Sunday, 23 March 2014

I’m behaving at you! Are you listening?

Behaviour IS communication

Mum and Dad I’m feeling rather cognitively overloaded at the moment and recognise that I need some quiet time in order to down-regulate. So excuse me, while I go and lie down for half an hour.

When was the last time you heard a two-year old deal with over-tiredness in such an elegant, insightful way?! Of course that’s not how two-year olds respond to their mental state and convey their needs. Any parent knows that cognitive overload and fatigue, when added with thwarted desire is a potent cocktail with an inevitable outcome in a two-year old: a tantrum.


Under typical circumstances, the development of expressive and receptive language skills, together with cognitive and emotional maturation mean that tantrums are a challenging, but generally short-lived chapter in family life. It’s easy to be fooled, however, into believing that just because school-aged children have language skills that far exceed those of a two-year old, that they can always use words to tell us how they are feeling. Unfortunately they can’t, and it’s the job of adults to do some sleuthing.

Many of us, as students of a 101 Psychology class back what probably feels like the dim dark ages, learnt about the importance of nonverbal behaviour in everyday human interactions. We learnt that most of a speaker’s feelings and attitudes are “betrayed” by subtle aspects of physical behaviour, such as posture, gestures, hand and eye movements, and proximity to the listener. Add in tone of voice and intonation, and you have a powerful set of signals that can readily compete with, if not “drown out” mere words. Consider for example, all the shades of meaning that intonation and body language can impute on the following sentence:

Sure. I’d really like to come to the movies with you on Saturday night.

Here we have everything from sneering derision to wide-eyed enthusiasm, depending of course on how the message is conveyed with respect to intonation and body language.
So we’re all accustomed to the fact that skilled communicators rely heavily on nonverbal cues to draw inferences about the other person’s affective state, intentions, and their overall level of “cooperation” with the interchange. We also generally accept that where verbal and nonverbal messages are in conflict with each other, the nonverbal signals need to be taken seriously.

However when it comes to children and adolescents, in particular, it’s valuable to remember that all behaviour is a form of communication, and sometimes emotional or cognitive states “masquerade” to us adults as other, unwelcome visitors, such as poor engagement, unco-operativeness, rudeness, or lack of motivation.

Consider, for example, a child (we’ll call him Michael) in say, a Grade 3 classroom, who (yet again) does not sit down quietly and engage in a task that has just been explained by the teacher. Instead, Michael fidgets with his pens and pencils, reaches across the child next to him and disrupts the focus of those around him by asking them about a playground activity.