One expert’s opinion: The importance of understanding children’s behavior

James Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University, and developer of the Comer Process, a school and systemwide intervention, believes that educators can only help children behave and learn better if they know more about how child development and education are linked — how conditions in children’s lives and in school either pose obstacles or help children grow.

Comer states that in order for children to grow to adulthood and be capable of working and raising families in a democratic society, they must grow along six critical developmental pathways: physical, social-interactive, psycho-emotional, ethical, linguistic, and intellectual-cognitive.

Sense of belonging important

Children are best able to grow in all these ways when their interactions with adults lead to a sense of belonging and comfort. This produces the security and confidence children need to take the chances involved in learning.

This sense of belonging should start at home when parents provide children with their basic needs. When growth and development are going well, children go off to school prepared to interact and bond with people at school and with their program.

While children are born learning and trying to make sense of the world, academic material is not inherently important or meaningful to a young child. The benefits of learning eventually motivate children to learn for themselves, but when children are frustrated or not able to manage their social and academic challenges, they often act out.

Some children are not secure in their relationships with adults or don’t have a sense of belonging at home or in school. Some are fearful and lack confidence; some lack the skills to express their needs or the patience or control to wait until their needs can be met.

Some children’s burdens greater than stage of development

And some children’s burdens are greater than their state of development can bear. Immature and troublesome behavior gives adult caretakers an opportunity to help children learn how to manage themselves and the situations they are in.

If we view problem behavior through a developmental lens, we can understand the reasons for it and find ways to improve it. When adults are helpful, they gain credibility and power to help the child the next time. But some adults respond to troublesome behavior with punishment, control, and eventually, lowered expectations.

For example, when it is understood that kindergartners are not able to sit still for very long, activities can be planned to allow them to move from time to time before they become disruptive. When activities are planned in this way, young children experience success rather than failure, which helps their self-esteem.

Children often don’t know whether the teachers likes them or not or whether they belong. When a teacher smiles or puts an arm around a child’s shoulder, the child experiences a sense of belonging.

The early school years are a time when children establish habit patterns that can last for the rest of their lives. This is the time when children learn to work, to accomplish and achieve things. They do so by imitating people they like because they sense that these people like them or at least are fair.

Importance of continuity of relationships

Continuity of relationships with important adults in a good environment helps children grow — particularly if the children have had difficult previous relationships with adults. When the teachers in one elementary school learned this, Comer writes they decided to stay with the same children for two years. Some children who made no academic gain the first year made up to two years of gain in the second, and behavior problems all but disappeared.

Continuity, trust and support are important for all of us, but particularly in the preteen years before a positive sense of self, personal initiative and direction has been established.

When teachers think about behavioral issues in a developmental way, they can change procedures to provide support for students. Behavior problems then decrease and achievement increases. An understanding of child development can lead educators to better policies and practices.

While schools and teachers can’t do it all, Comer believes they can do more than they generally do to create an environment where children feel safe and secure, and therefore behave better and learn more. Schools can learn to view children’s behavior through a developmental lens. They can use this approach with all children, not just those who have special needs or problems.

Educators need to know how to create conditions in the school and interact with students in ways that will bring out the best in each child. Comer says it is not complicated but it does require us to “think development” and use such knowledge and skills in all aspects of education. We too often think of students as good or bad, dumb or smart, rather than asking, “How can I respond to help this child manage challenges in ways that promote development and learning?”

Comer states that policy makers frequently ignore research showing that academic achievement and desirable behavior are inextricably linked to good overall development and that we must promote good development through helpful adult-child interactions to get the kinds of outcomes we want.

Most schools of education do not prepare teachers and administrators to create the conditions that give children good developmental experiences at school. In addition, once teachers are in the classroom, they do not receive the support they need to work in a way that supports student development.

Comer believes that changes at home and in school that support child development would do more to prepare students to behave well in school and in life and achieve high test scores than most of the testing, accountability, class-size reductions and other changes that are proposed and instituted.

Comer contends that school board members must also know how children develop, recognize the connection between development and learning, and understand how the organization and management of a school and system can facilitate or limit student development.

Continuity of administrators and teachers is important for student development. Policy decisions can provide for such continuity. There is no magic bullet to improving test scores, says Comer, but when educators have the time to learn to think in terms of child development and apply its principles, behavior and learning improve.

“Why Children Do What They Do” American School Board Journal Volume 189, Number 4, April 2002, pp. 30-33.

Published in ERN May/June 2002 Volume 15 Number 5


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