Behavior is Communication

For young children, behavior is communication that’s used to meet needs. It’s how they let you know they either want something or want to avoid something. The reason they sometimes use such challenging behaviors is because it works. By understanding what your child is trying to express, you can better respond to their needs and help your child learn more positive ways to communicate.

In this episode of Coffee with the Consultants, mental health consultants Linda and Leah discuss how a child’s behavior can give us clues as to what the underlying problem might be and how to reframe your thinking about a child’s behavior.

(Linda and Mariana are mental health consultants for preschool-age children through The Florida Center’s early childhood education program.)

Reason Behind the 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.

Understand & Interpret Behavior

When children are having big emotions adults need to take a step back and ask themselves, what are they trying to tell me? We often think children are acting up because they want attention when in reality they need connection. When you reframe your thinking you can can get a different perspective on a child’s needs. All children, 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.

Reframe Your Thinking

Replace the notion of your child “giving you a hard time” with the understanding that they are “having a hard time.” Acknowledge that during emotional upheaval, your child may need assistance in self-regulation. Focus on deciphering their communication, avoiding labels, and gaining a clearer perspective to formulate effective strategies.

Teach Communication Skills

Armed with the knowledge that behavior is purposeful, you can actively help your child develop better communication tools. Start by teaching them to identify their emotions and express their needs verbally. Equipping them with the right words diminishes the need for acting out. Encourage simple phrases like “I don’t like that!” or “Help me!” to facilitate smoother interactions.

Model Appropriate Behavior

Children are perceptive, and they pick up on your reactions to their behavior. When faced with a challenge, take a moment for self-care if necessary, explaining to your child that you’re managing your emotions to better assist them. This act not only models emotional regulation but also reinforces the importance of self-care.

By understanding the language of behavior, adults can respond more effectively to children’s needs. When children experience respect and have their needs met, the inclination towards challenging behavior diminishes. Avoiding punitive measures in favor of support and alternative communication methods equips children with vital social and problem-solving skills for a lifetime of success.


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