All behaviour is a form of communication.
Everybody communicates through behaviour. An infant may cry when she is hungry or wet, just like an adult may yawn when he is bored at work. Adults and children are communicating something through their behaviour during every moment in every day, even if they are not aware of it. A child’s problematic or inappropriate behaviour is a sign that they may be upset and that something is not right.
There is always a reason for all behaviour
Children sometimes have trouble communicating, because they may not be able to verbally describe the problem or know what to do in a situation. At these times, children may act out their feelings or needs. Children engage in challenging behaviour for a reason. The purpose may be getting someone’s attention, stopping an activity they don’t like, or satisfying sensory needs — but there is always a reason behind the behaviour.
There can be many reasons behind one specific behaviour
Children with challenging behaviour are sending adults the message that something is not right or that their needs are not being met. There could be many reasons for a single behaviour, such as being hungry, scared, hurt, tired, bored, sad or angry. Some children may engage in behaviour that seems destructive, because they enjoy the physical sensation (for example pulling threads from clothing). Sometimes children feel unsafe or out of control, so they take inappropriate action over the things they do control, like being able to kick someone. A child who has tried several times to communicate to adults about what they need, but whose needs remain unmet, will often use challenging behaviour as a way of sending a very loud message.
Adults can learn to understand and interpret children’s challenging behaviour
Since children often use their behaviour to tell us what they need, and adults can help the child by figuring out the meaning behind the child’s behaviour. All children, especially those who display challenging behaviour, need the consistency of a reliable and caring adult who will provide support and guidance, especially during difficult times.
Children’s challenging behaviour can be reduced with support, not punishment
Once adults understand what children are communicating through their behaviour, they can respond better. When children feel respected and have their needs met, there is no longer a reason to use challenging behaviour to communicate. Punishing a child for a behaviour may stop the behaviour for the moment, but it does not give the child support or provide alternate ways to act in difficult situations. When adults help children find positive ways to communicate their needs to others, children learn important social and problem-solving skills that will help them throughout their life.
Behaviour is contextual
It’s more than just what the person does. It involves the interaction between the person, their specific situation, their environment, and the other people around them. So, to understand behaviour we need to look beyond what we merely see on the surface. It’s important to remember that the underlying difficulties can contribute to challenging behaviour, but challenging behaviour in and of itself is not a core feature of neurodevelopmental difference.
Behaviour Has a Purpose
Behaviour is a form of communication that can convey an important message. There is always a reason for the way we behave.
At times behaviours may be viewed as challenging to manage. However, behaviours don’t happen because the person is intentionally trying to be ‘difficult’, and they generally don’t “come out of the blue” even if the cause isn’t immediately obvious. Challenging behaviour often indicates that the person is unable to cope at that moment and can’t express why in a typical way. It’s frequently the result of a clash between the demands of the situation and the person’s skills to respond, and is influenced by how they feel, what’s happened before and what is happening around them at the time.
The impact of these behaviours is what makes them challenging, both for the person and those around them.
Behaviour is called ‘challenging’ because it challenges those who support the person to understand why it is happening (like parents, carers, teachers and professionals). Challenging behaviours are sometimes called ‘Behaviours of Concern’. Behaviours become concerning if they impact the quality of a person’s life or put them or those around them at risk.
Challenging behaviour usually has 2 main functions: To get or get away from something (like an item, an activity, a sensation, attention or a person).
It is always important to rule out pain or illness as possible contributors to unexpected behaviours.
Imagine you suddenly feel pain while having some dental work done. If you couldn’t use words to express yourself, how would you let the dentist know? More than likely, you’d use behaviour to communicate, like grimacing, groaning, waving your hand or jumping out of your seat.
To prevent a behaviour from occurring (or to reduce the likelihood of it happening again), we first need to understand the purpose of the behaviour. To understand why a behaviour happens, we need to consider all the contributing factors — the person’s characteristics; their skills; the environment that they are in; the expectations placed on them; and the other people involved in the situation.
Information for schools
Think of the last time a student called out in class, pushed in line, or withdrew by putting their head down on their desk. What was their behaviour telling you?
In most cases, behaviour is a sign they may not have the skills to tell you what they need. Sometimes, students may not even know what they need. What are your students trying to communicate? What do they need, and how can you help?
Respond to students, not their behaviours.
First, know that when students act out, those actions can bring about emotions in teachers and other adults. Given all the pressures placed on teachers, you may already feel stressed or emotional. It’s normal to take students’ behaviours personally because of your own feelings and needs in the moment.
How can we help?
I want help with:
- everyday skills
One way to reframe your thinking is to respond to the student, not the behaviour. Start by considering the life experiences that students bring to the classroom.
Some students who learn and think differently have negative past experiences with teachers and school. Others may come from cultures in which speaking up for their needs in front of the whole class isn’t appropriate.
Students who have difficulties with food may push others out of the way at lunchtime to make sure they get something to eat. Students who have experienced trauma can often be wary of others. They may be hypervigilant and prone to what looks like overreactions to simple things. Keeping these experiences in mind can help you respond to the reasons for student behaviour and not simply react to or correct the behaviour itself.
What student behaviour is telling you:
Figuring out the function of, or the reasons behind, a behaviour is critical for finding an appropriate response or support. Knowing the function can also help you find ways to prevent behaviour issues in the future.
Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), an organization that provides resources for educators to create civil and inclusive school communities, offers the acronym EATS to highlight some possible functions of behaviour. EATS stands for Escape, Attention, Tangible gains, and Sensory needs. Here’s a breakdown of what that means:
Escape: Some students use behaviour to avoid a task, demand, situation, or even person they find difficult. Escape behaviour can also be quiet, like students who ask to use the bathroom every time it’s their turn to read.
Example: Sofia, who struggles with reading, often breaks the rules during her language class. She refuses to take out her book during silent reading time. She eventually throws it to the floor, calls the teacher a name, and gets sent to the office.
What her behaviour is saying? : Sofia is communicating that she’s struggling with reading and would rather get into trouble than be asked to do a task that is challenging for her without the support she needs.
Attention: Some students behave in ways that are designed to gain attention. They may feel unsure about when or whether they’ll get your attention otherwise. Attention-seeking can play out in positive behaviours as well, such as when students work hard on a task to get your approval.
Example: Nevaeh is what you might call a clingy student. She really wants to show how hard she worked on her maths. She puts up her hand and calls the teacher’s name over and over. When she doesn’t get a response, she walks across the room, taps the teacher’s arm, and pulls on her sleeve.
What her behaviour is saying? : Nevaeh is trying to tell you that she’s unsure about her strengths. She’s communicating that she needs your approval to be sure she’s done a good job on her math.
Tangible gains: Some student behaviour is aimed at getting what they want when they want it. This type of behaviour is very common for students who struggle with impulsivity or flexible thinking.
Example: Joseph often talks back to his teacher and appears to be disrespectful. He misses or ignores his teacher’s hand gestures to lower his voice. Joseph gets agitated when he’s told to stop. He argues that he’s just trying to get answers to his questions. He believes the teacher should respond to him right away.
What his behaviour is saying? : Joseph is communicating that he needs more information to understand the lesson. From past experiences, he may have learned to talk or question the teacher continuously until he receives a response. His behaviour represents potential challenges with communication skills. That means there’s an opportunity to teach the social skill of waiting to talk. In not responding to the teacher’s subtle cues to stop talking, he’s not simply being argumentative. He’s showing that he needs explicit help learning to respond to cues appropriately to have his needs met.
Sensory needs: Students’ brains are constantly taking in information from their senses. For some, processing that stream of input is a struggle. “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 behaviours become problematic when they are disruptive or interfere with learning.
Example: Ethan tends to be “hands on” with other students. It’s particularly a problem when he’s standing in line. He complains that he feels crowded. He may push other students out of the way.
What his behaviour is saying? : Ethan is trying to let you know that he’s overwhelmed by being so close to other students. He is literally moving them out of his personal space, which may be a larger area than is typical for others.