Behavior is Communication: Addressing Behavioral Concerns in the Early Childhood Classroom
Kirsten Bonifacio and Susan Dixon, staff at the Early Childhood Center, presented the following information at the Indiana Early Childhood Conference on April 7, 2017.
“Samantha is a 4-year-old girl who is enrolled in ABC Preschool in Indianapolis, Indiana. When in circle time Sam has a tough time sitting still and concentrating. She does not raise her hand. She speaks out of turn and will not stay seated. This happens consistently during circle time and Samantha isn’t the only one; several other children do the same things.”
We all have a Samantha in our classroom, don’t we? When Samantha “acts out” during circle time, what is she saying? When groups of children are distracted during your circle time, what does that communicate about your lesson? At its root, communication is a behavior that is meant to bring about changes in a person or child’s environment, to exchange information, or to structure social situations (Davis & Dixon, 2010). The next question is why are Samantha and a few of her peers exhibiting these specific behaviors? Across the Applied Behavior Analysis literature, four primary “functions” are identified that explain behavior:
1. Attention (from a teacher or a peer)
2. Access to something tangible (toy, snack)
4. Sensory Stimulation
Samantha may display these behaviors for one primary function or for several reasons, but as early childhood professionals we must ask, what is she trying to communicate at this time and in this setting. This is important because children may exhibit the same behavior across different settings, but do so for different communicative reasons! Although Samantha is likely exhibiting several behaviors across multiple settings at school, it is necessary to focus in on one behavior at a time. The case study presented above discusses Samantha’s “disruptive behavior” at circle time (operationalized as not raising her hand, speaking out of turn, and not staying seated). What appears to be the primary function of her behavior? It may be difficult to determine given the importance of classroom context and individual needs, but one possibility may be that Samantha’s behavior (and the behavior of some of her peers) serves as a way to escape from circle time activities. When children are communicating the need to escape from our classroom activities, we must assess our classroom practices. Children may need to escape because an activity is too challenging or because it requires too much sustained attention and is therefore not developmentally appropriate. One clue that this may be the case is that circle time is problematic for several of the children in this classroom, not just Samantha. When many children exhibit “challenging behavior” during the same activities, we must pause to reflect on some of our practices and ask ourselves questions such as:
- Is the content of what I am teaching at the right level for this group of children?
- Am I explicitly teaching behavioral expectations for my classroom in general and for circle time specifically?
- How consistently are we (myself AND my teaching partners) enforcing the rules and expectations?
- Are challenging behaviors occurring only in circle time or at other times as well?
Reflective teaching is essential in preventing and managing challenging behaviors in the classroom. Refer to the sidebar for practical and proactive approaches to dealing with challenging behavior, such as Samantha’s, in your classroom!
Davis, K., & Dixon, S. (2010). JWhen Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Understanding the Challenging Behaviors of Young Children and Students with Disabilities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press..