Change affects us all. It is a fundamental part of living and developing as a human being. All through our lives, we realise that behaviour can change.

It is a process in which we are involved from the day we are born to the day that we die. In our earliest years and at the point in our lives when development is most rapid, enormous changes are taking place within us – physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially. These changes are largely maturational, but are powerfully affected by the context in which we find ourselves as growing children. You may have heard people speaking about the ‘nature/nurture debate’ and whether who we are and how we are is influenced more by our genetic inheritance or by the way we are helped to develop as children.

Much later on in life, in old age, when we are much more ‘set in our ways’, with the DNA of our personalities clearly established and recognised by those around us, physical, emotional, cognitive and social changes once again become apparent. As in our infant years, these changes are a natural part of the human condition, still powerfully affected however by the context in which we live and the support we receive in the ageing process.

I write this blog in my sixth decade of life! I have experienced childhood with all its changes, which I can recall variously with pleasure and pain, and I am now becoming aware in retirement of new changes beginning to affect me! I’m still entirely in control of my faculties thankfully, but aware that my mind and body just need that little bit more coaxing and support than was previously the case. And what strikes me about childhood, old age and the process of human growth and decline is the degree to which we are dependent on the support of others in order to be functioning human beings in our earlier and later years.

Throughout our lives we are shaped by context – both by the environments in which we live and the people with whom we live our lives. Change is inevitable as we grow, develop and are supported to become independent and autonomous human beings. We make our own choices and decisions, some of which are good, others less so, but all of which shape our ‘personhood.’ These are part and parcel of our own personal change process. Other changes we experience come about as a result of the circumstances in which we live and the people with whom we interact on life’s journey. Here we are not the agents of change but the recipients. And yet even here we are in the position of being able to determine our reactions and to decide on our own behavioural responses to those changes.

For many years I worked as an Early Years Educator, learning about the behaviour of young children challenged by special educational needs, disruptive family circumstances and poverty and need. The most powerful thing I learned is that behaviour can change! Children arrived in school with their own significant levels of need. My job as an educator however was to enable them to learn. I could not change their experiences of childhood and their present circumstances, but I could meet each child where they were, learn about their dispositions and characteristics, and then plan for the changes which would enable them to access learning and overcome the barriers which might otherwise remain. This was a behavioural approach to learning which involved:

  1. identifying an end goal in order to achieve success,
  2. learning and then breaking that goal down for the child into small, achievable steps,
  3. carefully measuring progress,
  4. refining the programme where new challenges presented, and
  5. reinforcing positive learning behaviour on the way.

The second most powerful thing I learned as a teacher is that behavioural change is as possible for adults as it is for children! This was highly significant in my work with the parents of the children in my care who so often felt deflated, discouraged and hopeless about their parenting. It came as a revelation to them that those very feelings were forming the context for their child’s daily living. The fact that they could make a change to the context by changing their feelings and attitude was an even bigger revelation! By working with parents to set a realistic end goal in order to achieve the change needed, by breaking that goal down into small achievable steps, by carefully measuring progress, refining the programme when challenges presented and by celebrating progress and success along the way, we could make long-lasting change for the parent AND the child!

Now of course I had a vested interest in working with parents in this way. But the principles of change management remain the same for children and adults. The challenge to us as adults is how to become change agents as opposed to merely the passive recipients of changes that affect each of our lives. No-one is exempt! So how about setting yourself a goal in respect of something you would like to change in your own behavior?

Here are the rules! Make your goal Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. This is known in the trade as a SMART goal. (Google for more detailed information.) And lastly, tell someone what you are aiming for and seek their feedback and encouragement as you journey. Use the challenges you encounter as opportunities for learning about yourself and refining your programme, and celebrate success.

If you want it to, your behaviour can change!

Liz Rook is a retired headteacher, with decades of experience in the teaching profession. She now enjoys her time spent with the grandchildren, going on holidays, and running UK collections for a charity that sends relief equipment for poor communities in Romania – see LoveLight Romania for more details.