Rethinking Behavior: Finding Bigger Empathy for Big Behaviors

Rethinking Behavior: Finding Bigger Empathy for Big Behaviors

I’m sweaty. My heart is pounding. I’m watching the exercise ring on my watch slowly move toward closing even though I’m standing still. I keep my stance neutral and non-threatening, my face blank and calm, but I’m hyper aware of my position in relation to the door. The kid in front of me is beyond upset. He’s thrown everything he can find around this room. Papers litter the floor, the remnants of someone else’s Lego build are scattered, and several mattresses have been removed from their bunks.

We’ve cleared the space of anything that could be dangerous if thrown- the fire extinguisher, a metal dust pan, and  very large stick are all sitting on the porch outside. The other directors and I have all silently agreed to not engage until there’s some indication that he’s calming down. We occasionally make brief eye contact, or avoid it to keep from laughing when our camper uses some very creative insults in his rage.  

Even after years of working through big behaviors, years of training and practice and education, I still find myself feeling a lot of feelings. I’m frustrated that we’ve gotten to this point.  I’m angry that I got kicked, hard, in the initial shuffle. I’m worried about the fallout from the destruction- will someone else have a big meltdown when they return to find their Legos like this? But mostly I feel sad because it’s clear that this kid in front of me has been trying to communicate that something wasn’t working and we didn’t catch it before we reached a breaking point. I’m worried that our team will have to decide to send him home, that we’ll disappoint his family and ourselves. That we’ll become just one more place that says “your kid is too hard. We can’t have them here.” 

There was a time that I might not feel the sadness, the disappointment, or the worry. I might just feel the anger and frustration, and feel justified in making the call to send a kid home. But this mix of sadness and compassion helps remind me that behavior is learned over the course of a lifetime, and these bigger, tougher behavior episodes are attempts to communicate anxiety and unmet needs. 

Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is always a reason. And while most youth development programs teach behavior management from a reactive stance, it’s actually best practice to figure out why behaviors are happening so we can prevent them in the future. It feels more logical to respond to challenging behavior based on the way the behavior looks- if a kid is throwing stuff we want to jump in and stop them from throwing stuff. But getting at the root of why that behavior is happening can inform the best way to respond so we don’t accidentally make the behavior worse. 


There are four main functions of behavior, and the easiest way to remember is “everybody EATS”: Escape, Attention, Tangible, Sensory. 

Escape and avoidance: behaviors someone engages in to escape from something they don’t like or don’t want to do. 

Example: Sarah asks for a glass of water, another story, to use the potty, a different stuffed animal, another kiss, snuggles, etc. at bedtime to avoid going to sleep 

Attention: behaviors that get the attention of someone else (this includes all kinds of attention. Reprimands, eye contact, etc. also count as attention)

Example: Timmy keeps bothering his little sister, Anna, in the back seat of the car. Anna whines and from the front seat, Dad says “Timmy, leave her alone!” Timmy stops for a bit but eventually starts again until Dad scolds a second time. 

Tangible: behaviors that get someone access to a tangible item, activity, or person

Example: It’s not your cabin’s turn at the aqua toys during free swim, and Jeremy is really upset. He throws a chair, stomps his feet, and talks about how dumb this camp is. His counselors decide to let him go to the aqua toys with another cabin group.

Sensory: behaviors that are self-stimulatory and do not require any input from others

Example: Carol is baking muffins and sings a Taylor Swift song to herself as she mixes the batter. 

We can figure out the function of a behavior by looking at what happens immediately before and immediately after the behavior itself. By observing changes to the environment, reactions from peers or staff, triggers, and fallout, we can often get a better idea about why a behavior happened.


Firstly, we should never interfere with sensory behaviors unless they are a serious harm to the camper or others. If you have a kid who engages in self-injurious behaviors, you absolutely should have a plan in place with the family and your staff to help limit those behaviors. But if you have a camper who is rocking, fidgeting, or engaging in any other kind of stim that doesn’t hurt anyone, let them be. These kinds of behaviors can be regulating, a way to express a wide range of emotions (excitement, joy, anxiety, frustration), and should be left alone. 


Most behaviors we see around kids wanting access to a tangible item or activity can be easily mitigated using a schedule. If campers are having a hard time because you’re leaving a preferred activity, show them on the schedule when they’ll next return. Can they take a part of the activity with them so they can continue working on it? Is there an opportunity to work in more of that activity elsewhere, or let them visit more often even if it’s not on their schedule? 


If a kid is doing something that doesn’t really align with our expectations, our immediate reaction is to tell them to stop or redirect to a better choice. But what if that particular behavior is attention seeking? We might be accidentally reinforcing that specific behavior if we respond with a lot of attention. Instead we might use a visual cue to stop the behavior, point to an existing posted rule (like “no running” on a pool deck), or gesture for them to change course. Limiting our words and amount of interaction can be a better option if we hypothesize that the behavior is attention seeking. And the best way to prevent behaviors with this function in the future? Shower that kid with as much attention as you can when they’re doing things you like. Engage, interact, hang out, praise, play, joke, be silly- whatever they like, you commit yourself to. Satiate them with positive attention and they won’t come looking for it in ways that aren’t cool. 


For disruptive behaviors that are escape or avoidance maintained, we can offer 2 clear choices to try and give some agency and ownership back to the camper. “Do you want to shower first or last tonight?” or “Would you like to stay at this activity for 3 more minutes or 5 more minutes?” But it’s also really important in camp spaces to ask if the demand we’re placing is actually necessary, and to ask ourselves that before we give the instruction. Picking battles carefully, only giving instructions when necessary, and providing choice whenever possible are all great ways to avoid disruptive escape behaviors. 

It is so much easier to stay calm, to have empathy, and to work toward meaningful solutions when we approach tough behaviors through a function-based lens. Believing that kids are making conscious choices to be difficult doesn’t serve us in any way, and definitely doesn’t serve that kid. But remembering that all behavior is a form of communication, that it has been learned and shaped over the child’s entire lifetime, and that there is a reason it is happening can help us respond with more empathy, mitigate behaviors in the moment and prevent them in the future. 

Want to dig in more on inclusion & belonging?


Erin RossErin Ross, M.E.d., BCBA, LBA

Behavior and Staff, Camp SkyWild

Leave a Comment