Why consistency in parenting is vital, especially for children with challenging behaviours

Family reading with words: Why consistency in parenting is vital, especially for children with challenging behaviours

We have adopted a cat, or rather he has adopted us. We' re no strangers to owning cats, but this is the first time in our renovated home. There is now a kitchen with a door shaped entrance but no door, semi-open plan.

When the cat wanders into the kitchen I adopt a low strong voice and say ‘out’ whilst pointing to the next room. Scruff (yes, he is, very) can be very obedient to me and I have almost got to the stage where I just have to point. But if my OH is in the kitchen with me, Scruff is less obedient and when OH is on his own, all bets are off as to whether he stays in or not

It got me thinking about when/if we have grandchildren. Am I going to be the rule-making one and OH the fun one? How are we going to manage with both of us at home now and potentially having equal input? The one thing that we do need is consistency in our approach and to be persistent in applying it;

The Measure of Consistency

“Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements and impossibilities: It is this,that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.”

Thomas Carlyle

Parents of children with challenging behaviours do indeed need to be ‘strong souls.’ Children know who they have to behave for and who they don’t, even children with challenging behaviours, as is shown on the Jo Frost Supernanny programmes.

When I was teaching, I once had a class of 11-13 year old boys at what was then called an EBD school (Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties). They were my form group and, unlike most secondary schools, I taught them most subjects apart from art, cooking and woodwork. Inevitably I used to hear reports from the teaching assistants supporting woodwork about the dangerous misuse of equipment. "Why?" I asked of the boys, when they were back with me. "Oh he (teacher) doesn’t care, he lets us." This teacher had given up on a battle that he felt he couldn’t win, so the boys had no respect for him and basically ignored him.

The result was that he hadn’t just lost a battle but the whole war, as he taught every class in the school and his reputation preceded him. I am not casting stones, as I have no idea what caused this teacher to be like that or what personal issues he might have had. I am using his misfortune as an example. But it need not be like that, if you can fight your way through multiple failed skirmishes in the beginning, which are actually not failures but building blocks to success. Both the art and home economics teachers had gone through that and were appreciated for their consistency in applying fair classroom rules. These two teachers also showed that they respected the boys for abiding by the rules, which in turn led to the boys respecting and trusting them.

The presence of trust meant that the boys were willing to take risks in their learning in these classes; to attempt a sponge cake, to be part of an art exhibition. It is only by taking risks that advancement can be made, so those, at first, seemingly meaningless rules to the boys, had far reaching effects.

Leading by example

As a teacher, I like an organised neat classroom. Although every lesson at this school began that way, by break time the room was a mess of screwed up work, pencil shavings and chairs and desks in the wrong places. When I first started work at the school, I tidied up every break time, lunchtime and every day after school. I knew that it was no good expecting the boys to do it and I was not going to put myself in a position where they would laugh or swear at me and run out, if I told them to. I was leading by example, although it was exhausting me and often led to tears in the staffroom.

One day, after many weeks, one of the boys came back to the classroom and asked why was I doing this? I told him that the classroom was my home at school and like my home, I wanted to be proud of it. I wanted people to admire the room and thus the people in it. The next day he came back with a friend and said, "We’ll help you Miss."

Eventually, the boys kept it tidy themselves and were very caring of their room. So much so that ‘escapees’ from other classes, who had the tendency to overturn furniture and tear up displays, were not welcome, even as a distraction from learning. Previously the boys would have embraced such a disturbance and joined in the ‘fun'. But now, such visitors were firmly shown the door.  

Consistency was the key here, being used as a tool of persuasion. If I had missed one break time of tidying up, it would have been a chink that they could have exploited, just like the cat and the kitchen.

Consistency = security

As a parent myself, I know how it is virtually impossible to be 100% consistent.  But so many times I have heard other parents frequently threatening their children with consequences that are not carried out or that one parent gives way on. Children need the security of a united front and feel very insecure when there isn’t one. They will push and push with more demands and ultimately there will be a tantrum as the insecurity erupts.

Children rely on us for predictability and structure. However, we are not  Supernanny and unlike teachers, we cannot hand them over at the end of the day. It is very hard to be consistent 24/7, so don’t beat yourself up about it.

Talk to your children; show them that you are fallible, "Yes, I know I let you do that yesterday. I was tired and gave in." A little guilt tripping could be useful, "But I hoped that you wouldn’t take advantage. I hope you won’t again." It all depends on the age and temperament of the child. The main thing is to use such occasions as a learning tool and to gain more respect and trust from your child by admitting to your own failings.

Some tips for being consistent

  • Discuss parenting approaches with your partner; rules, rewards, sanctions. 
  • Keep rules and routines as few and as simple as you can.
  • Decide if there is any room for flexibility. Life is unpredictable, be realistic and adapt.
  • Communicate the decisions to your children, as the situations arise or even more effectively, before they do. 
  • Allow children (developmentally appropriate) their own input to the decision making.
  • Talk to other carers in your child’s life. What are the real steadfast rules that even doting grandparents ought not to give way on?
  • Find support groups to keep you strong.
  • Revisit your decisions as the children develop and change.

But one thing never changes: Remember that consistency and persistence are two elusive virtues that are difficult to sustain if not regularly engaged.Children need as close as possible a consistent approach with persistent application. Then there is no need for good cop/bad cop scenarios and much more potential for eliminating meltdowns.

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Barbara Follows

Barbara Follows

Founder at MaMBiC
Barbara Follows is the parent of an adult who had behavioural difficulties as a child. She also has a Masters degree in Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (EBD) and is an experienced SEN and child behaviour consultant. Barbara has worked in mainstream and special schools in the UK and abroad across the full age range, including five years at a secondary boarding school for teenage boys with severe behavioural problems. Since 2001, she has run the MaMBiC (Managing and Moderating Behaviour in Children) service.
Barbara Follows

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