The secret language of behaviour.

I’ll let you in on something – it’s not actually a secret at all! All of the information you need to be able to translate is there, it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for (and then what to do about it).

We all know a student (or three!) who feels like a real challenge. On the really tough days it can be hard not to feel defeated, or like you’ve tried everything and are still getting nowhere.  It’s times like these that it’s especially important to go back to basics. Take emotion out of the situation and consider the facts.

All behaviour is communication

We all use our behaviour to send messages to the people around us. Over time we learn which actions will get us the outcomes we want and they’ll become part of our ‘behaviour vocab’.

The first step in the translation process: understanding the function. Think of the function of behaviour as the purpose. Why is our student using this behaviour under these specific circumstances? What is the aim or intent?

Almost always the function can be broadly classified as ‘to gain’ or ‘to avoid/escape’.

To gain:

  • Access to a tangible object or activity. This might be a favourite thing or something the student knows they can succeed at – e.g. Sam pushes Lily out of the way and takes over the puzzle she was playing with.
  • Sensory input. Sensory seeking students may find opportunities to do or use things that sound, feel, look or taste good – e.g. Jessica hums loudly while completing her handwriting activity.
  • Attention. Socially motivated behaviours can be both positive and negative, and when it comes to successfully gaining attention remember negative is better than nothing. This is an easy one to accidentally reinforce – e.g. Brad interrupts the teacher by singing and yelling. She stops and tells him to be quiet.

To avoid/escape:

  • A task, activity, person or situation. This might be something or someone the student really dislikes, finds difficult, feels anxious about, or has had a bad experience with – e.g. Tom yells and swears at the teacher when she tells him it’s time to do his oral presentation. He gets sent to the Principal’s office.
  • Sensory input. Sensory avoidant students may use their behaviour to escape sensations they find challenging or are hyperresponsive to – e.g. Sarah hits and pinches the students around her as her class arrives at assembly. She is withdrawn and spends assembly time in ‘time-out’.


It's time to play detective!

So how exactly do you work out the function? Observe, observe, observe! We need to look at all sorts of things - not just what our student does that we'd prefer them not to. Look out for:

  • where it happens
  • the time of day
  • who is around (other students, teachers etc.)
  • how is the student travelling generally (tired, sick, sad, excited)
  • what's happening in the environment (sounds, smells, movement, lights)
  • what was the student doing immediately before
  • what is the current response/reaction to the behaviour

I could keep going but I think you get the picture - we need to look at everything! Always remember that behaviour doesn't occur in a vacuum, so we need to consider everything happening in an environment so we can truly understand what is going on.

When you’re doing these observations it’s really up to you how ‘formal’ you get with the process. I’m a big believer in keeping it as simple as possible. If you’re able to keep these principles in mind while going about your day then that’s great. If you prefer to be able to document and record, that’s great too. You might like to look at using something like our ABC Chart (see below) to keep some notes over a short period of time.

Whichever way you’re collecting information you just need enough to be able to do some analysis. Are there any patterns to the behaviour? Eg. Does it happen at a certain time, when a certain person is around, or when a particular activity is occurring. It’s in these patterns that we find our function.

And truly, that’s the trickiest bit over. Once we understand the function we can go about implementing strategies, teaching replacement skills and ensuring our student has their needs met. If we don’t understand the function first it’s really hard to know which strategies are suitable and, what we see happen all the time, teachers are putting in a heap of work not realising they're accidentally reinforcing the behaviour.

Our next blog will look at some of our favourite strategies for reducing the likelihood of behaviours of concern. Note: they’re all pretty easy! In the meantime, get your detective hat on, download the ABC Chart by clicking the link below and get observing!