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.  
 To the teacher, this kind of inattentiveness is unwelcome because not only is Michael not “on task” but he is disrupting the learning of those around him. What might Michael be telling us through this behaviour? The list of possibilities is quite long, and requires some careful observation and hypothesis-testing by the teacher.

For example, Michael might be telling us any one of the following

  • “I don’t understand the instructions. Too much information was delivered too quickly”
  • “This activity involves writing. I’m not good at writing and I don’t like doing it”
  • “I’ve been sitting down for a long time and I can’t keep concentrating at the moment”
  • “I need tasks to be broken down into small, achievable chunks so I can keep up with others”
  • “I would cope better with this if I was sitting closer to the front of the room, with fewer distractions”
  •  “Things are pretty difficult for me at home at the moment as my mum and dad argue a lot. I am very anxious and didn’t hear much at all of what the teacher said”

 So behaviour can communicate a range of emotional states but can also convey a skill deficit

Sometimes skill deficits can be by-passed through a simple re-configuration of the task, e.g. giving a student such as Michael fewer steps, and more scaffolding in order to promote success. Seating Michael in a part of the classroom where he is less prone to visual distractions might also assist. Making sure Michael’s work-space is not unnecessarily cluttered might be helpful, as might giving careful consideration to what the actual learning tasks is.

If Michael has been asked to complete a three-step activity for example, it can be helpful to reflect on the fact that this probably isn’t a memory task, so we don’t need to overload Michael’s fragile processing and retention skills, if these are going to contribute to poor performance. Instead, we can scaffold the activity in ways that make it easier for Michael to focus, and to take in / retain information, so he is more likely to engage with the task and succeed.  


Children such as Michael, tend to come to the attention of classroom teachers, because they create constant disruptions, albeit not through “naughty” behaviour, but through constant reminders that the linguistic and cognitive demands of the classroom exceed their processing and production skills – for a variety of underlying reasons.

Children who are exposed to stressful home environments may appear to have disorders such as ADHD, but may simply be hypervigilant to threat – an adaptive response to a dysfunctional environment. Some children may arrive at school having had inadequate sleep, or not having had anything to eat. Their inattentive or disruptive behaviours are signals then that basic biological needs are not being met, and they are not in a good “space” for coping with the demands of the classroom.  This is an issue I considered in an earlier blog on teaching and the maltreated brain.

In teaching medical students clinical communication skills, I often talk about the importance of adopting a stance of “respectful curiosity” when interviewing patients. This is aimed at guarding against assumptions and keeping an open mind as to the range of issues and possibilities that need to be explored.

Respectful curiosity is valuable in the teacher’s toolkit too, as it begs the important question: What is this child’s behaviour trying to tell me?