Friday, June 25, 2021

Behavior Is Communication: But How Should We Respond?

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All behavior is communication. It can provide us important clues about a child and let us know that something is wrong or that something is missing.

Most behavior is driven by legitimate needs. It's just that kids (and many of us adults too) don't always have the skills and maturity to meet our legitimate needs in legitimate ways. But everyone wants to have their needs met.

A compassionate and caring educator looks beyond the behavior to see the need. So instead of getting frustrated, angry, or impatient, they are curious and understanding. They try to see things from a different perspective.

A student's behavior usually says more about what they're going through than what they're trying to put you through. How many times has a student acted out or shown up poorly because of environmental factors? Something happened at home, at the bus stop, or during lunch? 

Or maybe an inner battle is happening because of past trauma or hurt.

So how can we respond to better understand what is behind the behavior?

Try these ideas depending on the age of the student and the situation. Be curious in how you respond to the child.

1. "Talk to me about the meaning behind what just happened."

2. "Talk to me about what you wanted when that happened."

3. "Share what you were experiencing (or what you were feeling) when that happened."

Notice these responses are not delivered as questions, and they could be just as easily. I heard Mike Rutherford present earlier this week, and he made a great point about how questions can feel like they should have a right answer. They have more power to make us defensive than a statement.

Also, these prompts are completely open ended. Avoid asking questions that make assumptions or feel accusatory. So don't ask...

Are you having a bad day?

What happened to you?

Why did you do that?

All of these questions are unlikely to be helpful. They will probably make the situation worse or the student will be less likely to open up and be reflective. 

If we can help students better understand their own needs and behaviors, then we are helping them to develop important skills to self-regulate. Punishing behavior may ensure compliance to rules, but it doesn't teach kids how to manage their own behaviors.    

What do you think about this quick behavior tip? What else would you add to this advice? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to hear from you.


  1. I love these questions! There is more of an emphasis on the student's emotions rather than the behavior and it's a better way to connect and build a relationship.

  2. I love that you write this blog, that you are in the education system and that you want to unpack behaviour. Behaviour is our first way of communicating to survive. Babies cry hoping to connect to their attachment figure. Many students (and some of our staff) in our schools have developed maladaptive behaviour for survival. According to Bruce Perry our mental states change as our stress response rises. At a calm state we are accessing our cortex with all its capabilities, reflective, creative, analytical, adaptive, as we move to alert, alarm, fear and finally terror we are reduced to our brainstem, reflexive, reactive, survival and our functional IQ is temporarily severely reduced. Trauma informed mindsets benefit our students and staff. Thank you for writing your blog.