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All Behavior is Communication

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

The term “behaviors”, when used in reference to children with various language-based challenges carries a negative tone. When we hear this word being thrown around to describe a child, we automatically think of a negative reaction, response, or action; and when we think of it in this way, it makes sense that our gut reaction is to respond negatively or in a punitive way. We’ve all learned at some point in our lives that “bad behavior” is met with consequence; and while we want to make sure that children are not harming others, it’s important to recognize that these “behaviors” are really just (ineffective) attempts to communicate.

If we try to understand the function or purpose of a child’s behavior, we can get a glimpse into their world and gather some important information. What are they feeling or thinking about? Why aren’t they able to communicate that to you? What did they do to try to communicate? What was my initial response following their behavior (e.g. kicking, hitting, screaming, running away, etc.) and how did they respond to that?

Children who have a difficult time communicating their wants, needs, feelings, etc. need some way to get the attention of an adult; and nothing gets our attention more than outwardly harmful or “inappropriate” actions. Let’s look at possible functions of some behaviors and think about how to respond in order to model and teach more effective communication.

Keep these things in mind:

  • You might notice a commonality across the board when it comes to helpful ways to respond to your child. Validating what you assume to be your child’s communicative attempt let’s them know that you’re listening and that you understand or are trying to understand. Sometimes the simplest, “It seems like you’re feeling really angry. You wanted to keep the book,” can be enough to calm a child down. Just as we want to feel heard and validated, our little ones do, as well!

  • Notice how I usually say, “it seems you’re feeling…”; I can’t be certain how they’re feeling and I don’t want to assume or assign the incorrect emotion.

  • When a child is having a very hard time calming their body, often the best course of action is to eliminate any language demands → this means don’t use any language at all; give them some space and time, while modeling deep breathing


This behavior is a communicative attempt. What is my child trying to communicate?


​Possible Intended Message

​Helpful Ways to Respond

Ignoring, running away

I didn’t understand what you said.

Rephrase w/ choices

If you asked: “We’re having dinner soon, so what do you want to eat?”

Try rephrasing: “Time for dinner. Do you want mac n cheese or chicken?”

Give wait time

Make sure to give them time after your direction or question

Add a visual

Head to the kitchen to set the context, then hold up the two foods that you are offering as you say each one

Hitting, crying, screaming

I’m feeling anxious about what’s coming next/I don’t know what to expect.

Validate “You seem worried/scared”


Give information

“We’re going to the grocery store to buy apples. First, we’ll look for the apples, then we’ll go to the register to buy the apples. Then we’ll leave and drive home.”

Use a visual

Try drawing the steps on a piece of paper- keep it simple!


Reframe your constructive feedback: Instead of: Stop hitting! or No hitting! Try: You seem worried about going to the doctor, and hitting is not okay.

Kicking, hitting

I’m having a feeling that I can’t express (hunger, bathroom, tired, upset, excitement).

Validate “You seem so excited!”


Give alternative options

“You seem so excited! Let’s jump together,” or “You seem so excited! Should we clap or jump?”

Model language

“You seem so excited! I’m excited to go to grandma’s house, too!”


Reframe your constructive feedback: Instead of: No kicking! Try: You seem so excited, and kicking is not okay.

Throwing toys

I’m still thinking about that toy I wanted to play with.

Validate “You really wanted to keep playing

with the legos.”


First, then statement

“First we’ll eat dinner, then you can play with the legos.”


“Hmm, I wonder when we can play with your legos again.”


Reframe your constructive feedback: Instead of: You cannot throw your toys! Try: I know you want to keep playing with legos, and throwing toys is not okay.

Ignoring, not listening

I’m distracted by something else (in my environment or in my brain).

Validate “You can hear the dog barking. It’s loud.”


Redirect by connecting their thought

“My broccoli is loud when I take a big crunchy bite! Chomp chomp!”


“I’m thinking about taking a biiiig bite of this crunchy broccoli.”

Hitting, screaming, throwing

I don’t want to do what you’re telling me to do, but I don’t know how to tell you.

Validate “It seems like you really don’t want to brush your teeth.”


Make it fun

- Get out the sugar monsters

- Sing a song

- Let them choose which toothbrush to use (have multiple motivating ones, such as Disney characters)

When statement

“When you brush your teeth, we can read a story!”


Reframe your constructive feedback:

Instead of: No hitting! Try: I know it’s hard to brush your teeth, and hitting is not okay.


Think about the reasons:

  • Is there an uncomfortable sensory experience associated with brushing (water temp, bristles, taste of toothpaste, etc.)?

  • Was there a traumatic experience surrounding brushing (unpleasant dental visit, pain of some sort, etc.)?

Hitting, kicking

I want to get your attention, but I don’t know how to get it.

Validate “You want to get my attention”-- if you know the intent, you can add.. “You want me to get more crackers.”

Then… Give ways to get attention “You can call my name,” “You can come over and tap me”

Hitting, kicking, throwing

I need your help with something, but I don’t know how to ask.

Validate “Oh! You need help.” Then… Model or Comment “Mommy, I need help.” “It seems like you need some help.” Pair a visual Use the sign for “help” while you say, “You need help.”



Let’s reframe the way we approach behaviors, so we can begin to help our little ones build social-emotional skills, self-advocacy, and effective communication!

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