Language Matters #5: Behaviour – Adaptive or Disordered?

Why does language matter anyway?

For most people, language is their primary way of interacting with the world and one another.

It is a way to make our thoughts visible for those around us and, as a way of making sense of our inner workings too. It is important to note at this point that not everybody communicates verbally and, although this little series will be focusing primarily on spoken language and the impact that it has on the way we think, this effect is not restricted to those who don’t use spoken language as their primary means of communication (because the language we use informs the way we think, which in turn affects the way we behave both at a conscious and subconscious level, which ultimately impacts those around us).


When we are working with children, young people and even adults, sometimes we face behaviour that we aren’t comfortable with. This could be something as simple as missing homework and ranges all the way up to extreme and potentially violent confrontations, depending on your tutoring context. 

Disordered Behaviour 

If we take the view that challenging behaviour is disordered, then we are seeing that behaviour as something bad. We also have to separate the person from their bad behaviour as something to be fixed, or believe that the person is bad. There is something wrong with that child, it’s probably that they’re just feeling naughty today. 

Adaptive Behaviour

If we take the view that the behaviour we perceive to be challenging is actually adaptive, a product of all the social inputs that young person (or adult!) has absorbed throughout their life. If we view this behaviour as adaptive then we are taking the view that this behaviour is communicating. All behaviour is communication. That’s where I sit anyway. 

So how does this help me? It sounds like an academic exercise rather than a practical model. 

Well, context is key. Let’s take an extreme example. A young person has laid down on the floor at the end of their session, they are face down and screaming. If we were to take the view that this young person was being naughty or difficult (aka – disordered) then it would be very easy to react rather than act. We might shout. We might ask the parent to “just come and get them”! 

If we view this same situation as an adaptive response, because all behaviour is communication, then we might respond a little differently. We might see a young person who is unable to self-regulate. They’ve had such a good session with us and they are completely overwhelmed by the end of it, they don’t know if they’re going to see us again because their experience of professionals is that they are very transient.

Or perhaps they’re just really tired and finding the transition to home time harder than usual. Whatever the reason, taking the view that this behaviour is adaptive gives you many more options. For the student struggling to self-regulate, we could talk to them about zones of regulation, help them articulate their big feelings (you might have heard of “name it to tame it”) or simply sit with them and let them know you are there when they are ready.

For the student who is worried about your impermanence, this is the perfect opportunity to be smart about “homework”, a manageable and appropriate task that they can complete and bring to the next session, a book to read, the class teddy to bring back, whatever works for that child. A permanent object that will help to remind them that they will see you again. For the child who is tired rather than naughty, we will take a much gentler approach to helping them leave than if we just see them as difficult, and we will know to wind down the session a bit sooner or perhaps reduce the demand on cognitive load next session. 

For me, viewing behaviour in this way stops me from taking the behaviours personally and gives me many more options to help resolve, reduce and prevent those challenges from reoccurring in the future. 

We are all trying to meet our own needs as best as we can, with the tools we currently have available to us. 

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