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For Care Professionals

“All behavior is a form of communication”

When I read this, my mind recalls a moment in history. Let me set the stage. 

Scene: A parking lot conversation with my eldest son prior to entering a grocery store.  

Actors: Me, my husband, six-month-old son, and my three-year-old son. 

Most important line said to my 3-year-old: Me: “You don’t have to ride in the cart IF you stay by my side and DON’T touch anything without asking me.”

Action Scene: The automatic doors of the grocery store begin to open. As my foot is in midair to take a step, my three-year-old runs in with lightning speed and radar senses, honing into the coffee bean bins facing the entrance at the end of an aisle. One lift and out they poured to a bagless greeting and hit the floor.

Some of you are probably recalling experiences after similar words were spoken and acknowledged. I think there are a combination of layers to consider when raising our kids and determining how to handle or guide different behaviors.

Everyone communicates through behavior whether they’re aware of it or not, the question is WHY is this behavior happening? An infant cries when he or she is hungry or wet, but as they grow we can too easily label difficult behaviors as negative.  A goal for parents and caregivers is to reframe what they are seeing and find out what’s driving those behaviors. 

Unwelcome behaviors such as tantrums, biting, hitting, and screaming are just a few examples of when a child is unsuccessfully communicating a need or emotion. Understanding behavior as communication will help us respond in an understanding and compassionate manner. We can then develop a behavior strategy that is “function-based” and can work toward teaching missing skills. By function, we mean what the child is trying to access by engaging in the challenging behavior. 

This is a common practice within the Applied Behavior Analysis method (ABA) which outlines this method as Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) where establishing the root cause of disruptive behavior is seen as important to establishing an effective behavior intervention plan. There are four “functions” or “reasons” of behavior:

Some kids may be attention-seekers. They may feel lonely or misunderstood. They may have a difficult time connecting to peers. Getting into trouble can be a way of receiving the attention that they crave.  Behavior that communicates “I need attention”. We can help those kids by getting ahead of the issue and scheduling regular activities with focused one on one time. We can listen to our kids and encourage them to make healthy friendships with peers.

Children’s brains are constantly taking in information from their five senses. For some, processing that stream of input is a challenge. “Sensory seekers” underreact to sensory input or need more of it to function. “Sensory avoiders” overreact to sensory input. They may become overwhelmed and hyperactive. Those behaviors become problematic when they are disruptive or interfere with learning. When responding to inappropriate sensory behavior it’s important to replace that behavior with something that is appropriate. For example, if the child has a habit of biting on pencils, replace the pencil by offering gum or a chewing tube.

Escape is another function when kids engage in behavior to end or avoid something they do not want to do. Escape-motivated behavior can be responded to by telling the child how to ask for help when undesired situations happen.

Some children’s behavior such as crying and screaming is aimed at getting what they want which is called Tangible gains. It’s common for children who struggle with impulsivity or flexible thinking. We can address tangible motivated behavior by teaching our children to wait until giving the desired item.

We can examine our children’s behaviors as clues to what is truly going on. If we can help our children to better understand their own needs, then we can help them develop important skills to self-regulate. Behavior is delivering a message, so it’s our job to figure out what our kids are communicating. 

So what did I learn from the introductory scene?  In my case, strong-willed children for the most part will always test set boundaries. Settling into that reality helped me reframe my expectations and get more creative in what motivated him toward good behavior and the right choices.

angry child

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