Challenging Behaviours: What is your Child’s Behaviour Trying to Communicate?

Behaviour is communication

I’ve never forgotten the following phrase that I heard in my initial training when I started working as an ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) therapist; “There is always a reason for behaviour”. These words have since guided and continue to guide my practice when working with children and their families. Even though we may not know what the reason is, there is always a reason for your child behaving in a certain way, be it positive or challenging. Behaviour is often the way communication is expressed to fulfil an underlying need. If your child does not understand their needs or know how to communicate them in an appropriate way, they may be expressed through their behaviour. This is where challenging behaviours can arise. Although challenging behaviours can occur in all children, they are particularly prevalent in children who have specific disorders that affect the typical development of communication, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When this is occurring, we need to investigate to find out what it is that they are trying to tell you! 

The four main functions of behaviour

As behaviour is used to communicate an underlying need, we can look at the behaviour as serving a specific purpose, or function. Behaviour can be divided into the following 4 main functions:

  • Attention: a desire to gain social interaction, e.g., wanting to be looked at, hugged, praised, etc. To feel a sense of belonging and acceptance.
  • Escape: avoidance of something aversive, e.g., wanting to avoid a task that is particularly difficult 
  • Tangible: gaining access to specific objects or activities e.g., food, money, toys, playing a game
  • Sensory: an internal self-stimulatory need e.g., hand flapping, hair twirling, any behaviour that promotes an internal feeling of enjoyment, satisfaction, soothing, etc.

Operant conditioning

We can understand more about behaviour through a process known as operant conditioning. Operant conditioning looks at the consequences of the behaviour. If a behaviour is followed by desirable consequences, then it is more likely to continue. For example, in our society, most people go to work to get paid – a desirable consequence of going to work that is likely to result in a person continuing to go to work. However, if a behaviour is followed by unpleasant consequences, then it is less likely to occur. Anything that increases the likelihood of a behaviour occurring is known as reinforcement. For example, if a child is asked to perform a math task in the classroom that they find difficult, and they don’t know how to appropriately ask for help, they may exhibit disruptive or aggressive behaviour which may result in the teacher sending the child out of the classroom. The function of this behaviour is to avoid a difficult task, i.e., escape, and the behaviour produced the desired result, so it has therefore been reinforced and is more likely to continue.

Responding to behaviour

If we can identify the function of the behaviour, then we can respond to it in an appropriate way where we, in turn, are increasing desirable behaviours and decreasing undesirable behaviours. Whenever a problem behaviour is occurring, we can ask what might be the function of this behaviour? What is my child trying to communicate here? If we know this, we can then give them the tools to fulfil their needs, such as learning how to identify what their needs are and how to communicate appropriately to get them met. For example, most of us need attention and to feel like we’re accepted by others, and we can teach children appropriate strategies to get this need met through verbal or visual communication. It is also important to ensure that we are not only always focusing on the negative behaviours either. As reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour occurring, it is important to reinforce positive behaviours.

How a psychologist can help

Identifying the function of the behaviour and knowing how to respond to it can be a complex process and there is never a “one size fits all” approach. If your child is exhibiting behaviours of concern, your psychologist can help you with strategies to identify the function, and collaboratively devise a plan to reduce the undesirable behaviours and increase desirable behaviours.

If you would like some support with better understanding your child’s behaviour, why not give us a call today? Our team of highly skilled and well-experienced Psychologists are here to help.

This blog was written by Fiona Thomson, psychologist at Your Mind Matters Psychology Services. She works with us 2 days per week and is passionate about working with special needs children presenting is challenging behaviours and adults with depression and stress related issues.