Form and function are also shaped by culture. Children are socialized to express their feelings in culturally acceptable ways. It is important to talk with families so you can look for acceptable ways that children express themselves in a culturally respectful way. As you have probably already experienced—it is not always easy to figure out the meaning of a child’s behavior. To add to the complexity of understanding the meaning of behavior:
A single form of behavior may serve more than one function. For example, a toddler might use biting (form) for different functions (“I want the toy you have.” “I want to play with you but don’t know how to let you know.” “I’m tired.” “I’m frustrated because you don’t understand what I am trying to tell you.” “I want some attention.”)
Several forms of behavior may serve one function. For example, a child’s purpose (function) may be to build with their favorite blocks, but they use different forms of behavior (biting, yelling, grabbing, running away with the blocks, sharing) based on how
they feel that day, who is playing in the block area, or based on their cultural expectations.
The meaning of behavior is shaped by culture, family, and the unique makeup and experiences of the individual child. For example, some cultures may express sadness by crying or by having a nonchalant facial expression. Some cultures may express happiness by laughing and being exuberant, while others may expect more restrained behaviors.
Some of these functions of communication become a concern for children’s safety (of the child communicating, the other children, and other people in the environment). Early childhood educators must take the time to understand a behavior’s meaning so that they can help the child replace unsafe forms of communication with forms that don’t hurt others or harm the environment. Pausing to try to figure out the meaning behind a child’s behavior—instead of just reacting to the behavior—can change the way we see a child, the way we respond to a child, and the way we teach a child. Becoming a “behavior has meaning” detective who is always on the lookout for the meaning of behavior will help you keep children safe.15 Take a look at the following example of an unsafe behavior, what it might mean, and what an educator might do to support the child.