Have you heard of the bucket analogy before? It, along with the 'iceberg', is one of my favourite explanations for the meltdowns and 'challenging' behaviours we often see at home and in school.
Quite often, when a child (or indeed, an adult) has an emotional or sensory meltdown, or lashes out physically or verbally, we are told "It came from nowhere!" or we will say "One minute she was happy, the next she flipped out."
I know I've been guilty of this myself at times, especially at home with my own daughter. I see the behaviour, but not the reason behind it. This can be so frustrating.
One of the principal ideas behind behavioural theory is that "all behaviour is communication." We may not be able to identify what feeling or issue is being expressed through a child's behaviour, but what is certain, is that there is always a reason behind it.
I was first introduced to the idea of the 'bucket' in relation to this at an in-service training course that was being run by the SESS (Special Education Support Service). It is probably the concept that has made the biggest impact on me and my beliefs about behaviour.
The presenter explained that we all have an internal 'bucket'. Some people are lucky, in that their bucket generally starts the day empty. They are people who are generally easy-going, who don't have any physical or mental health issues. Life is usually fairly okay for them. For other people, their bucket might be partially full even as they wake up. Perhaps they are stressed, don't get enough sleep, are going through something worrying or suffer from a condition that makes life that bit harder for them to navigate. For some people, their bucket might be almost full to the brim every morning, needing only a few drops to overflow.
The presenter explained that every action we take each day and every interaction we have with the world around us either reduces or increases the level of our buckets. Missing your bus might raise the level a bit. Having an argument with your partner will almost certainly add a significant amount to it. Hearing your favourite song on the radio, or getting some time to yourself might reduce the level.
For our children with autism, or other additional needs, their buckets are generally never empty. Lots of autistic self-advocates have spoken widely about how they battle anxiety and stress constantly, even on their good days. Sensory sensitivities, need for routine, lack of understanding or communication difficulties - these all play a major part in 'filling the bucket' also.
The child who has a meltdown at home at 5.17pm in the evening 'out of nowhere' - we wonder what caused it, or ask why did a tiny blip cause a huge, disproportionate reaction?
All the little minor niggles and annoyances of the day - cereal gone slightly soft, the new vocal stim their friend on the bus has developed, their SNAs new perfume, the lashing rain that meant they had to leave yard early and unexpectedly... these all add and add to the level of the child's 'bucket'. Something has to give. His/her bucket is simply full to the brim and all the liquid has to go somewhere - generally all over those closest to them at the time!
The good news is that there are lots of things we can do to reduce the level of our children's buckets. We can pick our battles, and let some small things go. We can be understanding of their sensory needs and sensitivities, their likes and dislikes. We can give them lots of breaks - to move and to relax. We can offer them choices - if brushing teeth is a battle each day, perhaps they might like to choose whether to use the red or the green brush today. Homework too much after a busy day? Grand. Let's reduce the demand - will we do the odd or the even numbered sums? We can offer activities that we know relax our children - whatever that may be.
Doing all this won't always prevent an overspill of emotion, but I find that bearing the bucket analogy in mind can help me to understand the behaviour and to be more empathetic.
What activities help empty your / your child's bucket?