Beyond Behavior

Today, I finally want to share a little about the marvelous book, Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges. This book has been on my radar ever since I read a brief interview the author did with Janet Lansbury. It really clicked for me.

First, Delahooke asks us to consider what behavior is (I know, I know…it seems basic, but hang on…).

Behavior is the observable response to our internal and external experiences.

Sit with that for a moment.




In other words, behaviors are the outward manifestations of a person’s internal experience (bodily processes, emotions, thoughts, intentions, and preconceptions).

Why is this important? Because, too often, we respond to only what we see, forgetting to consider what lies behind, or beneath, the behavior. Delahooke asks us to consider behavior like the tip of the iceberg.

Instead of asking ourselves “how do we make this behavior stop or change?” ask instead ask “What is this behavior telling us about the child?”As I often say in classes: If you find the trigger, what’s causing the behavior, and address that, the behavior will diminish. This is what Magda was tells us from the very beginning…and we practice it with babies: we come to a crying child with a sense of wonder. “I wonder why you are crying. I wonder what is causing you to be upset.” And then, we try to address that need or to simply be present with them as we help them calm down. Somehow, when children learn to speak and we start to divine some intentionality behind those tears or tantrums or limit testing, we forget to look beyond those behaviors for triggers. As Magda always said…we underestimate infants and overestimate toddlers.

Wow, was she right: a nationwide survey published by Zero to Three found that 56% of parents believe that children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before the age of 3 (and of those parents, 36% believe children can do that under the age of 2). Further, 43% of parents think children can reliably share and take turns with other children before the age of 2.

Hard truth time: toddlers don’t start demonstrating those abilities with any kind of predictability until 3½ or 4 at the earliest. It’s absolutely true that sometimes they can remember not to do something or sometimes practice taking turns or sharing, but their frontal lobes are responsible for impulse control, planning, and logic, and it doesn’t start developing until the age of 2. Similarly, when you are asking “what is the child getting out of this behavior?” you are ascribing them more “upstairs” thinking than they may really even be capable of. Instead, consider the behavior to be a representation of upset that your child is feeling, and a way for them to cope or protect themselves. (And remember “efficient top-down thinking can take many years to develop…and can be hijacked at any moment by the lower, survival-based instinctual brain.” (p. 29)).

In other articles, I’ve referenced Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s emphasis on ‘connect before you redirect,’ and I love that Delahooke brings this to light as well. Delahooke talks about 3 ‘pathways’ our brains can be on: green (safe and connected, calm and social), red (agitated and in protector mode…fight or flight), or blue (withdrawing or shutting down). Your child is in the red zone when they’re in tantrum or deep upset: their heart is racing, their breathing is rapid, their eyes are wide open (interestingly, the bones in their middle ears are closer together…making it harder for them to hear!), or they are otherwise out of control. And when in the blue pathway, children are withdrawn into themselves, flat voice or silent, unfocused gaze…because it’s so quiet, and we’re so used to thinking of behavior as loud and in-your-face, it can be overlooked. But the thing that the red and blue zones have in common is that when we are in those states, our brains are focused on survival, not on human engagement and connection (p. 50)…so we need to help children get back into the green (connect) before we can help address the behaviors (redirect).

Indeed, helping children find their way back to the green pathway, over and over, is building the necessary skills of self-regulation…after all, we don’t always live in the green zone, do we? We get furiously angry or hysterical at times, or we may be so overcome that we slip into depression…but we cycle in and out of those states, sometimes with help from others, but often through our own self-regulation skills that we’ve developed over the years…through the connections we have with our parents, our partners…and that’s what children need. The foundation for helping children is built through the experience of love, safety, and connection in relationships (p. 15).

Speaking of our own self-regulation skills, Delahooke talks about the importance of setting the emotional tone to help children feel safe and regulate…when we feel safe, we are relaxed, our gaze and voice are soft…you project to your child that you feel safe with their emotions, which helps them feel safe. Of course, the trick of it is that is not easy…when your child is tantruming or in distress, or shutting down and avoiding you…YOU can be triggered and you may resort to responding (or punishing) on instinct, feeling terrible later. It’s important to give yourself grace, recognizing that as a human, we all cycle through positive and negative emotions. In these tense situations, ‘name it to tame it’ as Siegel and Bryson suggest: “this is tough” or “I’m having a hard time right now.” Simply bringing some language to your own state of upset can bring your frontal lobe online a little, and help you begin to calm down.

I also appreciate that Delahooke encourages you to look at the child’s whole life when you see patterns of behavior…how’s the child’s sleep? Are they eating well? Are there any major things that are going on in the life of the family? Is the daily routine conducive to peace and security, or is it chaotic and rushed? For some, even reaching back to look at how the pregnancy and early months went can be useful. The middle chapters, 5 and 6 especially, are marvelous at helping parents help older children find ways of self-regulation. I think for parents of children who tend to struggle with anxiety, this book would be incredibly helpful. Similarly, she devotes a chapter to neurodiversity and autism, and one to toxic stress. It’s a comprehensive book.

But if you only read one chapter, make it her final one. She says things like “we are social beings with social brains, and regardless of a child’s challenges, the pathway to healing and support cannot circumvent attuned relationships” (p. 259). She drives home the point that compassion and understanding are the prerequisites to helping children and that providing them with ample positive and enriching experiences, you help children thrive (especially because when children are behaviorally challenged, we routinely give them more negative than positive experiences). And those positive experiences she recommends? They include connecting with your child by looking at them in the eye and talking with them, following the child’s lead, taking a mindful walk outside, emphasize mealtimes as opportunities for connection, find time for play together, move together, and find a shared love of music. All but the very last sound like pieces of RIE, do they not? Now do you see why I love this book?

Speaking of things I love, I also want to point you to another resource on this topic, and one that you might find more useful if you don’t have time to read right now:

My mentor and colleague (and good friend!), Deborah Carlisle Solomon, has created an absolute gem of a webinar series on this topic. I find it particularly timely because I’m hearing from parents who are struggling with setting limits and overwhelmed and frustrated with tantrums (especially now that you’re spending all your time together). Deborah provides clear, easy-to-implement steps that can increase cooperation and make your life easier. She designed it with a parent’s schedule in mind: short, to-the-point videos paired with helpful handouts, that can be watched and read at your pace and “in your own time and in your own way” (as Magda might say). There are also writing prompts to get you thinking about how to apply the information to your family. And best of all, she has a private Facebook page for others who’ve taken the course, and monthly live calls (for 10 months!) where you can ask her your questions directly. 

Deborah was my primary mentor in the latter stages of my RIE training, and I credit much of my articulation and style to her. She was the Executive Director of RIE, bringing the organization to new levels of visibility and accessibility during her tenure, and she wrote RIE’s most contemporary book, Baby Knows Best. She continues to train and educate early childhood professionals and parents all over the world, and I think you’ll find the class helpful. For more details and to sign up, visit her website.