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All behavior is a form of communication: what is your child’s behavior telling you?

From the very moment that a baby is born, they maintain the ability to communicate with the world through their behaviors. In the same way that a baby cries when it is sad or hungry, a person may yawn when they are tired or laugh when they are told a joke. We are communicating through our behaviors at every moment of every day, even though we might not be aware of it.

As adults, the majority of our behaviors are successful – you may tell a joke that people laugh at, or you wave at somebody to greet them. Successful behavior is defined as a behavior that is followed up by the desired response, however, it is the successful behaviors that are often misunderstood and need to be investigated further. 

Once we appreciate that a child’s negative behaviors are a reaction to the developmental phase, environmental factor or action, we are able to respond in an understanding and compassionate manner. It is often only once we have adopted these crucial characteristics that we are able to delve deeper into the reasons why a child is displaying such behaviors, including the antecedents which caused the child to communicate to an event in an unwelcome manner. 

Unwelcome classroom behaviors such as pushing in line, not staying on task or shouting out are key examples of when a child is unsuccessfully communicating a need or emotion. These behaviors are signals that the child does not know how to communicate what they want or need – they may not even know what they want themselves. It is up to us as teachers or professionals to identify these instances so that we can advance the child’s skills.

It is essential that we maintain the ability to observe behavior from this perspective as it allows us to identify the specific areas of communicative behavior that the child needs to develop further. Once we have a better understanding of exactly why the child is communicating as a response to a specific action or emotion, that we can teach them the appropriate communicative responses. This is a common practice within the Applied Behavior Analysis method which outlines this method as Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) where establishing the root cause of disruptive behavior is seen as paramount importance to establishing an effective behavior intervention plan.

By simply accepting that a child is ‘naughty’, ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’, we are not taking responsibility for what the child is trying to communicate to us. However, if we alter our perspective and deliberate the message behind the behavior, such as ‘the child needs a rest, or ‘this child is seeking attention’, we are able to adjust our practice to better meet their needs. Once we begin to establish what these behaviors are communicating, we are able to develop a functional plan that will work towards teaching those missing communication skills. 

Considering the most common functions of behavior could be key to quickly and effectively establishing the meanings of behaviors, allowing you to tailor a functional behavior plan to support the child. Three of the most common functions of behavior that may be beneficial to explore in detail are attention, the desire to escape and their sensory needs.

Attention: Children may behave in ways that are intended to gain the attention of a particular person or group of people. Commonly displayed examples of children behaving to gain attention are visible when children become the ‘class clown’ or act in a way that their peers may find to be amusing. In these instances, it is clear that the child is seeking the attention of their peers in order to build or maintain friendships. In situations such as these, it is evident that a function plan to teach the child how to build friendships in socially appropriate ways is necessary in order to effectively abolish the attention-seeking behaviors that they display in the classroom.

In other instances, the function behind the attention-seeking behavior may be because the child craves a relationship with the teacher or adult. If the child has recognized that the teacher rewards a poorly behaved child with their time and attention, rather than giving that time to a well-behaved child, they may display socially unacceptable behaviors in an attempt to attract attention.

Escape: Perhaps one of the most commonly displayed functions of behavior in the classroom is children display challenging behavior as a method of attempting to escape a task or environment. Typically, these behaviors are displayed loudly through shouting out until they are asked to leave the room, or quietly through work avoidance, getting up out of their seats or asking to visit the bathroom, for instance. When we begin to investigate why a particular child is displaying such behaviors, we may find that they are finding the task too difficult to complete, or that require more frequent breaks in order to process their learning.

Sensory needs: The brain is constantly interpreting an immense amount of information from the environment, and for some, this can lead to a sense of feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. This inability to constantly process a stream of information can lead to a child communicating their feelings in a challenging way. There is an extensive list of environmental factors within the classroom that may negatively affect the behavior of a child with sensitive sensory needs. From the colors in the classroom to the students around them, it may be difficult to determine the exact reason as to why a child is displaying a certain behavior. 

For this reason, it is important to examine the details of the behavior to determine the communication behind it. For instance, if a child frequently ‘pushes’ other children away, they may be communicating that the other children are too close to them. By pushing children away, they are literally attempting to create more space around them and are therefore communicating their sensory needs.

To determine the exact function behind a behavior, it is imperative to investigate the exact reason why the child’s needs are not being met. There could be an abundance of reasons behind a single behavior including hunger, tiredness, boredom, and anger in addition to their attention and sensory needs and environmental desires. It is important to remember, however, that not all challenging behaviors that are displayed by a child are of malicious intent, but because they are unaware of the appropriate way to communicate their needs.  

Jodie Pedwell

Jodie qualified as a Primary in the UK but quickly found her passion lay within the field of Special Education. Whilst teaching within an ASD specialist class, Jodie discovered her expertise lay in supporting individuals who displayed challenging behaviors and has since held various positions where she could fulfill this dream. In her free time, Jodie loves to explore the outdoors and practice yoga and meditation.

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