Understanding A Child’s Behavior as a Form of Communication

Communication comes in many forms. We create meaning and conversations through talking, hand gestures and body language. But, there is also a type of communication that isn’t as obvious, but is still as valid, especially in children – a person’s behavior. 

People of all ages communicate through their behaviors. Think about it – when a baby cries, they are letting the adults in their life know they are hungry, tired, wet, etc. When a child smiles, they are telling you they are happy. Our actions, reactions and emotions are all layers of meaning and tell us important details about a person, just like the other methods, especially for children. It is easier to identify the positive behaviors and what they are communicating. However, the negative behaviors can be trickier to understand because you have to look deeper into why the child is exhibiting this behavior. 

Negative and problem behaviors in children almost always have a reason. No one wants to scream and destroy things, but when a person doesn’t have the necessary communication skills to accurately explain his or her needs, this is what occurs in place of those skills. Instead of a child saying they are upset, tired or need attention, they will show it through an outburst or a scream. Destructive and inappropriate behaviors are often done when a child feels unsafe or out of control. As adults, our job is to help the children identify the need not being met, regulate their emotions and verbally describe what is happening through the messages a child is sending us. 

Every child needs a “safe person” in their lives. This is one or two adults that provide consistent and reliable support of the child, regardless of the situation and their behaviors. Research has shown that in order to reduce a young child’s challenging behavior, it’s best to use support, not punishment. Once adults determine the type of behavior and what the child is trying to communicate, they are better able to respond. Obviously, there will be times when discipline is needed, but it is best to determine the motive of the child first. It is important to note that you are responding to the child, not their specific behaviors, and the way an adult responds can set the tone for how the conversation goes. 

Challenging behavior can represent specific unmet wants and needs. The acronym EATS is a useful tool to understand the various actions. EATS stands for Escape, Attention, Tangible Gains and Sensory Needs. Escapism behaviors are used when a child wants to avoid a task, situation or even a person, such as asking for water instead of going to bed or avoiding schoolwork. Attention-seeking behaviors are when children want attention in a certain way, and they aren’t sure when or whether they’ll receive it. However, it is important to remember that attention-seeking behaviors aren’t all negative; they can be positive behaviors, as well. Looking at tangible gains, children often want certain things on their own schedule. They want something when they want it. There is an impulsivity and inflexibility for the child, and more social and communication skills are needed to be learned in order to respond appropriately to having their needs met. Lastly, sensory needs occur when a child’s brain is taking in information from all of their senses. Their brain works overtime to process all of the new information which leads to sensory seekers or sensory avoiders. Sensory seekers underreact to the input, while sensory avoiders overreact. Typical behaviors are becoming overwhelmed, hyperactive and disruptive. 

After the safe adult determines the source of the child’s behavior and their response, a child feels more respected and will more than likely have their needs met. The challenging behaviors will then stop and they will feel supported. It is imperative to find positive ways for a child and an adult to communicate their behaviors. Model and teach children lifelong social and problem-solving skills to communicate their needs. After all, communication is key in an ever-evolving world.


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