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Preventing Challenging Behaviors Using Physical Activity

Most young children progress from preschool-age through primary, post-secondary schooling, and into adolescence and adulthood without any significant behavioral challenges. However, the faculty and staff at day care in Silver Spring have also encountered children who exhibit concerning behavior that challenges their care at the center, and pose significant risk to their academic and social growth. These challenges not only disrupt day care center routines, but also add stress to parents and home-caregivers. Here’s the good news: Well-planned physical activity may be the answer to preventing such challenging behavior.

Challenging Behavior – What it really means?

As a child caregiver, it’s important to understand what “challenging” behavior means. Providers of child care in Silver Spring know that there are some children who might indulge in actions, such as bullying, aggressive posturing, or willful damage or destruction of property. These are clearly “challenging” in nature. However, not all unwarranted behavior is challenging.

For instance, a child, engaged in sports or other physical group play, may occasionally hurt or harm others in the group/team – say, while throwing a ball or trying to balance an object. This might occur because the child may not have developed his/her motor skill fully, to the extent they should be.

There are children, who attend day care, who exhibit some or all of the following behavior too:

  • Fussiness
  • Tantrums
  • Disobedience
  • Hyper activeness
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal

In the large number of cases, these behavioral traits are transient, and typically fade away with time. Should this behavior be construed as challenging? Likely not! According to experts, it is the intensity, pervasiveness and prolonged persistence of such behavior that puts it in the realm of “challenging”.

Child and behavioral specialists Smith and Fox (2003) have laid out the following definition for recognizing challenging behavior in young children:

“…any repeated pattern of behavior, or perception of behavior, that interferes with or is at risk of interfering with optimal learning or engagement in prosocial interactions with peers and adults.”

Behavior that fits that definition is often deserving of special interventions by parents, homecare and day care staff.

Strategic Considerations

It’s understandable why parents and home caregivers are sometimes overly focused on “teaching” young children how to behave. The use of time outs or loss of “privileges” is typically the go-to strategy that some caregivers employ. Professionals at day care in Silver Spring, however, know that there are more effective alternate behavioral interventions that work well to address challenging behavior.

Typically, there are three types of strategies that professional caregivers may employ, when dealing with behaviorally-challenged children. These are:

  • Preventive Strategies: These are strategies that caregivers can deploy to make challenging behavior less likely to occur. This is a great pre-emptive strategy that roots out the desire in the child to act in a challenging way. When employed successfully, children don’t have the desire or need to be “difficult”, thereby leaving more time for them to engage in more constructive and less stressful behavior.
  • Replacement Strategies: When a specific behavior in a child poses a challenge, either to themselves or to others, it’s sometimes more effective to replace that behavior with suitable (alternate) behavior. The objective is to find a behavior that serves the same (or similar) function as the challenging behavior, so that the same skills and talents are used and exercised by the child.
  • Responsive Strategies: In some cases, despite preventive and replacement strategies, children will still engage in challenging behavior. Trained professionals, delivering child care in Silver Spring, know how to manage the situation during such times, through appropriate responses. These may include limiting interactions with disruptive kids, removing them from participating in the physical activity they find challenging, and direct them to alternative tasks

Often, caregivers may encounter challenging behavior in kids, that requires careful consideration in deployment of one or more of these strategies together. However, depending on what the challenging situation is, parents and home caregivers must pick an opportune time to make such interventions.

For instance, if a child is throwing metallic toys at their siblings (or other kids in a childcare setting), it is futile to attempt a Preventive strategy – such as educating them on the perils of hurling toys across a room. An alternative might be a Responsive strategy, where the child is directed to other “non-lethal” physical activity, such as stacking plastic boxes or playing alone on a swing or slide.

One other approach, to dealing with challenging behavior during physical activity, involves temporarily ignoring the child who is acting up. Focus, instead, on children who are the recipients of harmful physical behavior. For instance, while the “perpetrator” of harmful behavior watches, the caregiver may lavish extra care and attention on the “victim”. This gives a signal to kids with behavioral issues that they don’t benefit from such behavior.

A Continuum of Behavioral Changes

In our hypothetical case above, when the child exhibited certain behavioral challenges when engaged in physical activity with siblings and peers, caregivers at a day care in Silver Spring may redirect their unwanted behavior to alternative activity. However, that does not conclude the continuum of behavior modification interventions.

The child, who is hopefully now playing outdoors, or enjoying their – supervised – physical activity on the swing or slide in the playground, eventually calms down. And that’s when parents and caregivers must employ additional behavior modification strategies within the continuum of tools available to them. Here’s where Preventive strategies, including education and counseling come in.

In the heat of a tantrum, young children typically won’t soak in any good advice on how to act properly, or what acceptable behavior means. It is only after a suitable response, and the wave has passed, that caregivers should step in and use other strategies to ensure behavioral change takes root. This includes watching the child to see if he/she exhibits proper behavior subsequently, during playtime or other physical activities, and then recognizing and encouraging them for conforming to such behavior modification.

The Power of Antecedent exercise (AE)

One very effective strategy, that leverages physical activity in dealing with challenging behavior, and that parents and home-based caregivers can learn from, is often employed by professional staff providing child care in Silver Spring. It is known as Antecedent exercise – or AE. There’s research-based evidence confirming that AE works as an effective tool to combat disruptive physical behaviors.

Professional caregivers typically use AE, which are part of tools in the preventive strategy tool box, to reduce challenging behavior among children, before it erupts into a disruptive episode. The objective is to get children to indulge in intensive physical activity, just prior to beginning a series of non-exercise-based activities, or tasks where challenging behavior is likely to occur.

An example of physical activity-based AE is illustrated in the following situation:

Assuming that your child always “acts up” when participating in a specific non-physical activity – like drawing, math, or reading. One AE approach might be to encourage him/her to indulge in a physical pursuit that you know he/she enjoys – like a 10-minute game of kick-the-ball around, or Seven Tiles or One-legged-racing with a friend or sibling. This strategy drains some energy out of the challenging behavior reservoir, and channels it into healthy antecedent activity. The result, kids won’t have that excess pent-up energy – or desire – to get physically intrusive or challenging during their math, drawing or painting session.

Multi-level Benefits of AE-type Physical Activity

Staff at day care in Silver Spring routinely use targeted physical AE-type activity, as a challenging behavior prevention strategy. There are several benefits to this approach:

  • First, and foremost, as discussed earlier, it’s a great way to get pent-up aggression and anger out of young kids, before it turns into a challenging behavioral situation.
  • Then, when combined with other scheduled physical activities, that are non-interventional in nature (i.e., not specifically designed to prevent challenging behavior), AE serves as an additional way to get kids to run, jump, hone their motor skills, and build dexterity and exercise their muscles.
  • For kids who don’t especially gravitate to non-exercise activity, such as drawing or reading, physical activity is something to look forward to. The idea is to get such children to accept that they need to be at their best behavior during the non-physical sessions, in order to enjoy the benefits of the physical activity that precedes those (non-exercise) sessions.
  • Physical activity promotes energy-burning movement, in children with challenging behavioral traits; which makes it less likely they’ll have much (or any!) destructive energy left over. However, a well-designed physical activity program may also foster engagement and comradery among groups of children/siblings/daycare attendees. This bond, then, dramatically reduces the chances of an otherwise behaviorally-challenged child projecting that negative behavior onto his/her playmates and comrades.

All these benefits, of using well-structured, targeted, physical activity to overcome challenging behavior in kids, make it (physical activity) an ideal tool to use – whether it’s at home, when on vacation with the family, or in other childcare settings. Professional staff, providing child care in Silver Spring however, know that these strategies must be used with caution:

  • Tailor your physical activity strategy based on the energy levels of the kids for whom you design the interventions. High-energy children, or those who display stereotypical challenging behavior, may benefit more from AE.
  • Use developmentally-appropriate AE activity, make them kid-friendly, and always ensure adult supervision.
  • You may use enticement, encouragement, and “bribes” (prizes, healthy snacks, points, badges) to tempt behaviorally-challenged children to engage in physical activity. But don’t force them!

In closing, when adopting any strategy for preventing challenging behaviors using physical activity, it’s important to continually monitor the results. It’s entirely possible that while one approach works on some children, it might not deliver expected results for others. Be flexible, and be prepared to change your strategy, or to vary the mix of physical activity in your intervention plan.

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