Perspectives on Behavior


Perspectives on Behavior

All children exhibit less-than-desirable behaviors at one time or another.  Sometimes children exhibit many of these behaviors throughout the day, especially in the case of children with neurodevelopmental disorders.  The behaviors can take over everyone’s lives and become the focus of our interactions with these children.  Too often we blame the child, when what we need to do is analyze what the child’s behavior is telling us and how we can best support his or her functioning.  This involves looking beyond what is on the surface to see what physical and emotional needs lie beneath.

There are many labels and phrases that get thrown around to describe children who exhibit problematic behavior.  They might be called “behavior problems,” “naughty,” “oppositional,” or “defiant.”  People might say they are acting up “on purpose” to make me angry or to “get what s/he wants.”  Others might say, “he just doesn’t want to do what he’s supposed to do” or “she just doesn’t like me.”   What’s interesting about all of these labels and phrases is that they imply that the problem lies exclusively with the child, and that the purpose or intent behind the behavior is to intentionally create a problem for someone else.

A more effective perspective to have is that behavior is communicating something.  All behavior tells us something about what is going on within and around an individual at a given moment in time.  It’s very easy to make a snap judgment about what we think is going on inside a child when s/he exhibits behaviors we feel are abnormal or inappropriate.  While this might be easy, it is often inaccurate!  The reality is that behavior is the external evidence of what is going on internally.  When a child exhibits behavior that appears to be inappropriate, we have to ask ourselves what the real purpose of that behavior is and what it is communicating.

Many children with neurodevelopmental disorders have very real physical and sensory-based problems that we cannot see and that they cannot communicate verbally.  While they may not be able to tell us what’s going on, their behavior provides us with information­­—if we are open to receiving it.  When we do not view behavior as a communication tool, we remain stuck in the realm of taking it at face value and interpreting it as something being done to annoy us, create a problem, or something the child is doing but doesn’t need to be doing.

There are many things we should look at when a child exhibits behavior that appears inappropriate or problematic.  This is especially the case when providing treatment for autism, treatment for ADHD, or treatment for any other neurodevelopmental disorders.  Here are some questions you can ask to help figure out what a child may be communicating through his/her behavior:

  1. What is happening when the behaviors occur?
  2. Does the child understand and feel competent doing what s/he was asked to do?
  3. Are their irritants in the environment (smells, bright lights, loud sounds, etc.)?
  4. Who is present when the behaviors occur?
  5. Are there specific physical behaviors the child exhibits (eyes squinted, pressing against objects, covering ears, etc.)?
  6. What and when has the child eaten today?
  7. How did this child sleep last night?
  8. Are there signs that the child may be ill or coming down with something?
  9. What happens if I completely change my response?
  10. What is the overall stress level this child experiences daily?

Spending a few minutes to answer these questions can identify issues that may be at the root of behaviors children exhibit.  Children communicate the best they know how, and many times that is through their behavior. It is our responsibility as adults to figure out what the behavior means.  To understand what is happening on the outside we have to dig deeper and understand what is happening on the inside.  Only then can we help children cope better and improve their behavior.


  • Amy Postmus
    March 14, 2012

    This was a VERY timely article for me and a great reminder on how to look at the behavioral issues we are currently experiencing. Any ideas on what might be behind the recent “problem” we are having or how to handle it? Our (non-verbal, ASD, Global Apraxia, 7 year old) son has been eating/chewing on Kleenex and toilet paper. Any suggestions on how to help him understand that it is not appropriate/unhealthy for him to do so? He gets extremely angry when we discipline him by taking it away from him; try to talk with him about it (saying to him that Mommy and Daddy don’t do that – it’s not food, etc.) or offer him his Chew Tube as an alternative to this sensory seeking behavior. I hope you have some insight to share – thank you!

  • Becki
    March 14, 2012

    I’ve been saying that behaviors that reoccur over and over again have an undlerlying issue that needs to be resolved in order for the behavior to stop. A lot of times if a behavior is addressed and seems to be taken care of you will notice that a new behavior will pop up someplace else. Until more people learn and understand this, the child will continue to be labeled as just a “bad kid”.

  • March 15, 2012

    Thank you for a great article Dr. Beurkens. It is interesting that when a child has difficulties with math we call the math difficult but when a child has difficulties with (non-academic) Life Skills such as interpersonal communication we call the “child” difficult. Love the sensitivity with which you distinguished between skill and behavior and illuminated also the spectrum of being human. Like the trees and plants the populate the planet human beings are indeed each unique. Much misery is creating by applying a one size fits all solution to diversity. Gratitude!!

  • March 18, 2012

    To Amy Postmus: I am just a mother of an 18 year old son who was diagnosed PDD-nos at age 3. I am intrigued by the toilet paper chewing child. My own son’s “mild” autism was manifested in chewing his shirt. The necks were stretched out because I think it is how he calmed himself. I just allowed it, because I didn’t know any better. He was under so much stress, he was so different from the other kids from the very beginning almost. He still puts pennies, screws, and other objects in his mouth, and he is going into electrical engineering at a Tech school, so you see, it is a real need!! I would look for a less objectionable material that would fulfill that craving for sensory input. It would have to be very soft, thin, material–similar to toilet paper. All I could think of is a hankie…which, when you think of it, is used for a similar purpose (nose blowing!!!). Your son craves soft, my son craves anything!!! I would just try to change the object. I used to like to chew paper, which couldn’t have been that good…maybe it’s a similar “break apart” sensation that he needs. Some people chew pencils, or erasers….Good luck!

    You have it exactly right, Dr. Berkuens. For things to change, we have to stop punishing and start learning what kids need. And a GREAT start is to begin to see that maybe our own behavior and expectations of “normal” are really not what children need. All children need acceptance. “Catch them being good” was wonderful advice I received…give them a breather from criticism. My son has a great sense of humor, and “humor saves face”, another bit of advice I received. Humor takes the onus off the child, and puts it on the behavior, if that makes any sense. These kids get judged so harshly, but you can’t judge and share laughter at the same time.

    I love my son and would not change a hair on his head. It has been a challenge to raise him, but it has never been boring. He has brought more joy (and worry) into my life…we would never have chosen a “behaviorally disordered” (hate that label) child because we wouldn’t have ever dreamed we were capable of handling it…but I can’t live without him now. It is extraordinary what he has been through and survived…he was echolalic up until grade 4–how did he make it???



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