Hesperian Health Guides

Strange Behavior

Children with different disabilities sometimes develop unusual habits or patterns of behavior. This is especially true for mentally slow or brain-damaged children who may be confused or frightened because they have difficulty understanding what goes on around them.

In helping children through such difficulties, first try to understand what might ‘trigger’ or be the cause of the behavior. For example:


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“Joel often starts rocking back and forth, and seems to escape into his own world! He then shows no interest in anything that is happening around him. Sometimes he rocks for almost an hour.”

“When does this happen most?”

“Mainly when he is with a group of other children, or when there are guests. But sometimes when he’s just alone.”

Joel seems to withdraw into his world of rocking when things get too confusing, frightening, or even boring, for him. To stop rocking he may need to be helped, little by little, to discover that interaction and play with other persons and things can be enjoyable. But to avoid confusing and frustrating him, new people, toys, and activities will need to be introduced gently, a little at a time, by the persons he knows and trusts most. You might praise or reward him when he smiles or shows any interest in playing with other children, or with new toys. When he starts to rock, try to interest him in things you know he likes. (But make sure to spend more time doing things he likes with him when he is not rocking. Otherwise you will be encouraging him to rock more often to get your attention.)

Eye poking

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“My 5-year-old daughter, Judy, is blind and has some mental slowness. She has a habit of poking her fingers deep into her eyes. As a result, her eyes often get infected.”

For Judy, who lives in the dark, life is not always very interesting. She cannot see things to play with. When she tries to explore, she bumps into things. She has found that poking her eyes causes flashes of light, so she has made a game of this. Also, she has discovered that when she pokes her eyes her mother comes running. Sometimes mother slaps her hands, but at least she gets attention!

For Judy to learn not to poke her eyes, she will need a lot of help to find things to do that are more interesting and rewarding:
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  • toys that have interesting shapes and surfaces and that make different sounds.
  • perhaps her own ‘space’ or part of the house where everything is always kept in the same place so she can learn her way around and find her toys. (See Chapter 30 on blindness.)
  • giving her more attention and praise when she does not rub her eyes than when she does.

Whenever your child develops behavior that you have trouble understanding, it may help to ask: What does the child gain from the behavior? What are his alternatives and in what way do they offer him less reward? How can we help provide alternatives that are more rewarding to him?

This page was updated:27 May 2020