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Listening to behaviour

Updated: Jun 18, 2023



Let's name it up here, how many times have you come across people who jump to conclusions, make assumptions after they hear a story or make a judgement & form those little cognitive shortcuts so the next time something similar happens they can cut to the chase? Loads of individuals don't worry about gathering data, let alone asking questions, listen or observe, it's much quicker to decide about person based on a story someone else has told you or assume the answer based on an article you read or someone told you so it must be true. Just imagine the chaos in society if all professionals made judgements without gathering all the information first!! (Police, Judges, Law makers, medical professionals!), many of us are aware of news reports where racism, xenophobia, sexism, discrimination has occurred with tragic results. Anyone working with children or in the teaching & learning profession, working with supporting children & families, is no different. Reserving judgement or analysis until you've gathered as much information as possible to make a fair & reasonable assessment takes good interpersonal communication skills, cognitive function & professional ethics.


Analysis in a professional role requires accuracy to be effective.


In our day to day lives you might come across individuals with a serious illness who can share their stories of often hearing the response "Oh I know someone with that...." followed by a solution to their illness. Parents have well meaning individuals observing their child having big emotions, then just as quickly as the behaviours occurred, the adult jumps to conclusions about why and what needs to happen to 'fix the child' or 'fix the parenting' without any evidence other than their own experience to form the judgement.


Jumping to conclusions carries risk & as professionals our role is reduce risk rather than increase it. If you ask a colleague having a rough day "Are you OK?" "Tell me how you are feeling", you could probably think of a number of responses - "Mind your own business" "Yeah I'm fine", "I don't want to talk about it"or they may have the skills to confidently express how they are feeling, sad, frustrated, unsupported. The responses will all depend on the maturity, the professionalism, the pattern & history of interpersonal communication styles, lots of theories out there about why people don't like to communicate, unable to communicate or choose not to. In ABA the analyst explores the function of the behaviour. If experienced, skilled, knowledgeable adults have difficulty expressing their behaviour in words, why do some professionals, expect children can? Where is the same respect & choices we give to adults? I once asked a group I was training in trauma-informed practice, how do you know a child trusts you? The list was fabulous & enormous. Yet let's be clear. Adults have power & authority over children, that influences how a child will respond to you depending on a lot of factors, including lessons they've learned at home. Some children can verbalise what's going on for them, others cannot. It's important to gather additional information before making an analysis, it's why professionals observe (listen, watch, think, note take, document). Children learn communication at home, from their environment, unless there is a medical or psychological diagnoses for their behaviour, already assessed thoroughly, jumping to conclusions, assumptions from professionals without evidence, because 'I've seen this all before', using another child's behaviour as a comparison, is unhelpful. Look at every child as a unique individual with their own data & information to collect.


Getting to know children through their behaviour can reveal a lot of information. Talking to all the people in their lives, completing a functional assessment, behavioural assessment, check the developmental milestones to ensure you haven't missed something else, see where the child is at right here, right now & use information you may have gathered previously to see if there has been a change; speaking with someone who specialises in understanding behaviour rather than using inaccurate quick short cuts is far more helpful to children. This is why records on children are written into the regulations & frameworks. Not just to increase professional workloads. Documenting a child's experiences, free of judgement, ensuring it is accurate, is fundamental to a child & their family receiving the services & supports, professionals are paid to provide. Guessing or assuming is just unhelpful & unprofessional.


It's why I love the science of behaviour. However, it's not fun when you hear judgement after judgement about children or notice adults holding tight to their views about a child's behaviour, labelling children (not the behaviour or accurately) which is unhelpful & at times the reason the behaviour is occurring in the first place. Behaviour is communication. When we listen to the behaviour, get to know the child, we get to know each other, there is far more opportunity to support individuals with accurate, reliable observations & knowledge about why behaviour is occurring.


There is a lot of learning, processing, change going on in children's lives, in our own lives every day. A lot of routine, behaviours of others that influence how we behave. Can someone change your behaviour without speaking or doing anything other than being present? Yes absolutely! When you are driving a little over the speed & suddenly see flashing lights ahead or notice a police car behind you, so you slow down. That isn't about that police officer driving that vehicle, it's about you! If a child behaves one way with one person and differently with another, that's useful information! If a child behaves one way at certain times of the day & not at another, that's useful information.


Learning about the function of human behaviours is life changing work, it's a lighthouse light beaming down on what people do and why.





There are times, when shortcuts to making decisions can be extremely useful when used effectively. However, sometimes I see and hear professionals gathering information to support a decision they've already made and an unwillingness to accept new information that challenges the decision they've already made before gathering the evidence. It happens, a lot. Stereotypes, xenophobia, racism, gender & disability discrimination, all these ideas people have about groups, based on inaccuracy & generalisations. The best rule of thumb is to treat every person as an individual with their own needs, ideas, ways of behaving, reacting; with their own story to show and tell. If we listen, observe, ask questions, stay open minded with the intent to collect information accurately, measure the data, reserve decisions until there is enough supporting information to form a reliable analysis, then supporting each other is far more helpful.

Referred to as avoiding 'confirmation bias' is reserving an opinion until you have gathered more information to make an informed decision.




Human beings and our wonderful, amazing brains have this ability to create little cognitive short-cuts called 'heuristics' for time saving judgement. Heuristics reduce the load on the brain, can be extremely useful, draw on experience & knowledge. However, mental short cuts to forming judgements can often be irrational and inaccurate, unless you are a professional experienced in analysing human behaviour or an expert in your field, where your decision making is likely to be far more accurate.


Despite expertise, human beings have a talent for 'confirmation bias', making a decision and then gathering the information (after) to support the decision they've already made, regardless of the accuracy. We all get those 'gut instincts' about different things, psychologists will have loads of theories about why & how that occurs. However, when working with children in a professional capacity, inaccuracy can lead to making a situation worse, being unhelpful and reinforcing a behaviour identified as needing to change.


Where behaviour flows, energy goes.


If you've learned something about the behaviour & given it a try, nothing has changed or worked, then learn something new, try again. Open your mind to listening to the behaviour without the confirmation bias or heuristic.


As a behaviour analyst guesstimates are unreliable. Reserving decision making in relation to planning relies upon gathering accurate, reliable, observed and documented information. Even when sharing ideas, best practice in responding to behaviours, I am relying upon accurate theory & evidence to support that information. When it comes to changing a behaviour, I want to know the ins, the outs, everything I can about what is happening, when it is happening, who is present, how long does it last, how often does it occur, what happens before, during, after, is it the same for every staff member? Is it the same at home & at school? Does the child respond the same to everyone under the same circumstances? When understanding children's behaviour, look for how the behaviour has been planned for; how was it observed, interpreted, analysed and supported. Examine closely the child's social environment. How do people respond to the behaviours, what preventative strategies have been utilised, does the child feel safe? Secure? Supported?

Bias used in responses to family violence, in sexual assault of children, in every environment where a child is put at risk because someone has a bias towards the adult placing the child at greater risk. Maybe they are a friend, a family member, a colleague they really like. Children need our adult brains to work efficiently, accurately, respectfully, to listen to their behaviour & provide in their best interest. If we are to support children, in their best interests, then remove risk & keep children safe. Provide experiences which enhance their learning potential, reflect every child's individual needs, modify your own behaviour to ensure the child develops a sense of safety; then as professionals & adults in children's lives continue to challenge your own bias, build your knowledge, develop your skills & do the right thing, stay in your lane of expertise, children need us all to work collaboratively to provide the best support & opportunities we can.






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