The Secret to Understanding Behavior and the Magic Potion for Guiding It

My presentations about behavior are always full.  Parents and teachers want a magic spell or to know the secret or to be handed a key that will unlock the mystery of behavior.  They want a potion to sprinkle on children that will make their behavior less challenging to address and more often in line with our adult expectations.  People may tell you that there is no secret.  The key does not exist.  I don’t believe that is entirely true.  There is a fact, a basic truth, that adults need to understand in order to solve the mystery of their child’s behavior. 

Behavior is communication.  The secret is those three simple words that say so much. 

Children are constantly testing their power in the world.  The first time they cross a boundary, they are asking a question – “Can I use this much power or will that be unacceptable?”  If an adult tells the child that the action was not acceptable, he finds the boundary he was seeking.  He may wonder, “Will the reaction be the same every time I do this?”  Consistent reactions to repeated behavior teach children that consequences are not random.  Every time you hit your brother, you will have to stop playing, sit by me, talk about it and tell your brother that you won’t hit again.  Every time you throw that toy, the toy is taken away for a while.  Every time, the same thing will happen.

Each child communicates differently through behavior.  Behavior is communication.  The magic comes from adults who take the time and put in the effort to get to the root of the message.

Some children are rule followers, great cleaner uppers and general people pleasers.  They feel best when everything is orderly and trouble is not afoot.  They may be telling us either “I need an orderly, calm and predictable world” or “I enjoy the attention I get from doing the right thing.”

Some children repeatedly hit, kick and throw things at people.  It is common in preschool classrooms to find students being spoken to about their treatment of others.  It is important to remember that not only do they still need to develop empathy, but they also are trying to say something.  The child whose actions are full of physicality toward others may be saying, “I am frustrated and can’t figure out what else to do.”

Other children, particularly as they get a bit older, slam doors or speak in a disrespectful tone.  They may be trying to communicate “Something has gone wrong in my world and I’m upset.  Help me.”

The secret is knowing that there is a deeper issue that they are trying to tell you but that isn’t really the magical part.  The magical part of parenting and teaching depends on the adults.  It is getting to know the child well enough to understand their communication through their actions. I cannot tell you that the examples in this article are what your child is trying to say.  I don’t know that.  I don’t know about your child’s life.

 It is when we take the time to step back, think about what the message may be and open the communication door by saying, “I hear you” with our reactions.  “I hear you” so I am going to be sure you know the boundary still exists but I am going to converse with you now, later and as often as possible so you know I am here to talk.  “I hear you” so I am going to look for the underlying cause of your frustration and help you decide what you can do instead of hitting, kicking and punching.  “I hear you” so I will unrelentingly be ready to non-judgmentally give my best advice. “I hear you” is the potion that unlocks mutual understanding especially when your children aren’t using words at all.
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  1. Cindy, I love the, "I hear you,' idea and your quote, "The child whose actions are full of physicality toward others may be saying, 'I am frustrated and can’t figure out what else to do.'"
    The Kelly Bear Feelings book introduces 10 emotions to children. Reading it together with an adult makes it okay for children to talk openly about their anger, loneliness, fears, etc. The book enhances adult-child communication and bonding resulting in children developing empathy and exhibiting positive behaviors. For sample pages and more information, go to: There is a new bilingual Kelly Bear Feelings book (Spanish/English), as well. See:
    Please let me know if you would like a complimentary copy.

  2. Yes—you get it! Children behave in ways that express their emotions. If we as parents and teachers can tune into their signals we will be able to communicate with them in an empathetic manner. Thanks!


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