Behavior is communication, but what does the body tell us?

Today’s guest author is Lori Desautels PhD. Lori is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Butler University College of Education, a former special education teacher and school counselor and currently teaching applied educational neuroscience / brain and trauma to undergraduates and graduate candidates in the certification program. For the past six years, Lori has returned to the classroom co-teaching in multiple grade levels bringing these strategies and practices into the classroom preparing the brain to learn while dampening down our stress responses systems and attuning to the developing brain states of our children and youth. Author of several publications and writer for Edutopia. Recently Lori published her fourth book, Connections Over Compliance, Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline.


In this article, we are going to explore the meaning beneath the statement, “Behavior is communication.”  These words have been ringing in educators’ ears for quite a while, and cognitively we understand this, but do we feel what this means as we interact with our students all day long? 

As I walked Nellie, our rescue dog this morning, who experienced severe neglect and abuse in her first 18 months of life, I was reminded that many mammals, especially dogs have communication systems that resemble ours at the emotional level, based upon embodied lived experiences! Past traumatic experiences live in Nellie’s nervous system and her past becomes her present moment of communication. The doorbell rings and her 45-pound body becomes rigid, her back hairs stand on end, and she begins growling and shaking! Her behavior is signaling deep fear. She does not look fearful, she looks scary! She is misunderstood and her behavior is why she is misunderstood. 

Humans also detect safety or danger through embodied past experiences and those past experiences can bubble up and affect how we communicate and live in the present moment. Tones and cadences of voices, gestures and postures of humans can nonverbally create anxiety, dread, terror or signal safety in others.

Early traumatic experiences can shift how we communicate with each other, and this is a two-way street as emotions are highly contagious. 

Anytime, we are communicating thoughts and feelings, we carry into the conversation, the state of our nervous systems. Whether we are communicating with a child, adolescent, or another adult, our attachment dynamics are present and observed.  We communicate with one another in relational or detached attachment! Our behaviors are only the signals or indicators that provide clues to sensory or emotional states beneath the behaviors.  

Attachment, when you peel the layers away, is the gravitational force that pulls us to one another, so we can survive! Attachment is embedded in our nervous systems! When we only address the behaviors we observe in one another, we can liken this to placing a band-aid on an open wound in need of 30 stitches! If all behavior is communication, then we need to address what lies beneath the behaviors, and our bodies often share the underbelly of our behaviors without thought or resistance.

If you want to know which way the wind is blowing, look at the sand. If we want to know how a child is feeling, look at her body. 

I want to emphasize the body states and communication indicators of the adults who are receiving a variety of behaviors through embodied communication systems in the classroom! The questions below will be helpful as we deeply reflect upon our nervous system states when confronted with dysregulated behaviors that may be communicating pain-based behaviors.   When we are intentional about exploring our own reactions (sensations, feelings, and thoughts) when dysregulated behaviors show up, we will meet our students in state regulation and our discipline practices will become relational, preventative, and brain aligned.     

  1. What is my behavior communicating to the student? What are my gestures, face, posture, and tone communicating?
  2. Have I checked in with my nervous system?
  3. Am I checking in with my authentic self? Authenticity is the state of being in touch with ourselves, so am I checking in with my gut feelings? 

Other questions to consider:

  • Do certain students trigger me more than others?
  • Are my responses to each student’s behavior the same?
  • Which students do I redirect most often? 
  • What behaviors do they show?
  • What behaviors do I expect to see?
  • What emotion do I feel when certain students do not follow my directions? 
  • Which behaviors push my buttons most?
  • What time in the day do I feel the most calm and happy with my students? (Silence, chatter, students listening to me speak, students speaking to each other)
  • What time of day do I feel most dysregulated with my students? 
  • What is my definition of calm and connected students? 
  • Which students do I feel the closest to in my class?
  • Why do I feel connected to them?
  • Which students are my “favorites?” Why?
  • Do I understand the cultural identity of my students? If not, what can I do to learn more? 
  • Do I attempt to make connections to my students’ culture and backgrounds in an authentic way?
  • Do my students feel safe to be their authentic selves? 
  • Am I creating a community of inclusion and equitable access? (Everyone gets what they need- not the same thing for everyone)
  • Do we have to make people feel bad to change their behavior?

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Categories People, Science
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