CCN Alphabet: Behaviour

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness." (Steven Covey)

The goal of traditional behaviour interventions is the prediction and control of another person's behaviour. The idea is to reduce people's actions down to a science where behaviour can be controlled by setting up the environmental conditions to elicit "desired behaviours".  Those trying to control the behaviour are primarily concerned with observable behaviour and pay very little attention to internal events such as a emotions and thinking.  The idea is that through repeated conditioning using rewards or consequences, the appropriate behaviour will become an automatic pattern where the only thinking that is required is that tied to desiring a reward or fearing a consequence. Much of the theory behind this approach is rooted in animal studies and a belief that there is little or no difference between an animal or a human learns. What is missing from the theory is the concept of "free will" which happens is the space between stimulus and response that Covey talks about in the above quote.


The space between stimulus and response holds many opportunities for developing thinking, social, language, self-determination, and imagination skills. When we don't allow for that space in the way we interact with others we are unable to tap in to those opportunities. When we don't allow for that space we foster "learned helplessness" as it is in that space that people experience "free will" (aka self-determination).

Supporting the Development of Emotional Competence

There is a process (outlined in the visual below), that begins at birth, and is facilitated by adults that moves a child toward "emotional competence". Emotional competence is defined as "having the functional skills to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in oneself and others." (Saarni,1999)


In the book The Development of Emotional Competence (1999), Saarni outlines a developmental sequence that involves the following 8 skills, placing particular emphasis on how pivotal the role of language development for a child to achieve the third skill on the list.

  1. Awareness of one's own emotions.
  2. The ability to discern and understand other's emotions. 
  3. The ability to use vocabulary of emotion and expression. 
  4. The capacity for empathetic involvement.
  5. The ability to differentiate internal subjective emotional experiences and external emotional expression. 
  6. The capacity for adaptive coping with aversive emotions and distressing circumstances.
  7. Awareness of emotional communication within relationships.
  8. The capacity for emotional self-efficacy.   

This is considered a developmental sequence so a student who has not yet mastered steps 1 through 5 would have difficulty with step 6. Step 4 and 5 require some pretty advanced thinking, language and communication skills. For a student who has difficulty with adaptive coping (Step 6) and has yet not mastered step 1-5, a plan would need to be put in place to both support the learning of previous steps and to reduce and support regulation during distressing circumstances. For a student with complex communication needs, this plan would need to include consideration for how the student will have access to both modeling and use of the language that is needed to develop these skills.

The following documents expand on the concepts of Emotional Competence and Internal Dialogue and offer suggestions for how to incorporate the learning of the above skills in to an AAC intervention plan.

ISSAC 2010 Power Point of Presentation by Sarah Blackstone - Development of Emotional Competence in AAC: An Area that Deserves Our Attention

Development of Emotional Competencies in Children with CCN: Implications for Practice and Research - Power Point Presentation (Blackstone, Wilkinson, Thistle, Rangel, Epstein, Feldman)

Augmentative Communication News December 2004 Issue on Internal Dialogue

A Communication Support Plan Instead of a Behaviour Support Plan

When a child is learning to communicate they move from non-symbolic to symbolic communication.  Non-symbolic communication includes gestures, facial expressions, and movement patterns. Symbolic language includes things like spoken words, written words, use of pictures on a communication system..etc. Symbolic communication allows an individual to communicate with a variety of different people, across time and in a variety of different spaces/contexts. (Source: http://depts.washington.edu/augcomm/03_cimodel/commind2a_emerging.htm).

Bringing teams that support children/students with CCN together to increase awareness of the current forms and intents of non-symbolic communication (including those that team members may label as "bad" or "inappropriate" behaviours) positions the team to be intentional about next steps for supporting the emotional, social and communication development of the student/child. By creating a "communication" plan, rather than a "behaviour" plan from this information, teams are able to focus their efforts on developing the skills in a student/child that will allow him/her to eventually manage themselves rather than putting their effort in to trying to manage them externally.

Here is a possible document that can be used for this: Communication Support Plan. The first column lists a variety of communicative purposes to help frame the group discussion. The second column would include a description of what the student/child does and what we interpret that action as meaning. The third column is to used to ensure that all team members are on the same page in regards to responding to actions in a way that will not inhibit communication growth. If the behaviors/actions that come up during this discussion are unsafe, a proactive safety management plan would need to be considered.  The last two columns look at ideas on how to grow skills, language and communication. When looking at the column related to emotional learning, it would be important for all teams members to be aware of what where the student is developmentally related to 8 skills listed above. Example: if the student is at step 3, it might be worth naming emotions with the communication system related with different activities so that the student comes to make the connection.

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