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Doing the Detective Work: Helping Children Identify and Address their Own Needs

The next time you encounter a challenging behavior, ask yourself, "Why is this behavior happening? What does my child need right now- physically and emotionally?"

Identifying and addressing our children’s needs can take a bit of detective work. This is especially true during times of transition, such as adjusting to a new school, classroom or caregiver. We might notice some new challenging behaviors or the return of behaviors we haven’t seen in a while. By reflecting on why these behaviors are occurring, we can connect with our children during challenging moments and model effective strategies to cope with big feelings.

Helping our children label their emotions is the first step. We can do this by saying, “It seems like you’re feeling _______”. The second step is to offer specific strategies to address their physical and emotional needs. It's also important to note any patterns in behavior. For example, when does this specific behavior typically happen? Where in your home? Who is it directed towards? This type of detective work allows us to make valuable observations and experiment with small shifts in routine, such as shifting dinnertime a bit earlier or inviting siblings to put on their shoes in separate "getting ready spots". 

Sometimes a challenging phase passes and specific behaviors seem to disappear, before we’ve figured them out. However, doing this detective work alongside our children teaches them to label their own emotions and address their own needs. With time and practice, we’ll be able to ask our children, “How are you feeling? What do you need?" or "What can you do to help yourself feel better?”  

Here are some meaningful ways to support them in the meantime...

★ When you think your child is HUNGRY:

Offer a colorful, mood-boosting snack. If you notice that your child is ravenous when he or she returns from school, have a healthy snack waiting in the fridge. Spending a few minutes together preparing a smoothie is another simple way to connect and refuel! If it’s close to meal time, try offering part of your child’s next meal as an “appetizer”. 

★ When you think your child is TIRED:

Encourage your child to choose between two activities that he or she typically finds comforting. “It seems like you’re feeling tired from your busy day at school. I bet working with beads or playdough will help your body rest and recharge.” If you notice a trend of school-related exhaustion, try to limit afternoon social activities like play dates or sports classes as your child adjusts.    

★ When you think your child NEEDS YOUR ATTENTION:

Let your child know when you’ll be available to play or read together. “It seems like you really want to spend some time together. I’m going to finish changing your sister’s diaper and then I can join you in the playroom.” If you notice your child is desperate for your attention after you’ve been physically apart, try to dedicate 10 minutes or more of uninterrupted play as a way to reconnect. 

★  When you think your child needs to MOVE his or her body:

Offer two choices of big body play that will meet your child’s needs. “It looks like your body really needs to move. Let’s build with these heavy couch cushions or listen to a super fast song and play Freeze Dance!”  

★ Work with your child to create a visual list of ways they can address their own physical and emotional needs. For example, “When I’m feeling TIRED, I can _______.” Continue adding to this list as your child identifies new emotions and new strategies.

For more language support, check out our Guide to Positive Language Strategies and our Positive Language Webinar Series. Whether you’re hoping to tackle challenging moments or enhance everyday conversations with your child, we’ve got you covered!

About the Author
Lauren Vien taught in private Manhattan preschools for over a decade before joining the Rose & Rex team as Education Director. With a masters in Early Childhood Education and Special Education from NYU, Lauren is deeply passionate about positive language and developmental play. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and two young children, Henry and Violet. Family pastimes include building with couch cushions, preparing plant-based meals, and scooting to neighborhood playgrounds.
 
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