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Behavior = Communication: Responding To What Is Not Being Said

3/28/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Kimberly Bradsher

Negative behavior is much more than just "inappropriate", hurtful, embarrassing, or infuriating. In fact, all behavior is actually a means of indirect communication that is used to express a want, need or desire. Positive or negative, conscious act or not, every behavior serves a purpose. Moreover, the way we respond to the behavior will either "make it" or "break it", i.e., reinforce or eliminate its use by another person.

How are you responding to the "undesired" behaviors of others? The way you respond (positive or negative) may in reality be the reason the behavior is continuing and even escalating! YES! Chances are your response is reinforcing the behavior! Think of it like this: behavior is used to say something that for whatever reason can't be put into words. Every behavior has a goal; all you have to do is figure out its purpose before you react or respond. This is not necessarily easy and it is a process, one that requires self-control and often stepping back from the situation.

When dealing with negative behaviors, here are some helpful hints for responding to what is not being said:

  1. Stop personalizing- take your feelings out of the situation! Adding your own emotions to the situation makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to focus on identifying the purpose of the behavior.
  2. Define the behavior- ask yourself, is this really a big deal? If the answer is yes, why?  (See step 1) Clearly identifying the behavior is easier when it is a physical display but it can be quite difficult when it is verbal or passive.
  3. Avoid power struggles- when you define the behavior and take yourself out of it you eliminate power struggles. When you engage in a power struggle you automatically lose! In power struggles neither party is interested in listening, understanding, compromising, or changing. Many times when it becomes a "battle of wills" you end up not only reinforcing the behavior but also causing it to escalate into new negative behaviors and battles!
  4. Identify the antecedent- take a minute and identify what happened just before the behavior. Does the behavior happen at the same place, same time of day, towards the same person? Is there consistency? It's important to recall the events and stay focused on the fact that the behavior serves a purpose without getting sidetracked by personalizing it (See Step 1).
  5. Evaluate the situation- You might identify that multiple events follow the behavior of concern such as escalation to displays of physical or verbal aggression. This is where you choose NOT to react but how to respond with your own behavior!  Guidelines 1 through 5 will allow you to identify the purpose of the behavior. When you gain an understanding of what the person needs (that is, the purpose of the behavior) you can move forward and help or change the behavior in a positive way; you are now in a position to respond in a way that is more likely to eliminate rather than reinforce the negative behavior.
  6. Be consistent- What are the consequences for the behavior? Say what you mean and mean what you say, always follow through so there is consistency between your words and your behavior! Be clear and honest and maintain boundaries.
  7. Verbalize choices- When you demand someone to do something, it's almost like asking them to do the opposite! Choices provide encouragement that you are listening and being reasonable. When you provide options you are in essence offering "replacement" behaviors and more appropriate ways to handle future situations. If you offer a reward or consequence, "if this, then that" you must follow through!

It's critical to maintain your focus and refrain from applying the word "bad" to the behavior or the person. These steps will help you keep it all in perspective and allow you to focus on effective strategies.

Kimberly Bradsher has a Master's degree in Psychology and more than 14 years of experience as a Human Services professional. She currently sits on the York-Poquoson Child Advocacy Team, is a Consumer-Directed Services Facilitator authorized by the Department of Medical Assistance Services and is the owner and Director of Accommodating Disabilities And Promoting Talents, Inc. Kimberly provides person centered services and specializes in behavior intervention, independence, and functional accommodations for persons with sensory, physical, and developmental disabilities.

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