Occasionally during parent-teacher conferences, it is revealed that the child’s behavior varies depending on where they are. Perhaps at home the child is compliant, completes his homework, and engages in appropriate play skills with his sibling. While at school, the same child is struggling to turn in assignments or build meaningful friendships. Perhaps it is the alternative: the teacher reports the child is well behaved, compliant, and friendly to peers, but at home parents are struggling with having him follow simple directions. Why may one child behave so differently in these different settings? Or why are problem behaviors like tantrums or aggression happening only in location? Here are some likely reasons:
1. Environmental differences: It could be the case that one environment, school or home, is more particularly suited to the child’s learning style. If the child learns best through visuals and one location is using visual schedules and visual reminders prior to transitions, it is likely that the child will adjust better and behave more appropriately in this setting.
2. Peer influences: Another environmental difference is at school the child is surrounded by peers. For some children, this serves as social motivation and can be positive, where to others, this may serve as a distraction and could lead to attention seeking problem behaviors. If parents and teachers agree the likely cause of the behavior discrepancy is the addition of peer attention, teaching appropriate social skills or ways to respectfully gain attention (raising hand) could be helpful.
3. Schedule differences: As mentioned previously on our blog, children with disabilities highly benefit from structured and consistent schedules. If one setting is more rigid with a consistent daily schedule, while the other consists of varied periods of free time, the child may have difficulty adjusting to this change. It is best to keep schedules consistent as much as possible so that the child is aware of what is expected at what time.
4. Consistency differences: Children are quick to learn as to what behaviors lead to what type of consequence (good or bad). If a child has learned in one setting (i.e. school) that asking for help appropriately will lead to an adult assisting them, they are likely to continue to do that behavior. However, if they ask for help in the other setting (i.e. home) and don’t get the same result (i.e. parents say they are busy), they may engage in problem behavior out of frustration. If parents and teachers are seeing problem behaviors only in one location, it may be beneficial to look closely as to when that behavior is occurring and compare to how that situation is being handled in the alternate setting.
5. Reinforcement differences: Expectations like following directions, using kind words, completing assignments, are all strengthened through the use of reinforcement. It is ok for reinforcement at home to be different than at school, but the child should be aware of what exactly is expected to earn what particular reinforcement at each location. For example: At school: standing in line, keeping hands to self, and working quietly at desk all can earn stickers. At home: following directions, completing homework, and cleaning up after dinner earn verbal praise and positive attention from parents. The reinforcement should be consistent within each setting.
Teachers and parents should work together to determine the cause of the behavior differences by looking at when the problem behavior occurs and what is typically the immediate following consequence. Working together will best benefit the child and the conversation should not be around who is doing something right versus wrong. This mutual discussion can lead towards more consistency and sharing of effective strategies.
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