal was magical, there’s no voodoo to this. It changed how everyone was approaching working on that goal, and these questions keep what’s important, and the bigger picture, in mind.

And those questions are:

  1. “What don’t they know how to do?”
  2. “And how are you teaching them to do that?”

They sound like simple questions, right?

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

Let’s pull an example from the Posse: A member posted recently looking for suggestions on how to deal with her 5-year-old who was being exceptionally mean and aggressive towards his younger sibling.

Question #1: What Don’t They Know How To Do?

Yes, the answer is “be nice to his brother.”

Let’s go deeper than that. That is the problem up close, I want you to step back and look at the bigger picture.

What don’t they know how to do?

What is involved in “being nice”?

What skills are missing?

Are they lacking impulse control?

Are they lacking emotional control?

Is it a Self-Monitoring issue?

Is it not that they have weak skills, but that they can’t access their skills because something about playing with his brother; be it the game, the environment, lack of consent, mismatch in play stages. What is causing him to become dysregulated?

Break it down, drill deeper.

What’s the problem?

What’s the ACTUAL issue?

It can be all of those things! Very rarely do children wrap their behavioural problems up for us in a nice package with a bow on top so we can just unwrap it and be like “Ahh, impulse control, nice and clean cut.”

It might be any combination of skills.

Do they not know how to share?

Do they not understand turn-taking?

Are they having difficulty setting firm boundaries?

Step one: Figure out what the problem is.

We do that by observing them and by taking notes. Take videos to document incidents. Take pictures. We’re so focused on being super Mom that we’re going in guns blazing “I’m GOING TO FIX THIS!” but you can’t fix something when you haven’t defined the problem.

This would be like taking your car into your mechanic and being like “there’s a banging noise in the rear” and them giving you a quote to fix it when they haven’t heard the bang. They haven’t looked under the car. They haven’t tried to figure out where the bang is coming from…banging in the rear? That’s $900, please. That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

So while it’s very easy for me to say “What don’t they know how to do?” the answer isn’t usually easy or quick.

Question #2: How Are You Teaching Them To Do That?

Again, sounds easy but I’d usually get very simplistic answers.

If a child is being aggressive towards their sibling I’d usually get “Well, we’ve talked about how that hurts people’s feelings, we’ve put him in time out, we’ve taken away the toy the dispute was over, we’ve told him he won’t be allowed to play near his brother if he can’t play nice…”

Can we see the thread that joins all those things?

They’re all dealing with the surface problem again.

None of those answers actually answered my questions of what are we doing to teach them how to solve the problem? They’re all reactions. They’re all consequences.

Not a single one is showing, actively what to do. They’re all telling what not to do. Those two things are not the same. Showing them what to do and telling them what not to dois not the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong, consequences are important.

Behaviour management is important but it’s not enough. It’s not enough.

You can manage these surface problems till you are blue in the face and it’s still going to reoccur because you didn’t solve the problem! You didn’t fix the issues down here that is causing the surface issue.

Think of it like a boiling pot. The bubbles on the surface are a symptom of the fact that the burner is on. You can scoop bubbles off the top and pour ice water in till the cows come home but it’s going to eventually start to boil again because you didn’t solve the probem and turn the burner off.

I still use these two questions with my clients today. As I said, it’s really easy to get snared in that trap of forgetting to look at behavior in context. You are not looking at the actual problem. You are not looking at an aspect of the problem. You are assuming you know what the problem is based on a fragment of information.

If you can do those two things:

  1. Figure out what the problem is
  2. Teach them how to solve it

Once solved, you’re golden. You’re flying right.

It’s a habit you need to develop. It’s one that’s very easy to fall out of when you’re tired and stressed and rushed and basically a mother, let alone a mother in quarantine.

I want us all to get in the habit of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture instead of being micro-focused on the symptoms.

Otherwise, you’re going to keep doing this dance. We’re too damn busy to keep putting out the same fire over and over and over again. We are too damn busy. In order to enjoy our children more, in order to stop burning ourselves out, in order to get off this hamster wheel we need to be parenting more efficiently and more effectively, and this is how we do that.

How do you feel about that?

Do you think you can get in the habit of asking yourself those two questions?

Commit to finding out the answers?

The questions themselves aren’t going to do you any good if you don’t commit to digging in and finding out the answers.

I’d love to hear what you find out!

Come and continue the conversation in the Parenting Posse with me.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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