Students Communicate Through Behavior. Are You Listening?

November 21, 2022
Older woman with her hand on young mans shoulder

Talking out of turn, pushing in line, withdrawing from group activities; these concerning student behaviors are all familiar to educators. But what if we told you that all behavior is communication? Would you listen versus react? Think about how the latter would benefit your relationships with your students and how it would benefit the classroom environment overall.

When we listen to what is beneath the behavior, focusing on the students’ feelings, this type of validation says to the child that we see them and that we are trying to understand.

When disruptive or challenging behaviors occur in the classroom, our instinct is to allow our emotional brains to take over; we immediately respond to the behavior in attempt to “correct” it. But it’s important to remember that your role isn’t to fix the behavior, but rather manage it—identify what that behavior is communicating.

Let’s identify what behaviors can elude to something bigger being communicated, the potential reasons and goals of these behaviors, and review strategies that allow us to truly listen to what students are trying to say.

Respond to the Reasons for Behavior

Your students may not have the appropriate skills to tell you what they need. Knowing that all behavior is communication requires us to figure out what they are trying to tell us.

Your students may be trying to communicate something bigger if they:

  1. Talk out of turn / make unnecessary noise
  2. Show physical aggression
  3. Are unable to concentrate
  4. Talk back
  5. Withdraw at their desk

The frequency and severity of these behaviors varies from student-to-student and between different age groups. For students who have experienced any form of trauma, their trauma-induced behaviors may be more severe and less predictable.

Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), an organization focused on inclusive school communities, uses the acronym EATS to help identify potential reasons for student behavior.

Escape: using behavior to avoid a task, situation, or even a person. Escape behaviors can include inappropriate behavior that results in the student being asked to leave the room or excusing themselves from the room when they are called on for an assignment.

Attention: using behaviors that are intended to gain attention. Attention-seeking behaviors can be things that attempt to get you—the teacher—to pay attention, such as blurting out answers without raising a hand or working ahead on assignments to gain your approval. Behaviors can also include inappropriate actions that attempt to get peers to laugh.

Tangible Gains: using inappropriate behavior to gain access to an activity or object. This tangible behavior may appear in the form of disrespectful tones or physical aggression. Here, the student is expecting you to only pay attention to them and may resemble impulsive behaviors.

Sensory Needs: using behavior to meet a sensory or internal need that is difficult to see from the outside. Students exhibiting these behaviors may over or underreact to sensory input; such as becoming more physical when students when in closer quarters with them (standing in line), or excessive fidgeting during quiet instruction time.

Manage—Don’t React—to Behavior

Now that we know the reasons a student may be behaving in challenging ways, we need to listen attentively to what they are trying to tell us.

If all behavior is communication, only by defining and analyzing students’ behavior can we truly hear what they're saying.

A Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is one such path for understanding behavior and its causes. Through an assessment of the behavior, a plan is established to improve the behavior moving forward and to mitigate challenges that stem from it.

Following a similar structure to an FBA then working with the student to address their feelings validates them, helps them feel heard, and strengthens your student-teacher relationship.

A formal FBA follows the four steps below. Use this step-by-step format as a guide to help you manage—versus react to—the behavior and to serve as your own gentle reminder that all behavior is communication:

  • Define the behavior.
    As you examine a students’ behavior, don’t focus on the negative effect the behavior is causing but rather the specific actions you’re seeing. For example, instead of saying the student is “not listening,” you’ll want to call attention to what they’re actually doing; “the student continues raising their voice when reminded to speak at an appropriate volume.”
  • Analyze the information.
    This is where you’ll want to note specific details about the behavior. Focus on the who, what, when, where, and frequency of the behavior. You’ll use the information you’ve gathered here during step three.
  • Find the reasons "why."
    You may find during the analyzation process that the student is demonstrating challenging behaviors during specific times of the day, or only when around specific students. These details are important to helping you understand what the student is really trying to tell you. Is the student trying to avoid something, or someone? Or, is it possible that the student is struggling in the afternoons after lunch—did they get enough to eat or could they be feeling fatigued? What other precipitating factors could be at play?
  • Draft a plan.
    A formal FBA includes a plan drafted by the school psychologist or a behavior specialist. If you are following a similar structure to an FBA, but not doing the formalized assessment, this phase can be customized by you to best fit the needs of each student. This may appear as you simply making notes of what is occurring, analyzing the information, and drafting a plan for yourself in order to mitigate future behaviors and/or to better listen to the student’s feelings. This plan could also include sitting down with the student to talk through what you’re seeing. Let them know you see them, hear them, and want to help them succeed. In a one-on-one setting, the student may feel comfortable opening up about what they are trying to communicate.

We’d love to hear your own strategies for listening to your students’ behavioral feelings. Share in the comments below to let your fellow educators read what has worked for you.

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