An Alternative, Affirming Approach to Behaviour Support – Understand the Deep Why
Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 5
by Adina Levy
In this episode, I discuss the issue with looking at children’s behaviour through a lens of ‘what triggered that behaviour?’. We talk about the need to understand the Deep Why behind a child’s behaviour, before you can work out how best to support them.
I share a very relatable example for any parent – a child ‘refusing’ to leave the house when you need to get out the door, and how two very different approaches to understanding WHY the behaviour is happening leads to two very different outcomes!
Here’s a summary of some of the possible ‘Deep Whys’ behind behaviours:
- needing connection (this is fine!)
- sensory need or dysregulation
- difficulty sensing internal feelings (interoception)
- uncertainty about what’s happening or expected
- task is too hard
- difficulty expressing needs, wants or emotions
- a combination of the above (most often!)
- Follow Tiffany on Instagram @fidgets.and.fries
- Follow Sandyha @onwardsandupwardspsych
- Follow TJ on Instagram @nigh.functioning.autism
- Book – The Explosive Child
- Website: Lives in the Balance – Dr Ross Greene’s Collaborative And Proactive Solutions Approach
Podcast Link: https://pod.link/1625478932
Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play Learn Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world where neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.
Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.
Behaviour. What a loaded word. We have so many assumptions about what the word behaviour means, especially when we’re talking about the behaviour of children. It is actually a neutral word. What that means is behaviour just describes any action that somebody does.
However immediately when I say behaviour, you’re probably thinking about ‘challenging’ behaviours, ‘tricky’ behaviours, ‘ negative’ behaviours. This is why I say it is a loaded word.
We obviously don’t spend too much time thinking about behaviours that are good and helpful. It’s the behaviours that children do that make us feel frustrated or challenged.
They’re the ones that lead us to think a lot about behaviour and try to work out how to deal with it, how to manage it, how to shift it.
You might’ve already noticed that I’m talking about a lot of relationship factors. Behaviour has, somebody who does the behaviour and in the case of children and adults, there’s somebody who’s observing and experiencing the child’s behaviour. There are a huge amounts of relationship factors that come into play. When we think about how to approach supporting behaviour.
So today we’re talking about an alternative affirming approach to behaviour support. We’re going to dig deep, to understand the Deep Why behind, why children do behaviours or in fact, why anyone does behaviour? Now I specifically am talking about supporting autistic and neurodivergent children. However, these ideas apply to all children and all people.
I’m going to be sharing what we might call the old approach to supporting behaviour and shift into examples of what a newer, affirming approach to behaviour support looks like.
We’re going to have an example to take along the way with us. And I want you, also to be thinking about some ‘challenging’ behaviours and I say ‘challenging’ with inverted commas. That a child has done around you recently. Something that made you feel challenged, whether it’s your own child or whether it’s a client or a student that you work with.
So the old approach, we’re going to say old, cause we’re leaving it in the past, even though it’s not entirely abandoned across the world yet. Is this behavioural approach and you might find it in things like ABA therapy and it appears in all other kinds of therapies that are based on ABA principles. So ABA stands for Applied Behavioural Analysis. It’s a very popular form of therapy for autistic children, especially in America, but all around the world. And there are really big, significant problems with ABA.
Many autistic people talk about the experience of having ABA therapy as abusive and traumatising. It’s very important to listen to the autistic community, to find out about what therapy approaches have been, okay. And helpful. And what are simply not acceptable and have been damaging to their self concept. That said it is a very complex issue. There’s a lot of gray area. There is a lot of space for nuance. And what that means is there are times when behavioural approaches might be important and necessary. And lifesaving. And there are times when behavioural approaches are not the best way of supporting children.
So rather than talk about a specific therapy approach, we’re talking about an idea for how to look at behaviour and how to understand why behaviours are happening as well as how to help children in the moment and how to help yourself in the moment.
So the ABA model teachers, this acronym, ABC for how to understand behaviours.
The A stands for antecedent. That means what happens immediately before a behaviour occurs.
It’s also talked about as the trigger. And I’m taking this directly from an ABA instructional website that literally says the antecedent occurs moments before the behaviour of interest. Usually within 30 seconds. So the way of analysing what is happening in the ABA method is only about looking at what happened just before a behaviour?
What it’s missing. Is understanding the context, the Deep Why all of the things happening below the surface, and over time that have contributed to that behaviour occurring. It is simply not enough and not reasonable to assume that humans only operate on these short timelines of triggers and behaviours and consequences.
We are complicated characters and there’s a lot that goes into forming how somebody is in a given moment, which contributes to how they respond to their world, therefore, the behaviours that they do.
So, that’s one big issue with the A in the ABC of how the ABA approach looks at how to understand behaviours.
The other letters in the ABC that’s Behaviour and Consequence. So behaviour is about describing exactly what happened. What was the action? What was done? What was said? So that’s pretty straightforward. The C talks about the Consequence.
What was the result that happened just after the behaviour? Did someone say something to the child? Did they experience something? Did they avoid or escape something in that language? So loaded again, it almost sounds as if the child has achieved their aim of stopping something and that they’re manipulating us.
The whole idea behind behavioural approaches is based on ideas developed in the 1930s and before and after. Specifically ideas developed by BF Skinner. Who was training pigeons to do certain actions to get a reward like food or drink? It’s all about manipulating behaviour.
It’s all about power. It’s about somebody deciding what the behaviours of somebody else should be.
This is in absolute odds to a neurodiversity affirming approach.
In most situations, neurodivergent humans need to be respected enough for the rest of the world to understand that our behaviours have a reason and sometimes the reason might be absolutely fine. And that behaviour may not need to change despite the rest of the world, despite the grownups, the therapists, the teachers deciding that it might be different or odd or unacceptable.
I will take a little side note here to say there are times that it is important to shift behaviours. For example, if a child is about to run across a busy road, That is a behaviour that we need to shift. That is a non-negotiable. That is a safety issue.
Safety comes up in other ways, especially for people of color where it’s not simply enough for us to say, "it’s okay to let autistic people play in their own way and experience the world in their own way in stim in their own way". Because I understand that people of color, disproportionately experience, prejudice and violence. And may not have the safety around them to be able to take those risks. Let’s say to look different, to act different, to be themself. And that can actually be a huge safety issue. As a white person, that’s not something that I specifically have experienced. And I’m going to add some resources at the end to some amazing autistic people of color who share really important information about this intersection between neurodiversity and race, and the challenges that go alongside. Some people to follow, Including Fidgets and Fries, Onwards and Upwards Psychology, and Nigh Functioning Autism. Find them all on Instagram, but I’ll pop the links in the show notes as well.
So I’ve already outlined my biggest issue with this ABC approach to understanding behaviour. Is that we’re missing the real point. We’re missing the deep, why. But only looking at what happened directly before a behaviour to try and understand it.
You could think of a metaphor of an iceberg where the trigger is just that little bit above water of, you know, what is apparent. Where all the other Deep Whys, all the reasons contributing to that child being at a point being so dysregulated, that leads to the behaviour or contributes to the behaviour. All of that is sort of underwater is more hidden.
You might also think about the metaphor of a volcano. Where you’ve got this rising flow of magma coming up and up and up with every challenge. So sensory challenges throughout the day, contributing to feeling more and more dysregulated.
Changes to routines changes to schedules. Contributing to feeling more and more dysregulated and confused and needing more support and security. And suddenly, to throw in a new metaphor, the straw that broke the camel’s back. One extra demand placed upon that child in a moment might actually contribute to that volcano erupting, so to speak.
So if you’re only looking for the trigger, what was that immediate thing that happened before the behaviour, you’re missing all of that deeper understanding about what is going on for the child. And therefore you might be trying to support the child or shift the behaviour by addressing the wrong things.
Let’s get into an example of a situation. Pretty relatable perhaps.
Imagine you are asking your child to leave the house and go to school. She is sitting and crying at the door.
So using an ABA model of understanding this behaviour, this is what it would look like.
You might say the A the antecedent is you saying, "come on, we have to go".
B the behaviour is she’s sitting crying and in inverted commas, ‘refusing’ to leave or to ‘comply’. That’s very judgmental. Isn’t it.
Then C is the consequence. So what happened next? Well, in some cases you might enforce the boundary without really understanding why the trigger happened. You might pick up the child and go. The child might cry for a long time and the relationship might get strained and let’s add in a dash of parent overwhelm as well.
Possibly guilt, self judgment, various other things going on too.
Not a great outcome.
What does an alternative neurodiversity affirming approach look like to supporting behaviour?
We’ll talk about what it can look like, and then we’ll apply it back. Back to that same scenario and see how that can change our understanding and support of the behaviour.
I love to talk about the Deep Why behind a behaviour. We need to consider the Deep Why behind why a behaviour is happening, before we can even begin to figure out how to respond. Some of the Deep Whys can include:
needing connection with someone. Please note, this is fine. Some people might talk about it as seeking attention.
I don’t understand why that’s a problem. We’re humans. We’re social beings. We love to feel connected with other people, especially the people in our lives.
So let’s just remember that seeking attention, needing connection is a fine human response to the world. When not putting negative judgment on that.
Other Deep Whys include sensory needs or sensory dysregulation.
Difficulty sensing internal feelings, this is called interoception. And that can include not recognising that you’re feeling hungry, thirsty, tired, hot, u ncomfortable. And so on.
Other Deep Whys might be uncertainty about what’s happening or what’s expected, and that can encompass when there are changes, especially changes that aren’t properly explained for somebody who has a brain that really requires understanding of structure and routine to thrive, change and uncertainty can be incredibly challenging on a deep level.
The task might be too hard. And that could be for so many reasons, cognitively in that moment because there’s other sensory and emotional distraction going on.
Physically, all other kinds of reasons why, what we’re asking of someone may be too hard.
And in some cases we just haven’t really properly explained what we’re asking of a child.
Another Deep Why could be difficulty expressing needs, wants, emotions.
And of course humans are complicated and that is the beauty of humans. So, what that means is it’s often a combination of the above. It’s very rare that I could imagine a situation where it’s only one of these factors contributing to the Deep Why behind the behaviour.
So we’re coming back to the front door. We’re asking our child to leave and she’s sitting crying at the door. The A the antecedent. " Come on. We have to go".
The behaviour is that your child is sitting at the front door and in, inverted commas, ‘refusing’ to move, or perhaps they are unable to move and take the action that you would like them to.
We are going to dig deep. We’re going to the Deep Why. So in this scenario, some of the Deep Whys might be that your child has a lot of uncertainty about what’s happening because perhaps you forgot to explain what will happen, going to a new place, your child has a lot of difficulty imagining or understanding or feeling okay with what’s coming next.
Another of the Deep Whys might be difficulty expressing wants. Your child really wanted to take a new toy along with her for a few reasons. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s a safety item. It’s a sensory joy as well. But she’s finding it hard to ask or to show you what she wanted, because you didn’t really leave the space for her to do that.
Perhaps you’ve missed interpreting her actions. And perhaps he missed her emotional and regulation needs and just how much she felt that that object was a really useful and lovely thing for her.
So here’s where we bring in our friend, Dr. Ross Greene.
He’s got a fantastic approach to supporting behaviour and it’s called the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions approach. I’ll share some resources where you can go to learn more about this. What I absolutely love is it’s all about finding the collaborative solutions. So in our situation, collaborative means working together with the child to figure out what to do next.
Rather than imposing your grownup wishes and wills and boundaries, which might sometimes be good and might sometimes be unnecessary, on the child. We’re working together with the child to actually figure out a solution that is satisfactory for everyone.
Essentially we’re treating children like little humans with some agency and control in their life. Imagine what that does for a child where they actually get some opportunity to flex their free will and to feel heard, listened to and understood by the grownups around them. It’s incredibly powerful.
So in our current situation, you might pause, get down to your child’s level. And have a discussion with them at the level that they’re able to communicate in general. And in that moment.
You might even say nothing for a moment and give a hug. And I know you’re feeling the pressure because you’ve got to get out the door, but taking that moment to pause. Come back together. Support your child emotionally. And try to find a collaborative solution. It can often save you a lot of time and heartbreak. And fractured relationship as well.
Of course, this involves regulating yourself. You’re not going to be able to support your child well, Through this discussion and through this collaborative planning, if you’re feeling completely frazzled, which is a very reasonable way to feel when you’re trying to get out the door and do all those things that you’ve got to do.
So you might take a deep breath, pause, remind yourself that taking this moment to connect and create a solution together is probably going to get you a lot further than simply grabbing your child and running out the door.
Once you overregulate it once your child is more regulated, you might be able to have a discussion and find out that what she really wants is to bring that toy. And you might realise that that is perfectly fine and not a boundary that you need to uphold saying "no, no, no, no. You can’t bring the toy", which might be our parenting knee-jerk reaction.
It might be perfectly okay. And then we go with it. We’ve worked together. We created a solution together.
You might also find out that your child has no idea what’s happening next. And you might remind yourself that you need to take a moment to explain where are you going? Who’s going to be there. What’s familiar about that place, or what’s enticing about that place.
How this works for children who are less able to communicate with you, whether it’s in that moment or their general ability.
It takes a lot more interpreting from the parent end or from the adult end. It takes a lot more time and space and a lot of communication support. So a lot more visual supports objects supports, but I hope that you’ll be doing that anyway. Any child who’s feeling dysregulated probably needs a lot less talk.
And a lot more visual, touch, calm objects, things that will help them understand that you’re there. You understand them. You’re with them. And to help them understand what’s happening.
I’ll go into more in a later episode about how you can support children who have different communication levels to understand messages and to communicate with you.
So the outcome is you go and get that comfort toy. Your child has it. You’ve explained where you’re going, what’s happening next. You’ve even shown a photo of the place you’re going and who’s going to be there.
Your child is feeling heard. They’ve connected with you. You’ve connected with them and you all go to the car and you’re three minutes late, but everyone’s feeling a lot better.
Pretty good outcome.
There are, of course, no guarantees because behaviour is dynamic. Humans are dynamic and complicated.
But just the simple act of looking down into the deeper why, what are the deeper reasons that are happening for your child, your client, your student that might be contributing to the current behaviour that you’re seeing. It can give you a whole different way to approach what to do next.
I’ll leave you with an important line from Dr. Ross Greene. He says " kids do well, if they can", what that means is, we need to assume the best intentions from children. Children, and not trying to push our buttons. They’re not trying to be naughty. If something is not happening as we expected. Well, perhaps our expectation is not right or not appropriate.
There’s some reason why the child is unable to do that thing.
If you’d like to learn more, I really encourage you looking up Dr. Ross Greene’s work. He’s got a book called interestingly, The Explosive Child and a very useful website Lives in the Balance.
If you’re a parent of a preschool aged child who is autistic, neurodivergent or who may be, you might be on a diagnosis journey. I hope you’ll join me in my online parent course. It’s called Connect & Grow. You’ll find it on playlearnchat.com. It’s on demand, which means you can watch it anytime that suits you and you get 12 months access.
If you’re an Allied Health Professional, I hope so much that you’ll be joining me with many others in the webinar, in our Neurodiversity Affirming Practice, turning theory into practice webinars series. It is called Affirming Approach to Understanding and Supporting Behaviour for therapists of autistic children.
We’re going to go a lot deeper and have some really specific examples about how applying the Deep Why, and collaborative problem solving approaches could look, in your therapy sessions with children.
You’ll be able to register for that at And I’ll also pop all of the links to this information in the show notes.
I’d love to hear. What’s been helpful for you, what stuck out or what’s been really interesting for you. And any questions have come up after listening to this episode.
Thank you so much for sharing this audio space and time with me, and thank you for being open to learning and unlearning and truly listening to the neurodivergent experience and perspective. If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat
that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes. Have a fantastic day.