Looking at a child’s unwanted behaviors as a form of communication rather than them being bad or naughty for no reason can help us address the underlying need or problem that kid is experiencing. Below are a few examples of common ways kids’ behavior is really just them expressing their wants and needs. 

  1. Escape: Some kids use behavior to avoid a task, demand, situation, or even a person they find difficult. This may be the child who says inappropriate things to the teacher or a parent so they can escape a stressful situation.
    • Example: Sofia, who struggles with reading, refuses to take out her book during silent reading time. She eventually throws it to the floor, calls the teacher a name, and gets sent to the office. At home she refuses to do her reading homework and purposely lashes out at you, knowing you’ll send her to her room.
    • Understanding Behavior: What Sofia is trying to communicate is that she’s struggling with reading and would rather get into trouble than be asked to do a task that is challenging for her without the support she needs. 
  2. Attention. Sally is what some people might think of as clingy. She really wants to show how hard she worked on her math. At school, she raises her hand in class over and over. 
    • Example: At home, she keeps interrupting you to report her progress. When she doesn’t get a response, she keeps tapping your arm and yanking your sleeve.
    • Understanding Behavior: Nevaeh is trying to tell you that she’s unsure about her strengths. She’s telling you she needs your approval to be sure she’s done a good job on her math. 
  3. Tangible gains. Some behavior is aimed at getting what they want when they want it. This behavior is very common for kids who struggle with impulsivity or flexible thinking. 
    • Example: Joseph often talks back and comes off as disrespectful. He misses or ignores cues to lower his voice. He gets agitated when he is told to stop. He argues that he’s just trying to get answers to his questions. He believes you should respond to him right away.
    • Understanding Behavior: Joseph is communicating that he needs more information to understand what’s happening around him. His behavior shows a communication skills deficit, providing an opportunity to learn the social skill of waiting.
  4. Sensory needs. Children’s brains are constantly taking in information from their senses. For some kids, that stream of input is a struggle. They may underreact or overreact to sensory input, which can be problematic when they are disruptive at home, in the community, or at school.
    • Example: Ethan, for instancehas a hard time sitting still. He is getting up and running around the classroom at school and won’t stay with you in the store or parking lot. He will run and jump all over the house with no regard for personal safety.
    • Understanding Behavior: Ethan may have a low threshold for proprioception and vestibular input meaning he needs a lot more movement in his day for him to feel normal. 

These are just a few examples and explanations of what behavior can mean. If your child’s behavior is getting in the way of their success and independence, an Occupational Therapist can help you decode and understand your child’s behavior and help address the underlying issues. OT’s help gives families and children the tools to reduce unwanted or inappropriate behaviors so that everyone can lead a happy, healthy, and meaningful life.