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