Behaviour as a Window to Needs: Understanding Non-Verbal Signals


In Development, Education, Psychology Posted

Behaviour can be seen as a means of communication because it often reflects an individual’s internal state, needs, or reactions to their environment, especially when verbal communication is not possible or effective. For instance, children or individuals with limited speech and language abilities might use behaviour as the primary mode of expression. Actions such as crying, screaming, or withdrawing can signal unmet needs like hunger, pain, or discomfort, or emotional states, such as anxiety, boredom, or frustration.

Behaviour serves as an adaptive mechanism to cope with or signal various states or needs without or alongside verbal communication. Recognising and understanding these behaviours as communicative acts allow caregivers, educators, and peers to respond more effectively to the individual’s underlying needs or to address the root causes, thereby supporting more adaptive ways of communication and interaction.

In early childhood, the foundation for speech, language, and communication skills is laid. Children with SLCN in this age group might exhibit behavioural changes. Due to frustration from the inability to express needs or desires, children might resort to tantrums or aggressive behaviours as an alternative form of communication. Limited communication skills can lead to heightened emotional distress, as children are unable to verbalise their feelings or understand others’ emotional cues. Difficulty in initiating and maintaining peer interactions can lead to social isolation. For instance, a four-year-old with SLCN may struggle to join and play, leading to fewer friendships and potentially being more at risk of bullying.

As children enter school, age, the demands for more complex speech, language, and communication skills increase. Children with SLCN might experience academic challenges. Difficulty following verbal instructions and engaging with literacy-based activities can hinder academic progress. For example, a seven-year-old with SLCN might struggle with reading, impacting their ability to succeed in most subjects misunderstanding of social cues can lead to challenges in peer interaction. An eight-year-old might misinterpret appears in tension due to SLCN, leading to inappropriate responses in further social isolation. The inability to communicate effectively can lead to increased anxiety and frustration, affecting emotional well-being.

During adult lessons, the social and academic demands become even more complex, and the impact of SLCN can become more pronounced. As teenagers seek to establish their identity and independence, SLCN can significantly impact self-esteem. A 14-year-old might withdraw from social interactions due to fear of embarrassment, leading to low self-confidence. Challenges in understanding complex language and expressing thoughts can affect academic performance and future career opportunities. For instance, a 16-year-old with SLCN may struggle with exam performance, limiting post-secondary education and career options. The compounding effect of prolonged SLCN can lead to mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. An adolescent feeling isolated and misunderstood due to communication difficulties might be at higher risk of experiencing these conditions.

Children with hearing parents may struggle to learn, spoken language, as they cannot fully hear sounds. This not only hampers their ability to produce clear speech but also affects their social development, as they might find it challenging to engage in conversations, leading to social isolation.

Physical conditions like cerebral palsy or a cleft lip/palate can restrict the movement of the mouth and tongue, making speech production difficult. these impairments can result in social and emotional challenges, including feelings of isolation due to the difficulty in communicating needs and forming relationships.

Conditions such as stammering or stuttering disrupt the flow of speech, making communication a challenge. This dysfluency, especially if persistent, can lead to reduced confidence reluctance to speak, diminished class participation, and hindered social development due to the fear of negative judgement from peers.

Conditions like autism or cognitive disabilities can affect how a child processes and understands language, as well as how they express themselves. These difficulties can impede the development of social skills, such as turn-taking in conversations, further affecting their ability to form meaningful relationships.

While bilingualism itself doesn’t typically delay language development, children who are not proficient in the dominant language used in their educational or social setting may experience difficulties engaging with peers and educators, potentially leading to academic delays and social isolation.

Adequate linguistic input and interaction are essential for language development. Children deprived of interaction, perhaps due to neglect or limited social opportunities, may experience delayed communication skills, impacting their social development and academic performance.

Emotional issues, such as anxiety, shyness, or low self-esteem, can significantly impede a child’s willingness and ability to communicate. In severe cases, this can lead to conditions like selective mutism, where the anxiety is so intense that the child is unable to speak in certain situations or to specific people.

Children who lack secure and loving relationships with parents or caregivers may struggle with self-confidence and find it difficult to form positive relationships with others, including peers and adults outside the family. This lack of confidence can hinder their willingness to communicate, and engage in social activities, and may lead to social withdrawal.

Without strong family bonds or positive peer relationships, children are at a higher risk of feeling isolated and lonely. These feelings can exacerbate communication difficulties, as children may be less motivated to interact or may not develop the necessary social skills for effective communication.

Children who are bullied or feel victimised may develop fear or anxiety around social interactions, making it challenging for them to communicate openly. This can lead to a cycle of social withdrawal and further isolation.

Economic hardships within the family, such as unemployment and poverty, can limit children’s access to educational resources, including books, and stimulating activities that promote language development. The stress associated with financial instability can also affect a child’s emotional well-being, impacting their social interactions and communication.

Living in substandard housing can contribute to chronic stress and health issues, affecting a child’s cognitive development, and their ability to focus on learning and communication.

Children from lower-income families may have fewer opportunities to engage in enriching experiences that foster language development, such as visiting museums, travelling, and extracurricular activities, further widening the gap in communication skills compared to their more affluent peers.

In some cases, children may resort to certain behaviours to express their needs or feelings when they cannot do so verbally. These behaviours could include acting out to gain attention, attempting to escape, uncomfortable situations, or behaving in a certain way to obtain a desired, object or outcome Such behaviours can interfere with the development of healthy communication skills.

Understand the purpose of communication for each child: identify what the child needs to know or express and adapt, communication methods accordingly.

Be mindful of the child’s processing time and ability to listen: use short, simple sentences, and clear language.

Incorporate intentional body language and maintain appropriate eye contact to reinforce communication, respecting personal space to prevent discomfort.

Create a calm, structured environment that reduces anxiety and is conducive to communication. This involves minimising background noise and distractions.

Use visual supports like illustrations, flashcards, or photographs to aid children who struggle with verbal communication, enhancing their understanding and expression.

Introduce Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems for children who have significant difficulties with speech. This can include singing, symbols, gestures, and Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAs) to facilitate interaction.

Implement singing systems like Makaton, which uses signs alongside speech to support, understanding and expression.

Employ visual timetables in calendars to clarify, routines and expectations.

Utilise written messages and communication books tailored to the child’s vocabulary needs, enabling them to express themselves effectively.

Encourage activities that foster social interaction, such as group projects or play that require turn-taking and sharing.

Use specific, contextually relevant vocabulary during activities to enhance language, development and understanding.

Leverage technology like speech-generating devices for children with limited or no speech. These devices can provide a synthesised voice, aiding in communication.

Introduce apps and games designed to improve communication skills in a fun, engaging manner.

Incorporate music therapy or cues to support learning new skills, utilising the power of music to aid memory and communication.

Encourage artistic activities that allow non-verbal expression, providing an outlet for emotions and thoughts.

Develop social stories that prepare children for upcoming events or changes, reducing anxiety and providing a clear, positive framework for expected behaviours and outcomes.

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