Understand Normal Behavioral Development
Even experienced parents may forget the normal developmental stages and patterns of child behavior. Children in foster care may have behavioral or developmental challenges unlike other children their age. It can be helpful to recognize that many challenging behaviors are “normal” and that not all difficult behaviors are related to placement. Also, keep in mind that many foster children may function at a level more typical of a younger or older child. For example, a 6-year-old may have the social skills of a 2-year-old. Foster parents will have to work with the child on a 2-year-old level until the child’s social skills increase.
Understand the Child’s History
Understanding the child’s experiences with his/her parents, family and or previous caregivers may provide insight into the child’s behaviors.
Provide a Supportive Home Environment
A safe, nurturing, and predictable home can help a child work through feelings of fear, anxiety, loss, grief, and other emotions. Being predictable and consistent can also help a child who may have difficulty transitioning from one thing or one place to the next, and it can help foster parents develop an understanding of the cause and effect of his/her behaviors.
Try to Understand Problem Behavior
Foster parents should try not to take a child’s misbehavior personally. There are many reasons children behave the way they do. It may be that, in the past, acting out was the only way to get the attention of a parent or caregiver. It may be that the child thinks certain behaviors will get a response from their caregiver. When a caregiver does not take a child’s behaviors personally and remains calm, it is easier to think more objectively about how to respond.
Identify What Triggers the Problem Behavior
When a child displays problematic behavior, foster parents should think about what happened before the behavior took place or the “trigger” for the child’s behavior. Sometimes the child’s behavior is an immediate response to the trigger. Other times the trigger may have occurred the day or week before the behavior. It can be hard to discover what events trigger a child’s behavior, but foster parents should look for patterns. Working closely with the child’s case manager, therapist, and other professionals may help foster parents to understand what triggers a child’s behaviors and how to address those behaviors.
Bring Triggers to the Child’s Attention
Not every trigger is observable. Once a child has calmed down, it is good to ask them what they think led up to the behavior. Questions such as, “What happened right before you threw the toy?” and “How did that make you feel?” may allow the child to connect feelings to behavior and give foster parents information about what triggered a behavior.
Foster parents need to address the situation with the child when the child is calm so that both the foster parent and the child can work together to find a solution. For example, a foster parent might say: “I’ve noticed that when I say that it’s your bedtime, you usually seem to have a hard time getting your pajamas on. Is there anything we can do together to help you when it is time for bed?”
By bringing these observations to children’s attention, foster parents will help children understand the cause and effect of their behavior and give them ideas about how to react differently.
Try Not to Label a Child’s Behavior
It is easy to slip into a habit of using labels. For example, a foster parent may observe a child acting “depressed” and communicate that to the therapist or case worker. “Depressed” has different meanings to different people. Giving descriptions based on the behaviors observed is much more helpful to everyone. For example: “John stays in his room for most of the day and doesn’t eat very much. He doesn’t laugh or smile at all and doesn’t want to play with other kids” is more helpful than saying “John is depressed.”
Document Behaviors to Help You Understand and Respond
Writing down observations and being specific can help identify what triggers the problem. Foster parents should write down what led up to the child’s behavior, what behaviors or actions the child engaged in, and how the situation was addressed.
A record of the behaviors also helps measure the child’s progress. It allows the child’s caseworker, therapist, and the child to see how positive change has occurred over time, no matter how small the change may be.
The following chart is an example of how to document a child’s behaviors to try to determine what triggered the event and how to address those triggers and the child’s response.
A Sample Chart for Documenting a Child’s Behaviors
What happened before
What happened after
Duration and intensity of incident
|Who was present|
Motivation: “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the most tempting moment.”