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Social Sci LibreTexts

10.2: Behavior Defined

  • Page ID
    • Ardene Niemer & Sharon Romppanen

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    According to the dictionary published by Merriam-Webster, behavior is a noun, and used to describe the way in which someone conducts oneself or behaves, the manner of conducting oneself, as in anything that a child does involving action and response to stimulation, the response of an individual, group, to its environment, and finally the way in which something functions or operates.

    It is important to note that behavior includes not only the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, but especially how one acts or interacts toward others. Likewise, behavior is the way a person acts in response to a particular situation. Behavior has two purposes:

    1. to get something or
    2. to avoid something.

    Children learn all behavior. They learn from watching others and we learn from the reactions we get in response to behavior. As behavior is learned, it can also be unlearned. When we stop and ask the question “why is this behavior occurring?” we can identify the opportunity to teach new, more appropriate behaviors as replacement.

    All behavior is communication. This communication happens every moment of every day. This important function is a signal that a child may not have the words or skills to tell you what they need, so they communicate with behavior. It can also be that a child does not even know what they need! When we understand and acknowledge this communication that is the basis of unwanted behavior or “misbehavior”, we can work to change that communication into a form that is socially acceptable, safe, and healthy.

    Behavior is observable. It is what we see and what we can hear, such as a child throwing a block, standing up, speaking, whispering, yelling, or arguing with a classmate. On the reverse side, behavior is how a feeling is expressed, not what the child is feeling. An example of expressing a feeling is that a child may show anger by making rolling her eyes, making a face, yelling, or crossing his arms, and turning away from the adult. These are observable actions and are more descriptive than just stating that the child looks anxious.

    Behavior is measurable. This means that the early care and education professional can define and describe the behavior in objective, concrete, fact-based terms. The adult can easily identify the behavior when it occurs, including when the behavior begins, ends, and how often it occurs. An example of this is taken from circle time and the child who is “interrupting all the time”. This behavior is not measurable because it is not specific. However, stating that “Holly yells, ‘teacher!’ 4 times during circle time” is specific and we can measure and track the data each day at circle time. Using this operational definition of objective data, anyone observing in the classroom would be able to identify specifically which behavior the teacher is working to change.

    Behavior does not occur in isolation. The process of behavior has three parts:

    1. The action or event that comes first (the trigger)
    2. The resulting behavior(s)
    3. The consequences of or reaction to the behavior.

    Behaviors are visible. This visibility is in terms of desired and undesired behaviors. Think for a moment in terms of behavior being like a tree and its root system. Above the ground we see and observe the behavior. What we do not see is the part of the tree and its root system that is below the ground. It is the same with behavior. We see the actions and manifestations of the behavior. We do not see the underlying characteristics of feelings, thinking and attitude(s).

    Behavior falls under the domain of social and emotional development. Children are born with the want and need to connect with those around them. When parents and teachers along with other caregivers create positive relationships with children beginning at birth through the early years, they value their diverse cultures and languages, children feel safe and secure. This creates a base for strong social and emotional development. This also affects how children experience the world, express themselves, manage their emotions, and establish positive relationships with others.

    Above ground (the leaves and branches) represent what is seen/observable behavior(s). Below ground (the roots) represent what is unseen/unobservable. Image 10.2 A deciduous tree with roots exposed is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Behaviors are an outcome (or result) that can be observed. Above the ground the behaviors we see children say and do might include indicators adapted from Mona Delahooke’s work:

    • Saying nice things to others or nothing at all
    • Working quietly while others finish their work
    • Keeping hands and feet to self
    • Raising hand and waiting quietly
    • Respecting others
    • Being agreeable
    • Calling other students bad names
    • Taking other students’ belongings without asking
    • Asking the person to borrow their belonging before using it
    • Follow directions the first time
    • Arguing or refusing to comply with adult requests or directions
    • Disturbing others while they are working
    • Punching or kicking others
    • Blurting out answers
    • Bullying others
    • Arguing

    A child’s behavior may not be communicating what it seems outwardly. Every behavior has a motivation or purpose. While we cannot assume that we know the motivation for the behavior, we can observe the results of the motivations. Those observations must be objective, factual, and descriptive to assist in identification of the motivation. Any of these motivations can be the reason for behavior:

    I feel angry.

    I feel frustrated.

    I feel scared.

    I feel happy.

    I feel loved.

    I feel proud.

    I feel lonely.

    I feel worried.

    I feel embarrassed.

    I feel sad.

    I feel sick.

    I am tired.

    I am hungry.

    I do not feel safe.

    I do not belong.

    I am not respected.

    I am not understood.

    I am not accepted.

    I do not matter.

    I do not feel loved.

    I cannot do things by myself.

    Look again at the photo of the tree. The roots are underground, therefore not observed. Here are some behaviors that are typically “under the surface” and are not seen are:

    • social skills
    • basic needs
    • physical safety
    • need to belong
    • security
    • hunger
    • thoughts
    • executive functioning
    • environmental stressors
    • attention
    • sleep
    • attachment
    • need for connection
    • need for attention

    Here are some needs that are an underlying cause of behavior in children:

    • sensory needs
    • emotions
    • self-esteem
    • developmental level
    • fear
    • anger
    • power
    • sadness

    The theory behind the tree and root model of childhood behavior is that there are many things that influence the way that children act and react, and include the skills, knowledge, experience, social role or values, self-image, traits, and motives. Under the surface in the root system, however, are the unseen forces that can shape their behaviors.

    As adults, we need to take the time to understand behavior and the motivations or causes of behavior. True behavior “problems” or challenges are those that are continuous and that get in the child’s way of social relationships, communication, and learning. These misunderstood behaviors can potentially cause harm to the child, the family, other children, and other adults.


    Behaviors are communication and are both seen and unseen. Think in terms of the tree presented above. The leaves and branches are seen, just like in behavior where we can observe changes and growth. The photo shows that the roots are below ground, hidden, and not easy to see or observe. The roots, even though not observable, are a vital part of the whole tree.

    • The same can be said for behavior, we only see part.
    • Some aspects of behavior are easily seen or observed (above ground), while the “invisible” characteristics seen in the photo as underground, are equally important to determining motivation and change.

    This page titled 10.2: Behavior Defined is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ardene Niemer & Sharon Romppanen.

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