Positive behaviour support

Positive behaviour support

Psychologist and behaviour analyst Gillian Martin explains why positive behaviour support could be key to understanding tantrums.

Behavioural meltdowns – we’ve all been there: the hissy-fit in the supermarket for a packet of crisps; the deep sigh (followed by the stomping off and the dramatic slam of the door) or dealing with the sit-in protest in the playground.

When it comes to kids acting out, there are many people giving us the ‘right answers’ and it can get very confusing. Should we hold our ground resolutely no matter what? Should we respond with a love-bomb and hug our distressed child tightly? Should we walk away and leave them to stew in their own juices? Worse still – what if we ‘break’ our child by choosing the wrong option?

Positive behaviour support

Fortunately, things become a lot clearer and a lot easier to deal with when we realise that despite all the answers, there is only one question that matters. And this question forms the basis of what we call positive behaviour support.

This is an approach where we put the child having the difficulties at the centre of the solution. It encourages us to look beyond the behaviour. What the behaviour is doesn’t really matter. The age of the child doesn’t matter either.

Whether our baby is biting another baby in crèche; our toddler is screaming in the car for his forgotton teddy; or our teenage daughter is heading out the door wearing a hairband for a skirt, one question should guide us and steer us to the best solution: “What are you REALLY saying to me right now?”

Ask yourself some questions

Before we even ask this about our child, we need to stop and ask some questions of ourselves – most importantly: why is this behaviour upsetting me so much right at this moment? Perhaps, I’m rushed and need to get them off to school? Maybe I’m mortified about what other people must be thinking? Or I’m worried that my teenage son or daughter may be putting themselves in a vulnerable position? Knowing where we’re coming from puts us in a much better frame of mind to see where the child is coming from.


Once we have a better understanding of where we’re coming from, it’s time to put ourselves in our child’s shoes. The adult world has a lot of pressures that sometimes our children just can’t appreciate. But emotionally, in their view of the world, their concerns are just as valid as ours.

Maybe the baby is upset because their favourite carer in crèche is having snuggles with another baby. Maybe the toddler is deeply concerned that Teddy is home alone and missing out on this exciting trip. Maybe our teenage daughter is feeling like a social pariah amongst her cool friends for not exposing her midriff on a cold winter’s night.

Clearly, with our many years of life experience behind us, we know that Teddy missing a trip, or wearing clothes that cover up more than 45% of our flesh is survivable in the great game of life. But whether you’re four months, four years or 14 years of age, this may feel like the end of the world.

Meet in the middle

So how can we acknowledge what our child sees as a catastrophe and reconcile this with a bit of our grown-up common sense? We do this by listening carefully for the REAL message our child is telling us (whilst trying to ignore the fact that they’re ‘telling us’ by smearing jam on the curtains).

We need to listen beyond the words as sometimes the words might be misleading – younger children don’t always have the right words; and older children may need coaxing to actually confirm anything. You may have to take a Sherlock Holmes approach and look for the evidence – what happened before the child got upset, was something else going on, or when was the last time they ate or had a nap?

Positive behaviour support

Once we can hear the real message, consider if we can meet them in the middle this time. If we’re not too far from home, maybe we could turn around and get Teddy? Perhaps our daughter can go out in the skirt (and preferably some opaque tights), but dad WILL be waiting outside in the car at 10:30pm.


Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation where it’s simply not an option to compromise. At these times, we need to let the child know that we do hear them, but can’t allow them to have what it is they want for their own good right now. The child probably won’t like it, and isn’t likely to calm down immediately.

But acknowledging their concerns will help everybody recover from the current situation and resolve it more quickly and effectively than using the naughty step, a time-out or a grounding. There’s also a better chance of opening the lines of communication in the aftermath than if we’d waded in with a punishment.

Preventing future meltdowns

But if we do JUST this, we could be in deep trouble. We could be seen as the push-over, or the parent who can be won over by turning on the water-works. This does nothing to help us in the long term.

This is where positive behaviour support comes into its own. Using these ‘meet-in-the-middle’ techniques, we have hopefully survived the immediate meltdown, with some dignity left intact on both sides, and (if we’re lucky), still on talking terms. Now that the initial storm has passed, the real work of preventing it from happening again begins.

You have to practice this to get somewhere

Let’s face it, there are times when we’re not able to rationalise particularly well, and we may not react as calmly as we would wish. But like anything, the more we practice it, the easier it gets.

Once we get into the habit of looking past the immediate crisis and listening for the message, we find ourselves better able to deal with meltdowns in a way that lets the child know that they are being listened to. Then we can manage situations in a way that promotes mutual respect and helps parent and child reach a collaborative resolution and prevent meltdowns from happening again.

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Shouting to be heard
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Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.

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Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….