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Understanding Behavior as Communication

By June 26, 2023Nesca Notes 2023

By: Cynthia Hess, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

School is out for many, and it is no surprise to many that it was a challenging year for teachers, parents, and children. One word that captures the experience of the 2022-2023 school year is stress. Teachers were stressed as their students continued to contend with the academic and social deficits that resulted from the pandemic. Many students have struggled to adapt to post-pandemic learning, and incidents of acting out behavior have increased precipitously. How do we make sense of children’s behavior while helping them develop and effectively manage the academic, social, and behavioral expectations of an ever-changing world?

Ross Greene, Ph.D., states, “Children want to do well and would if they could.” Behavior is not just random or meaningless. It serves as a way for children to express their needs, feelings, and experiences, especially when they have not yet developed strong verbal or communication skills. When the demands of the environment exceed a child’s capacity to manage them, they are apt to become stressed, increasing the likelihood that they will act out. Stress is a complex concept that is a response to perceived or anticipated demands or pressures that exceed an individual’s coping abilities.

When stressed, the adrenal glands release cortisol, a stress hormone that helps mobilize energy reserves for the fight-or-flight response. Fear and anxiety also increase individuals’ vulnerability to responding with fight or flight. So, while fear is focused on a specific threat, physiologically, it feels much the same as stress. Behavior is, therefore, a way of communicating that something is amiss. For instance, a child who acts aggressively may express frustration, which is stressful. And a child who becomes withdrawn might feel overwhelmed or anxious, triggering a stress response. Behavior is a natural way for children to communicate their needs, emotions, or reactions to the environment.

Our job as adults is first to check our own emotional status, because if we are tired or stressed, it will likely influence how we respond when children behave badly. Observing and interpreting behaviors with a curious and open mindset is important. By paying attention to patterns, triggers, and context, adults can gain insights into what a child might be trying to communicate through their behavior. Our job is not to manage the behavior but to understand, per Dr. Greene, what skills are lagging or what problems need to be solved, build relationships, and work collaboratively with children to solve problems and change behavior.

Resources:

The Explosive Child, Ross Greene, Ph.D., 2021

Beyond Behaviors; Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., 2019

Podcast: Two Sides of the Spectrum; episode dated April 5, 2023; “Safety as the Foundation for Everything

 

About the Author

Dr. Cynthia Hess (Cindy), a licensed psychologist, worked as an elementary counselor and school psychologist for 15 years before starting her doctorate. In this role, she developed extensive expertise and aptitude for working with individuals and groups struggling with a wide range of emotional and learning challenges.

She completed her pre-doctoral internship with Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., where she trained at Hillside Family of Agencies in a therapeutic residential school. At Hillside, she worked with youth ages 5-17 who had experienced complex developmental trauma.

She earned her Psy.D. in Counseling and School Psychology from Rivier University in 2018. Having a strong interest in the impact of social media on children and our culture, her doctoral dissertation studied the impact social media has on social skills development in fourth- and fifth-grade children.

Dr. Hess’s first post-doctoral fellowship was with The Counseling Center of New England, where she provided psychotherapy and family therapy to children ages 5-18 and young adults.

Dr. Hess joined NESCA’s Londonderry, N.H. office in 2019, where she completed a second two-year fellowship in pediatric neuropsychological assessment. Dr. Hess now conducts neuropsychological evaluations as a pediatric neuropsychologist and has a particular interest in working with children and young adults with complex emotional and behavioral profiles. Her experience allows her to guide families in navigating the complicated options for school and other support services.

 

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert neuropsychologists, please complete our online intake form

 

NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, Londonderry, New Hampshire, and the greater Burlington, Vermont area, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.