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June 18, 2024

Behavior, Communication, and SEAT

Dr. Becky Bailey, creator of Conscious Discipline, wisely said, “All behavior is some form of communication.” This makes sense to me, as I watch my 13-year-old son throw a tantrum when we tell him we aren’t going to the store at 11 pm. Or, when my 10-year-old daughter bursts into tears when I ask her to pick up her room. This information is timely, as I raise my voice to threaten, through gritted teeth, for the 9th time, that someone NEEDS  to *please* sweep the kitchen floor.

Yikes. Got a little real there for a moment.

Beyond words, our behavior speaks volumes. Tears, the silent treatment, even thinly-veiled threats – these are all attempts to communicate something we struggle to express verbally. These actions serve a function, and understanding that function helps us to address the student’s underlying needs. One helpful way of thinking about this is through the acronym SEAT, which categorizes these functions.

Sensory Stimulation

Some behaviors are driven by the need for sensory input, where the behavior itself provides the desired sensory experience. This can also be evidence of being overstimulated, like the autistic student raising her voice.


Certain behaviors aim to escape or avoid an unpleasant situation, task, or person. This can manifest as procrastination, withdrawal, or even aggression as a means to get out of something unwanted. My daughter’s tears are evidence of avoidance- she does not ever want to clean her room. Come to think of it, what kid wants to do that?


Sometimes, behavior is motivated by a desire for attention, positive or negative.  This could involve anything from a child throwing a tantrum to get a toy, to an adult interrupting a conversation to be heard. The function of my communication about the kitchen floor is to get attention, as no one has so much as looked my way to acknowledge my request (threat).

Tangible Reinforcement

This function is all about acquiring something desirable.  It could be a child whining to get a candy bar or an employee putting in extra effort to earn a raise.  Essentially, the behavior is linked to getting a tangible reward. My son’s tantrum comes from the desire to get Hot Takis at an unreasonable hour.

Keeping SEAT in mind is a way to help mitigate undesirable behavior by addressing it at the root of the problem. This way, everyone can acknowledge what is being communicated, and my family all feels a lot better as a result. Consider SEAT as a strategy to help your students with problem behaviors!

For more behavior supports and effective strategies for managing behavior, check out our continuing education courses, 5311: Behavior Support for Students with Autism and 5419: Effective Strategies for Addressing Off-Task Behavior.

About the Author

Betsy Butler (she/her) is a Professional Learning Specialist at Teaching Channel. She holds a B.A. in English, a Master’s in Education, and has been teaching since 1992. Betsy uses her three decades of teaching experience to write and revise our courses while selecting the perfect accompanying texts. Her specialty areas include ELA, special education topics, behavior management, and mental health.

Fun Fact: Betsy’s daily conquest is solving the New York Times crossword puzzle!


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