“Silly” Behavior

What do people mean when they refer to a child as “acting silly”? Usually they mean that the child is laughing or smiling, giddy. This is a wonderful part of childhood—the freedom to be gleeful. Other times, though, it can mean acting like a clown, for example to gain peer attention. This is frustrating to teachers, because a student’s “silly” behavior is usually disruptive to her class. Typically, it will be hard to get the child’s attention. Teachers and parents express frustration with the child’s behavior and report multiple attempts to correct the child verbally. Sometimes verbal corrections work. Often they do not.

The reason verbal corrections fail to work depends in part on the child’s state of regulation. If the child is a little giddy, he will usually consider the positive consequence of complying with the adult’s redirection—and the negative consequence of not complying– and will settle down. If a child is significantly dysregulated, he isn’t processing auditory information in an efficient way, and it will be hard for him to “hear” the teacher; he will also have a harder time using his higher level cortical thinking to “think things over” and change his behavior.

In addition, children learn patterns of behavior—first at home and then in school and with peers. A child’s ability to self-regulate and negotiate power and authority begins with his family relationships. This does not mean that parents cause the problem, but it does mean that their response to their child’s noncompliant behavior plays a role. 

The child’s temperament also plays a role. A sensitive “orchid” child will be less resilient to the stress caused by an adult’s demands. Most of these demands require a transition from the child’s current activity and the state of regulation he is experiencing in the moment, to a different activity and a disorganization and reorganization of regulatory state. For example, a parent’s request that the child stop playing and come to the dinner table requires a whole set of sequential transitions that include changes in emotion and regulatory state. An “orchid” child will have a much harder time managing all these transitions than a “dandelion” child.

There are many factors involved in a child’s “silliness”. I think most problematic silliness is related to difficulty with self-regulation at some level. If that is indeed the case, getting through to a “silly” child means helping the child become more regulated. That will often mean separating him from the group to help diminish the overstimulation of his peers’ attention. When he is calm, it as usual helps to talk the situation through with him.

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