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Children At Risk: Understanding and Responding to Children’s Behaviour (Part One)

January 5, 2014

This blog and several following titled: Children At Risk: Understanding and Responding to Children’s Behaviour , are targeted at child caregivers and others who work directly with children, especially in the developing world.


If you find them useful, you can purchase the 8 module National Training: Understanding and Responding to God’s Vulnerable Children training package. You can also buy the modules separately. The website for this valuable resource is nationaltrainingforchildrenatrisk.com


Children are precious, fragile and easily influenced. Our childhood is where we learn the trust, values, skills, and worth that we carry into adulthood.

For children at risk their past may include abandonment, abuse and trauma, and so their overwhelming feelings may be loss and grief, which is often expressed in anger.

Handling these children’s feelings can be draining and distressing for caregivers. Their strong reactions often stir in adults strong feelings too, and as we struggle to understand and manage their behaviour, the children face further rejection and isolation.

To ensure best care practice, we need to understand why children misbehave, and learn intervention strategies to deal and manage such behaviours.


When training on this important topic, I begin by asking conference participants to share 3 rules that were important in their family. What happened if these rules were broken? What discipline was given? As an adult, are these rules still important? These questions often have a profound impact as childhood memories surface. You may also like to reflect on them.


Our aim in caring for children in crisis is to protect and teach them.  It is not to deny their past or to repress their feelings. For healing, it is necessary for the children to integrate their past, and to become adults able to live fulfilling lives in their community and society.

In the blogs I will be sharing Six Foundational Principles and Intervention Strategies.


These include:

  • Understanding why children misbehave

  • Establishing Strong Boundaries

  • Encouraging Positive Behaviour

  • Building Strong and Trusting Relationships

  • Demonstrating Encouragement and Acceptance

  • Dealing with Anger.


Understanding Why Children Misbehave

As I travel the world training child caregivers, it is obvious that they are a dedicated group, and are very busy caring for the children’s basic needs, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Often there are too many children and too few child caregivers, and stopping to question and understand why children misbehavior doesn’t occur.

After reflecting on our own childhood in the previous exercise, I suggest that the next important step in understanding child behaviour, and providing empathetic care, is to reflect on the following questions which can be done in a group.

  • What has happened to this child?

  • Do we know his/her past? If not, can we imagine it?

  • What may the child be feeling?  (e.g. anger, frustration, sadness)

  • Can the child express the feelings?

  • Does the child understand the current situation?

  • How does the child’s development influence their understanding?

  • How is the child behaving?

  • Is their behaviour a reflection of past trauma?   

Our Aims are to:

  • Make a connection between the child’s past experiences, feelings and behaviours

  • Help the child understand and acknowledge the past

  • Teach the child to identify, acknowledge and express feelings (appropriately)

  • Develop strategies to assist the child to healing


The following Scenario is a useful illustration.

Susie is only 8 years old, and a year ago was left outside a Manila orphanage in the Philippines. She cried a lot when she arrived but was happy until a few weeks ago. Now she is reluctant to attend school and refuses to walk there with the other children. As soon as she can, she runs back to the home and seeks out her favourite caregiver.  The caregiver is busy with many younger children, so becomes angry, and returns her to class. Although Susie is scolded, she continually truants. Susie also is very anxious if the caregiver is not working, is disobedient to staff and aggressive to the other children. She is starting to bed wet and have nightmares.


The child caregivers need to not react to Susie’s behavior, but to connect Susie’s past situation, with her feelings and behaviours. This ensures empathy, extra patience and good strategies to assist this child to resolve her past.

I ask the conference participants to reflect on Susie’s life.


What is the current situation? Abandoned by her family and left at the institution

What do we imagine she is feeling? Insecure, sad, fearful, anxious, rejected, abandoned, unloved

How is the child behaving? Not wanting to attend school, bedwetting, poor sleep, aggression, violation of rules.

How are Susie’s feelings and behaviour connected to her past? What intervention strategies could be implemented? These could include:

  • Concentrate on one problematic behaviour (e.g. reducing general anxiety)

  • A caregiver taking her to school, allowing her to come home at lunch time, picking her up after school, talking to the teacher about the situation

  • Teach about feelings (where in the body do you feel afraid?)

  • Listen carefully and empathise with her feelings (even if we don’t understand or agree)

  • Give permission for her to express her feelings

  • Teach her how to express them without hurting herself or others

  • Provide art/games/simple exercises to assist her to make sense of her past

  • Explain situation to other caregivers

  • Minimum number of staff changes in the home


Children perceive situations and express their feelings and anxieties in a range of ways. Susie is displaying her anxieties through her behaviour. Some children may have ‘squashed’ their feelings down, so withdraw and become depressed. Others may seem to be coping well but really are not.

After this training, it is not uncommon for conference participants to admit that they had not made a connection between the child’s past experiences, feelings and behaviours. Instead, they saw the child as deliberately misbehaving, usually to get attention.  In the second blog, I will discuss establishing strong boundaries and encouraging positive behavior.


Image Worakit Sirijinda FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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