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Why is My Child Doing That?

by Lauren Horton

May 2021

reach coastal aba cape cod

Summary: When determining how to solve the mystery of one’s behavior, we don’t just look at a single instance of a behavior – we search for patterns. There are six main reasons that your child may be trying to communicate with you.

This is a question every parent, therapist, BCBA, and teacher asks themselves repeatedly every day. The answer is actually very simple: A child hits, bolts, cries, screams, bites themselves, etc. for one of two reasons: to communicate with a person who is with them OR to satisfy a need for sensory feedback from the world around them. Here, I’m going to focus mainly on communication.

On the surface, the question seems simple, but just like ogres and onions, there’s many layers to a child’s behaviors and each one feels more complex than the last. Asking the “why” question  can feel extremely overwhelming, but keeping in mind the general answer (communication) leads us in a direction where we can start to break down these giant questions into workable, manageable, individual pieces that we can address and decipher. So let’s keep investigating…

Let’s first ask a question that will actually help navigate the challenging behavior of an individual: 

"What are you trying to tell me?"

Keep in mind that the answer to this question can change in a matter of seconds:

One second your child is playing with toys on the floor, and the next they’re climbing on the kitchen counter, and the next they’re in the bathroom flushing your last roll of toilet paper (the entire roll) down the pipes.

Your child’s motivation behind each “response” (playing, climbing, flushing) is most likely different. And even when you have a specific timeline of each behavior, often it can’t answer our Golden Question: “What are you trying to tell me?” In fact, the exact same behavior could occur for different reasons at different times. For example: maybe yesterday, s/he climbed the counter to reach the box of cookies that someone left out…S/he didn’t even get the cookie yesterday because it was 6:30 am and no one had eaten breakfast yet! However today there’s no box of cookies and the climbing still occurs! What gives? To answer this one, we have to think back to what happened immediately after the child ended up on the counter. Was there a nice breeze coming through the window or some interesting animal or vehicle outside at the time? Did you or someone else immediately rush to the child’s side and talk to them, either positively OR negatively (from holding them close and snuggling to reprimands like “Stop that!” or “Don’t climb there!”)?

How do we solve the mystery of one behavior, with multiple meanings?

We don’t just look at a single instance of a behavior – we search for patterns. Do we see more behaviors during certain times of day or more often in some locations than others? Do we see more behaviors when the child is with a certain person? Do you or other family members tend to respond in a certain way to certain behaviors? If your child hits you do you tend to leave them alone or if they whine do you tend to stop what you’re doing to comfort them?

These are the main reasons that your child may be trying to communicate with you:

1. I want your attention

2. I want something I CAN have

3. I want something I CAN’T have

4. I don’t want to do this

5. I don’t want to stop what I’m doing

6. I am getting automatic reinforcement

(And as I mentioned earlier, behaviors can also be caused by something called automatic reinforcement: the behavior itself satisfies some need, similar to scratching an itch.)

Once you realize the motivation behind the behavior, you’ve won more than half the battle! Congratulations! Step 2 usually involves Functional Communication Training (FCT) which is simply giving your child the voice they need to let you know what they need in a way that isn’t disruptive or dangerous. Usually this is followed by teaching them to tolerate delays or refusals (“Sorry George, the zoo is closed today”).

Your BCBA is your best resource for peeling back the layers of your child’s behavior to get to the root of the problem and begin teaching them a more efficient and appropriate way to communicate their needs. Contact the team at Reach Coastal ABA for more information about giving your child the skills they need to access their voice and help them successfully navigate the world around them. 

by Lauren Horton

Located in Cape Cod, MA, Reach Coastal utilizes the most current and proven ABA methodologies to provide direct support for and instruction to individuals with autism to reach a higher level of independence.

Did you know?

ABA is often covered by insurance. We accept Harvard Pilgrim, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Mass Health, United Healthcare, along with several other insurances.

What's next?

To get started, all you need is a referral and a diagnosis for your loved one. After that, all you need to do is contact us. Our caring team will walk you through next steps and guide you through the process to success.

Insurances We Accept

  • MassHealth- WellSense
  • Mass Health- Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership (MBHP)
  • WellSense- Commercial
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS)
  • OPTUM Behavioral Health
  • Aetna
  • United Healthcare
  • Always 
  • Cigna
  • Harvard Pilgrim

Services offered through health insurance and private pay contracts.

Is ABA covered by my health insurance?

Arica (Act Relative to Insurance Coverage for Austism) is a law passed in 2010 requiring private health insurers in Massachusetts to provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

More info can be found HERE.

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