Your child's challenging behavior is their way of communicating

Charmaine Thaner Special Education Advocate, Consultant, Public Speaker Visions and Voices Together Visions and Voices Together
Your child's challenging behavior is their way of communicating

Instead of trying to change a child’s behavior, work needs to be done on changing the adult’s understanding of the actual behavior. Unusual behavior does not mean the child is choosing to misbehave. Behavior is a way to communicate to others. People with behaviors labeled as “difficult” or “challenging” are really sending a message. It may be a message of, “ I need the chance to make choices”, or “I want a friend,” or “ I want some fun in my life,” or “Please believe in my abilities,” or “I wish you could understand what I am thinking.”

Many students with disabilities are at risk of having their behavior devalued. And since behaviors are messages, their thoughts and ideas would also become devalued. The real crime is when enough people believe a person’s behavior is a “problem”, which can lead to the perception that the person is a “problem” and over time the person sees himself as a “problem”.

We can learn from people with disability labels and the messages their behavior tell us.


Do seek to understand the whole person

See a person’s behavior in the context of the whole person and the environment, instead of seeing the behavior as a result of the person’s disability label. First, get to know the person by spending time with them, talking with them, and enjoying activities with them. Discover what makes them feel safe, loved, cared for, and important. Make note of what they do well, what talents and interests they have, and whom they like to be around. Also, notice what frustrates them, what they struggle with, and who they avoid spending time with.

Do ensure the person has a way of communicating

If the person does not easily verbally communicate with others, his behavior may be sending the message of frustration. Adults need to know how a person communicates and the circumstances when their communication can break down. Even young toddlers can be taught sign language or how to use communication devices. There is no excuse for a student to not have an effective way to let others know his thoughts, have a conversation with his friends, request his wants, and be able to show what he understands and is able to do.

Do meet the unmet needs the person has

A person’s behavior may be sending the message that they have one or more needs unmet. One basic need is to feel loved and to belong. If a student is not respected or allowed to have opportunities to be interdependent, chances are they will demonstrate this through “challenging” behavior. Each person needs to experience power – to be successful and important. Fun is another essential need. This includes being able to have enjoyable experiences and chances to laugh with others. Another critical need is survival – having basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter, but also good health and positive sexual experiences. Freedom is a need for everyone, especially people with disabilities. Each person needs to be given choices and the ability to be independent.

Do write a support plan instead of a behavior plan

A support plan begins with the assumption that everyone is competent. Too often a behavior plan is written from the belief that the student needs to be “fixed”. A support plan is only written after others have gotten to know the student as a whole person, have spent extended time with the person (not just observing them in the classroom), and understands the messages of their behavior.


Do not forget the importance of ongoing conversations

A student may have a label of intellectual disabilities or a severe communication disability. However, do not assume they will not understand the words, the tone of voice, or body language when being talked with. Continue to learn more about the student from themselves and the people who care about them.

Do not assume what you see is what you get

If adults only pay attention to behavior that they can count, time, and track on a graph, they will most likely miss the message being sent. If a student pushes a peer in the lunch line, it does not necessarily mean they have poor peer relationships. The message they might be sending is, “I am tired of you making fun of me.” If a student crumples up their math worksheet, it may not be an issue of compliance. They may be telling the teacher they are bored doing math worksheets everyday.

Do not think the same behavior sends the same message

A child may rub his ears with great intensity and for long periods of time. One day the message may be, “My ear is hurting me.” Another day it may mean, “I am experiencing a bombardment of noises that I can’t stand.” First, the message from the behavior needs to be understood. Then the appropriate action can take place to meet the student’s need in that particular circumstance.

Do not focus on “fixing” behavior challenges

Educators and families should not view students by their behavior and disability label and decide their mission is to “fix” them. This thinking perpetuates the notion that the “problem” lies within the student and creates more attitudinal barriers. The “problem” often lies in the environment and that is what needs to change.

Jumping cartoon

All behaviors carry a message. Quite often the message is about a basic human need going unmet. It is necessary to take the time to form a relationship with the person and discover what message is being sent. Instead of making false assumptions, punishing, or fixing people it is imperative for our schools and families to support the person. Each person deserves a rich and fulfilling life in our communities.

More expert advice about Improving Family Communication

Photo Credits: © katrin_timoff -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Charmaine ThanerSpecial Education Advocate, Consultant, Public Speaker Visions and Voices Together

Everything Charmaine does is because she believes life can be better. She works with and learns from parents of school-age children with disabilities by providing tools and strategies so their children receive the education they deserve. Ch...

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