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When Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Decoding Your Child's Behavior

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A new school year can be stressful for everyone involved—students, teachers and parents. Students are trying to fit in, teachers are trying to get to know them, and many parents are trying to figure out why their child is showing new or uncharacteristic behaviors at school and at home.

You may hear from teachers that your child is acting out in class, pushing in line or putting their head on the desk and withdrawing. At home, your child may also be behaving in new ways, from avoiding their homework, to arguing with you, or refusing to talk about their school day. But what is your child really trying to communicate?

These behaviors are a clue that your child doesn’t have the skills to tell you what they need. Kids’ actions are often communicating that they are struggling with something they can’t explain or don’t understand. This behavior becomes an important form of communication, and it’s key for parents to step in and try to figure out what is going on.

Behaviors to Watch For

In my time as an educator, expert for Understood.org and most importantly, as a parent of two kids with learning and thinking differences, I’ve learned a lot of actionable, empathetic ways to interpret kids’ behavior.

Behaviors at school are sometimes mirrored by behaviors at home. Here are four types of behaviors your child may be showing, and potential reasons behind them.

Escape: Some students use behavior to avoid a task, demand, situation or even a person they find difficult. This may be the student who says inappropriate things to the teacher or a parent so they can escape a stressful situation.

For example, Sofia, who struggles with reading, 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. At home she refuses to do her reading homework and purposely lashes out at you, knowing you’ll send her to her room.

What Sofia is trying to communicate is 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. Nevaeh is what some people might think of as clingy. She really wants to show how hard she worked on her math. At school, she raises her hand in class over and over.

At home, she keeps interrupting you to report her progress. When she doesn’t get a response, she keeps tapping your arm and yanking your sleeve.

Nevaeh is trying to tell you that she’s unsure about her strengths. She’s telling you she needs your approval to be sure she’s done a good job on her math.

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

Joseph often talks back and comes off as disrespectful. He misses or ignores cues to lower his voice. He gets agitated when he is told to stop. He argues that he’s just trying to get answers to his questions. He believes you should respond to him right away.

Joseph is communicating that he needs more information to understand what’s happening around him. His behavior shows a communication skills deficit, providing an opportunity to learn the social skill of waiting.

Sensory needs. Students’ brains are constantly taking in information from their senses. For some kids, that stream of input is a struggle. They may underreact or overreact to sensory input, which can be problematic when they are disruptive or interfere with learning.

Ethan, for instance, has a problem standing in line at school. He says he feels crowded and may push other kids out of the way—literally moving them out of his personal space.

At home, he may need to find a space to get away and process his sensory input, which may be a larger area than typical for others.

Tips for Communicating With (and Listening to) Your Child

So, what can a parent do? When you want to help your child, it’s natural to ask them how things are going at school. But you can use the clues from their behavior to, ask more targeted questions that encourage more than a one-word response out of them. Here are some tips to help them open up.

Ease into it. Be observant and recognize when your child seems out of sorts. Use open-ended questions like, “Did anything out of the ordinary happen today?” Or use humor: “What’s the funniest thing that happened today?”

Praise growth. Give high-fives when they solve a math problem or complete a reading assignment that was previously too hard to tackle. When it comes to social skills, questions like “Who did you sit with at lunch?” provide an opening to brainstorm together on ways to get to know other kids.

Listen to them. Simple questions like, “If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?” can help you understand what’s on your child’s mind. It’s important for kids to have a support network, particularly after a tough day at school. Kids need someone they trust and can talk with both in good times and bad.

Collaborate with your child’s teacher. Be open about what you are seeing at home and how that may relate to what the teacher is observing in the classroom. Together you can work together to find solutions for making your child more comfortable and open to learning.

Finally, let your child know that it’s OK to ask for help. Asking “Is there anything about school that you might need help with?” allows them to decide how they want to be supported.


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