Behavior as Communication

We have mentioned that babies communicate without speaking, but truly people of all ages communicate many things without saying a word. People can look at us and see we are happy or sad. How often has someone looked at you and based on your expression or your posture, jumped to a conclusion about what you are thinking or feeling? How often have you moved beyond passive forms of non-verbal communication to use an active form of non-verbal communication by making a gesture or an action to express your opinion? I will bet many of your teachers have become expert at interpreting the non-verbal communication of high school students when they give major project or homework assignments!

When you believe an assignment is unfair, a grade unjust, the milk in the cafeteria has gone sour, your stomach is upset, or someone is making fun of you, I bet you do not hesitate to communicate your reaction to the appropriate person. You use your speech to let them know what is on your mind, but what would you do if you could not speak? How would you learn to say: “Leave me alone, I don’t feel good;” or “Take that away, I hate broccoli;” or “I don’t understand what you want me to do;” or “Go away, you are hurting my feelings!”

It used to be true that when students with severe disabilities tried to “tell” the people in their environment some of these things, it was often interpreted as inappropriate or “challenging” behavior on behalf of the student. What we call “inappropriate behaviors” may in reality be the most efficient or only method for these students to communicate their needs and feelings.

Think about an event you may actually observe with one of the students with whom you are working. Imagine that you can’t communicate with your voice and someone is trying to get you to do something that you absolutely hate to do. That person keeps asking you to do it and begin physically prompting you to do it. What do you do? Do you go along with the person or do you find a way to communicate that you don’t want to do it? If you said that you would find a way to communicate your dislike of the activity, how would you do it? Would you push the person away, try to escape, pinch, scratch, bite?

Teachers and others who have worked with students who could not effectively communicate eventually began to understand that much of the behavior they saw in their students was not “bad” or “acting-out” behavior. It was a legitimate effort by the students to communicate about some very basic things. Gradually a way of thinking about this type of behavior was developed. It is now considered a basic principle that all behavior is some form of communication. So just like we would try very hard to get an interpreter if a student from a foreign country suddenly arrived at our schools, a way of interpreting the actions of students with communication problems was developed. This strategy is a called functional behavior assessment. Conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment is like detective work. The person or team doing the FBA uses many tools, like interviewing the student, interviewing the teachers who interact with that student, behavior rating forms, and direct observation. They use this information to clearly define the target behavior, or the behavior that is problematic, and then create a hypothesis about what the student is trying to communicate by using this behavior. You can watch the behavior of your peer buddies closely and try to understand what they are communicating with their behavior too!

After the reason or function behind the behavior is determined, the team tries to teach the student a more appropriate way of communicating the same idea. For example, if a student begins to hit after working for more than 10 minutes, the team may teach him or her to request a break. This request might be in the form of giving the team member a card that has a picture signifying the need for a break or the word “break” written on it. The student may touch a switch that says, “I need a break.” The team may teach the student to use a gesture to indicate the need for a break. There are many different ways that the student can be taught to say, “I need a break,” instead of hitting. The team must look at the abilities and needs of that particular student

Imagine you have a peer buddy named George, and often when George is given a work assignment he walks away. When he walks away the teacher usually comes over to him, walks him to his desk and gets him started on the assignment.

What do you think are possible reasons for George to walk away from his work? Think about what happens right before the behavior takes place (an assignment is presented) and what happens after (the teacher attends to his needs). Write down your thoughts about what George might be trying to tell us, and what we might be able to teach George to do or say instead.

Now that you have learned to understand behavior as a critical part of communication, consider the following: what does it suggest to you about the best way to deal with troublesome behavior and why? Why do many authorities say that punishment is the least effective way of managing such behavior? Why do you think some authors call functional behavioral assessment an educational approach to behavior? Write down your thoughts before moving on.