Behavior is Communication

Text on this page adapted from PBS Parents: Five Things Parents Should Know About Challenging Behavior.

All behavior is a form of communication.

Everybody communicates through behavior. 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 behavior during every moment in every day, even if they are not aware of it. A child’s problematic or inappropriate behavior is a sign that he is upset and that something is not right.

There is always a reason for problem behavior.

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 behavior 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 behavior.

There can be many reasons behind one specific behavior.

Children with challenging behavior 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 behavior, such as being hungry, scared, hurt, tired, bored, sad or angry. Some children  children may engage in behavior 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 he needs, but whose needs remain unmet, will often use problem behavior as a way of sending a very loud message.

Adults can learn to understand and interpret children’s challenging behavior.

Since children often use their behavior to tell us what they need, adults can help the child by figuring out the meaning behind the child’s behavior. All children, but especially those who display challenging behavior, need the consistency of a reliable and caring adult who will provide support and guidance, especially during difficult times.

Children’s challenging behavior can be reduced with support, not punishment.

Once adults understand what children are communicating through their behavior, they can respond better. When children feel respected and have their needs met, there is no longer a reason to use challenging behavior to communicate. Punishing a child for a behavior may stop the behavior 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.

Additional Resources:

Behavior is Communication Webinar– from the Michigan Alliance for Families Webinar Series

We also have a series of webpages to help understand behavior:

Accommodations/Modifications Sometimes an accommodation or modification to the classroom or the curriculum is the solution to a challenging behavior
Behavior Intervention Plan A written plan that identifies problem behaviors and how they will be addressed.
Behavior is Communication All behavior happens for a reason, but why?
Bullying Definitions, actions to take, specific protections for students with disabilities.
Discipline Covering discipline, suspension, expulsion, manifestation determination review.
Functional Behavior Assessment/Analysis A process for collecting data and analyzing the function of (ie- the reason why) a challenging behavior is occurring.
Positive Behavior Supports An approach to addressing challenging behaviors that teaches positive behavior skills rather than just using punishment.
Seclusion and Restraint When school personnel tie down, pin down, and confine children to locked rooms or boxes.
School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports A building-wide initiative to support all students in school.

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