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Understanding Behavior as Communication: A Teacher’s Guide

By Amanda Morin

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

In every classroom, students’ behavior is an important form of communication. Students may call out in class, push in line, or withdraw with their heads down on their desks. In each case, the behavior is a sign that they may not have the skills to tell you what they need. Sometimes, students may not even know what they need. What are your students trying to communicate? What do they need, and how can you help?

Respond to Students, Not Their Behaviors

First, know that when students act out, those actions can bring about emotions in teachers and other adults. Given all of the pressures placed on teachers, you may already feel stressed or emotional. So it’s normal to take students’ behaviors personally because of your own feelings and needs in the moment. You may worry that you’re losing control of your classroom. Or you may question whether you’re able to do your job well. A 2013 study by TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) found that 40 percent of teachers identified “having students who are behind academically or behaviorally challenging” as one of the top three barriers to feeling like they can teach effectively.

Taking student behavior personally can be hard to avoid. But it can get in the way of building strong relationships with your students. That makes it harder to focus on what’s behind the behavior. 

How can you respond to the student, not the behavior? One way is to try to understand the life experiences that students bring to the classroom. Some students who think and learn differently have negative past experiences with teachers and school. Others may come from cultures in which speaking up for their needs in front of the whole class isn’t appropriate.

Many students have food insecurity and may push others out of the way at lunchtime to make sure they get something to eat. Students who have experienced trauma can often be wary of others. They may be hypervigilant and prone to what looks like overreactions to simple things. Keeping these experiences in mind can help you respond to the reasons for student behavior and not simply react to or correct the behavior itself.

What Student Behavior Is Telling You

Figuring out the function of, or the reasons behind, a behavior is critical for finding an appropriate response or support. Knowing the function can also allow you to be proactive in identifying ways to prevent behavior issues in the future.

Teaching Tolerance, an organization that provides resources for educators to create civil and inclusive school communities, offers the acronym EATS to highlight some possible functions of behavior. EATS stands for Escape, Attention, Tangible gains, and Sensory needs. Here’s a breakdown of what that means:

Escape: Some students use behavior to avoid a task, demand, situation, or even person they find difficult. This may be the student who says inappropriate things in order to be asked to leave the classroom. Escape behavior can also be quiet, such as students who ask to use the bathroom every time it’s their turn to read.

  • Example: Sofia, who struggles with reading, often breaks the rules during her language arts class. She 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.

  • What her behavior is saying: Sofia is communicating 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.

Attention: Some students behave in ways that are designed to gain attention. For instance, students who blurt out in class may be looking for you to respond to their question immediately. They may feel unsure about when or whether you’ll get to it otherwise. Attention-seeking can play out in positive behaviors as well, such as when students work hard on a task to get your approval.

  • Example: Nevaeh is what you might call a clingy student. She really wants to show how hard she worked on her math. She puts up her hand and calls the teacher’s name over and over. When she doesn’t get a response, she walks across the room, taps the teacher’s arm, and yanks on her sleeve.

  • What her behavior is saying: Nevaeh is trying to tell you that she’s unsure about her strengths. She’s communicating that she needs your approval to be sure she’s done a good job on her math.

Tangible gains: Some student behavior is aimed at getting what they want, when they want it. This type of behavior is very common for students who struggle with impulsivity or flexible thinking.

  • Example: Joseph often talks back to his teacher and comes off as disrespectful. He misses or ignores his teacher’s hand gestures to lower his voice. Joseph gets agitated when he’s told to stop. He argues that he’s just trying to get answers to his questions. He believes the teacher should respond to him right away.

  • What his behavior is saying: Joseph is communicating that he needs more information to understand the lesson. From past experiences, he may have learned to talk or question the teacher continuously until he receives a response. His behavior represents a communication skills deficit. It offers an opportunity to teach the social skill of waiting to talk. In not responding to the teacher’s subtle cues to stop talking, he’s not simply being belligerent. He’s showing that he needs explicit help learning to respond to cues appropriately to have his needs met.

Sensory needs: Students’ brains are constantly taking in information from their senses. For some, processing that stream of input is a struggle. “Sensory seekers” underreact to sensory input or need more of it to function. “Sensory avoiders” overreact to sensory input. They may become overwhelmed and hyperactive. Those behaviors become problematic when they are disruptive or interfere with learning.

  • Example: Ethan tends to be “hands on” with other students. It’s particularly a problem when he’s standing in line. He complains that he feels crowded. He may push other students out of the way.

  • What his behavior is saying: Ethan is trying to let you know that he’s overwhelmed by being so close to other students. He is literally moving them out of his personal space, which may be a larger area than typical for others.

Harness the Power of Collaboration

It can be hard to figure out the function of a student’s behavior, especially when there are learning and thinking differences at play. Most schools have a collaborative teacher assistance team that can help you understand student behaviors. Those teams are typically made up of special and general education teachers, as well as other professionals, like a school psychologist or counselor.

Talk with the team about whether an observation by a member of the team or a formal functional behavior assessment (FBA) is necessary to gather data. This information can lead to a more in-depth look at the reasons behind the student’s behavior.  Working collaboratively to analyze behavior as a form of communication will help prepare you to foster conversations with students to help them identify what they need and how to communicate that more appropriately.

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