Behavior = Communication
Behavior is everywhere you look. All behavior is adaptive and purposeful whether “appropriate or inappropriate,” “expected or unexpected,” or “regulated or not.” Have you ever heard of the phrase, “Behavior = Communication?” It is often used to help us think about behavior as a meaningful and purposeful means of communication, even when it is maladaptive.
Behavior is multifaceted and can be internally- and externally-driven. Every behavior that any one of us does can be interpreted as communicative and as having meaning. When a mom says to load the dishwasher and a child doesn’t respond, the child may not have heard her or may have actually heard the direction and chosen to ignore her. Ignoring her and not responding is actually responding – the is escaping a demand or that direction. If a child asks for a toy at the store and the parent says, “No,” and the child cries and stomps their feet in displeasure, the child is definitely expressing feelings. If the parent gives in to the tantrum and agrees to buy the toy to quiet the child down, the parent is reinforcing the inappropriate behavior/tantrum. This pattern often repeats itself, leaving parents and kids in a vicious cycle. The child learns that crying and stomping gets what he/she wants.
Becoming a Behavior Detective
In the current COVID-19/stay at home landscape, being a behavior detective could serve parents and caregivers well! Parents and children are feeling stressed and anxious, even if they don’t appear so. This is a communal feeling given the current situation, and parents may need to pick and choose their battles wisely. Otherwise, they may spend hours of each day dealing with many unpleasant moments. Being “cooped up” with each other may present an opportunity for parents to become behavior detectives to figure out what their kids are trying to communicate. If the children are older, parents may want share this with them so both parent and child become detectives together; maybe even of each other!
Conjunction, Junction, What’s the Function?
Maladaptive behavior is communicating something, and if we want to change that we need to know what the communicative function of the behavior is. By knowing the function behind the behavior (what they are trying to accomplish by the behavior), we can then think about prevention, intervention and post-intervention—thus being able to intervene at three different times before a behavior actually occurs, during the behavior or after the behavior occurs.
Communicative functions of behavior include:
- Escape/Avoidance of a task
- Access to something/someone desirable
- To make a request or a comment
- Self-non-interactive—communicating with ourselves or self-talk/actions
- Expression of feelings
- Expression of sensory needs
Given our current environment, it may be important to think about the communicative function of a child’s “maladaptive behaviors.” This provides a way to intervene with a hypothesis of function and consistency of prevention, intervention or response. Given parents’ own mental, emotional or psychological state, they have the option to escalate or deescalate any situation. Be honest with your kids if you are tired, stressed or overloaded; let them know that you may have less patience when appropriate. Remind them that they have a role in helping to make the house and family a kind, happy and compassionate place. Honest communication, kindness and gentleness with one another (even when we lose control) goes a long way to help during these trying times.
If you need help in being a behavior detective, NESCA is providing virtual parent coaching and consultation. Complete our online Intake Form for more information.
About the Author
NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.
Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.
To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.