Behaviour as Communication | A Growing Understanding

Actions Can Speak Louder Than Words: Behaviour as Communication

Considering that more than half of our communication is nonverbal, it is really no surprise that both adults and children use behaviour to communicate in pretty much every moment of every day. As adults, the facial expressions and the gestures we make communicate for us. These are often subconscious; the lengthy yawn during a long meeting, the glance at your watch when someone grabs you when you’re in a rush, arms folded tightly across your chest when you are confronted. And although you may not be aware of these actions, they are communicating a clear message to the other person.

Unsurprisingly, children rely heavily on nonverbal communication. You might be familiar with the tantrums, maybe even biting, hitting and screaming that a toddler is very capable of? These are common happenings when raising a toddler. Your child is using behaviour to communicate with you while they are developing their understanding and use of the verbal language.

Often this challenging behaviour manifests out of frustration at either not understanding a situation or being unable to verbally express their wants, needs and feelings.  As children get older and develop appropriate vocabulary, sentence structure and social skills, these high-level behaviours reduce.

But for children with speech and language delays or disorders, these behaviours can continue. Often communication difficulties and the anxiety surrounding interactions are at the root of a child’s behaviour.

What is Your Child Trying to Tell You?

As a parent, you have probably heard; “that is just the terrible twos, the terrible threes or, maybe even, the terrible fours and beyond…” It can often be easy to assume that the behaviour of your child is ‘normal’ and that they will grow out of it. While this might be the case, it is important to understand that challenging behaviour, or behaviour that is difficult to change or manage, is often a reaction to needs not being met. So rather than questioning when will this behaviour end, try asking what is my child trying to tell me?

According to a guide produced by Developmental Disability WA called What is your child’s Challenging Behaviour trying to tell you?, when your child exhibits challenging behaviours, they may be trying to express one or more of the following:

  • Frustration – they can’t do something or can’t tell you what they want
  • Fear – they are frightened of something
  • Strong feelings – they are unhappy or angry about something; they dislike or are unhappy about a situation.
  • Anxiety – they are feeling confused, worried, stressed, unable to think well
  • Hyperactivity – they have excess energy and cannot seem to burn it off
  • Discomfort – they are in pain and can’t tell you
  • Attention – they are making attempts to meet their need for attention, attachment and interaction by behaving in a certain way and they are wanting engagement with you
  • Difficulty with understanding – if your child has difficulties with understanding, they may not know what is expected. They may need time to work out what you mean and so don’t respond to an instruction when you expect them to. They might not know what is happening around them or retain information that you have given them.
  • Difficulty processing or making sense of sensory experiences in the environment – for example, certain touch, noise and lights may stress your child. Some children may have hyper or hypo-sensitivities to certain stimuli in an environment.
  • Seeking sensory input and/or experiences

Behaviour as Communication | A Growing Understanding

For children with specific learning disorders, speech and language difficulties, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), good support across all environments is essential. If appropriate support and understanding is lacking, your child’s behaviour may continue to be challenging. All children will communicate their needs and respond to situations differently. But there are some general principles and support services you can seek to help you manage your child’s behaviour. Some of these principals are discussed below.

Predictability and Structure

Most people respond to any given situation better if they are armed with the right information, know what to expect, and feel a sense of control over what is about to transpire. Children with learning and communication difficulties can cope more easily if they too know in advance what is going to happen. Using visual information like pictures and symbols can help children process what is happening now and what will happen in the future. You can work with your speech pathologist to develop the right visual schedule for your child that can be used at home and/or school. If your child has a clear understanding of what is happening, this will help them feel in control, safe and secure.

Building Two-Way Communication

All children have a need for strong attachments and relationships, and will sometimes use behaviour to engage and interact with you, even if it is in a negative way. It is important for you to find a way to communicate to your child, enable them to communicate with you, and give them information about your daily routines that will help them understand what is happening and their ability to have some choice and control. When you are looking to establish clear communication channels with your child, you could try:

  • Using simple language, one-step instructions, or key words
  • Giving your child time to understand and process what you’ve said or signed and repeat key instructions
  • Remembering the power of your own non-verbal language/behaviour. Your tone of voice, warmth, posture, stance, positioning, eye contact and facial expression all speak volumes about your own feelings and will affect how your child responds to you.

In addition to the above, you could support communication by capitalising on your child’s natural visual skills and utilise picture communication symbols, by signing, using gesture, by showing photographs or other familiar pictures or objects, and through telling social stories.

Jump it Out

We all know that exercise is a great way to relieve stress and get rid of frustrations. This is the same for children. Introducing breaks that involve physical exercise like jumping on a trampoline, or even just a walk in the fresh air, can help your child clear their mind and come back to task with a renewed approach.

Recognising and Rewarding

Developmental Disability WA talks about the importance of understanding the triggers that may cause challenging behaviour:

In some situations, children become anxious or distressed, which can trigger behaviour that challenges. You may know these triggers, or at times you may be baffled and caught off guard. It can take time and practice to work out the triggers but it’s important you do, so you can find ways to support your child to feel less anxious and distressed.

Children with communication difficulties may find it challenging to both understand and communicate their feelings, which obviously can manifest in ‘meltdowns’. Recognising and understanding why your child might be acting a certain way, will help you to navigate the best solution. To help you recognise the trigger, you could consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does my child understand what is being asked?
  • Does my child understand the task and have I explained the steps clearly?
  • Is my child hungry, thirsty, tired or in pain?
  • Does my child know the person that is interacting with them, and is the interaction positive?
  • Is the situation too noisy, too crowded?
  • Is my child struggling with change?

A speech pathologist or psychologist can also work with you to identify certain types of behaviours, what the triggers might be, and how to manage these behaviours.

With recognition, can come rewards. If you try to recognise and reward appropriate behaviours throughout the day, you can reinforce and increase those behaviours. Again, you can work with your speech pathologist or other professional to determine the right kind of rewards system for your child.

At the end of the day we all want to be understood. For you to understand your child and to more likely prevent the continuation of challenging behaviours, you need to focus on meeting their needs. This could mean changing what people do around them, or helping them develop new skills. Meeting your child’s needs across the day is a preventative strategy to challenging behaviours, and we can work together to focus on all the good things, encourage appropriate behaviour, and help your child grow and develop in a positive environment.

If you would like to support your child’s independence and help them understand their daily routines, why not join us for a FREE workshop on using visuals at home. Visit our workshops for more details.

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