We’ve all heard the parenting proverb that a child who is acting out may actually be exhibiting attention-seeking behavior. And why not? We can understand this need because children are smaller, with less ability to command the attention of an adult or even other peers. They are just beginning to figure out what captures and sustains other people’s energy and attention, without much evaluation yet as to whether or not that attention is positive or negative.
But young children also seek another important resource: power. According to Erik Erikson’s theory of development, from ages eighteen months to three years old, the child is working out the conundrum between autonomy and self-doubt. They are learning that they can do many things and discovering whether or not they can do these things by themselves.
Independence is an important skill to master, and it begins even at this early age. The fulfillment a child can experience when given the opportunity to explore their abilities without fearing criticism if they fail, is unmatched. Likewise, the frustration and disappointment they may feel, if they do not get enough opportunities to explore this about themselves, can build over time and contribute to negative behaviors we call “acting out.”
Many parents can attest to this stage of development, if they will recall the number of times they have been delayed for events because their toddler or preschooler has insisted, “I do it.”
But any professional in child development would agree, parents should allow their children to do it themselves, as much as possible, in a positive, age-appropriate environment, with support and care given if the child’s attempts fail. This is the way the child learns — by doing.
This theory is true for adults as well, on a larger scale. Do we not enjoy the attention of others? Do we not crave a confidence in our ability to do things for ourselves? Maybe not always and if not, this conflict is often rooted in the lack of support we received during this stage of development in childhood. Erikson believed that each stage of development was resolved with either a positive, healthy new skill or a negative, inhibiting new habit.
Humans are creatures of momentum. Our experiences layer one on top of the other as we reinforce beliefs we hold over time. But the good thing about momentum is that, if you can get it going one way, you can also get it going the other way.
An important study was conducted by the University of Virginia and published in the journal of Child Development in December 2016. It examined preschool classrooms with students who exhibited frequent disruptive and defiant behaviors. What the study found is that when teachers spent deliberate, positive, often child-led, one-on-one time with these disruptive students, the students’ incidents of disruptive behaviors declined.
This intentional time was called “Banking Time” and essentially, it is a practice of banking positive experiences in order to counteract the momentum of negative experiences that often accrue for repeatedly disruptive children over the course of many teacher interventions or redirections.
It makes sense, as creatures of momentum, if a child experiences frequent teacher redirections or criticism, coupled with his or her own frustration and displeasure with the lack of autonomy and control over the situation, it is a recipe for disaster. What is beautiful about this concept of “banking time” is that it is a proactive approach to undoing the negative momentum and replacing it with positivity.
An additional challenge to this practice is that it requires a very self-aware teacher or parent to implement. Having a child in your classroom or family that is constantly disruptive would try the patience of even the most compassionate adult. But this study shows us we can reverse the negative momentum of disruptive behaviors, without giving up the limits and boundaries that keep our children safe and courteous.
As adults, I don’t believe that our banks for this positive and negative energy ever really go away. We still balance these two in our relationships and interactions on a daily basis. We see this anytime we respond to a negative situation with more negativity, perpetuating the problem, or when we respond with deliberate kindness, and we can see that kindness fill someone else’s positive energy bucket and it becomes contagious.