Understanding Behaviour with the MEATS Framework

Ilia Lindsay, Registered Psychologist, Komodo Psychology Lead


Behaviour as a language - What is a student’s behaviour trying to communicate? 



Behaviour; big, small, loud, quiet, internalising, externalising, disruptive, difficult. We have many different ways to describe behaviour but do we know what each behaviour is saying?

Behaviour is a type of communication. It is a way of expressing and conveying information about a student’s internal state, emotions, and intentions to others. Even nonverbal behaviours, such as facial expressions or body language, can communicate a great deal about how a student is feeling or what they are thinking. Understanding the function and context of a behaviour can provide valuable insights into a students psychological state and needs.

Understanding the function of behaviour in students is important in educational settings. By identifying the function of behaviour, educators can better address the underlying causes of problematic or difficult classroom behaviours which leads to more effective interventions. For example, if a student is engaging in disruptive behaviour to gain attention. The teacher can implement strategies to provide positive attention for appropriate behaviour, rather than inadvertently reinforcing the disruptive behaviour. Similarly, if a student is engaging in challenging behaviour to escape a task they find difficult. The teacher can provide additional support and accommodations to help the student successfully complete the task. When we understand the function of behaviours in the classroom we can create a more positive and effective learning environment for students.

What are the functions of behaviour?

We can remember the functions of behaviour by remembering the acronym M-E-A-T-S. 

M - Medical Cause 

Sometimes student behaviour reflects something from a medical or physiological response. For example when a student is upset and tearful or perhaps disengaged with learning we need to ask questions like, are they in pain? Have they recently returned to school after illness? When behaviour is due to an underlying medical cause we need to provide assistance and/or accommodations to address this in order to change the behaviour. 

E - Escape 

Sometimes student behaviour can tell us there is an urge or a need to escape or avoid a situation. For example disruptive behaviour around the same subject each day may be a communication that students are trying to avoid and escape this subject due to learning difficulties or fear of failure. We often see escape and avoidance behaviour when anxiety is present for students as escape and avoid provides relief from anxiety (in the short term). When escape and avoidance is the function of behaviour we need to support students to stay present and walk towards the thing they are avoiding in order to break the reinforcement cycle. Each time students step closer to or tolerate the thing they want to escape or avoid they allow themselves an opportunity to build self confidence and self efficacy. (For more information on helping students “walk towards” the things they are trying to escape check out these blogs)

A - Attention 

Sometimes a students behaviour is calling out to us for attention. Now it is important to remember that when the function of behaviour is attention, any attention is still attention. So if a student is disruptive and the function of the behaviour is attention. When we respond with a “telling off” this is still a form of attention so this response reinforces the student's desire for attention prompting them to continue. When attention is the function of behaviour our most powerful intervention is ignoring. This can be very difficult as we often see the attention seeking behaviour getting bigger when we start to ignore - the key at this moment is to remain calm and continue to ignore*. This intensification of behaviour before it calms is called the “extinction burst” and is a sign that behaviour change is about to occur. Unfortunately, we often “cave” during the extinction burst and the student is reinforced to make the bigger, louder behaviour in future to get attention. 

*We do acknowledge the need to attend to safety concerns. If other students or you are at risk of harm then you should address this whilst minimising the level of attention and communication with the student who is being disruptive. 

T - Tangible 

Sometimes students' behaviour is driven by the motivation for something tangible. A tangible result is a physical object or outcome, such as a reward, a grade or a prize. For example a student may become distressed if they think their work quality is not sufficient to gain a “good grade” so their frantic study or anxiety-based behaviours may reflect this. We also see this in a positive manner in younger children who may behave in an exemplary manner in order to win the class mascot or class award for the day/week. 

S - Sensory 

Sometimes a student's behaviour is a result of an unmet sensory need (either to gain or remove a sensory input). Sensory input can refer to any information we receive through our senses, such as touch, sound, smell, taste or movement. These behaviours are often seen as a way for the student to regulate their sensory input and manage their reactions to it. This is often influenced by previous experiences. For example a student struggling with the volume of a classroom may cover their ears or become upset. We also see this in some students with neurodiversity who have different sensory thresholds (hypo- or hyper-) and needs. (For more information on helping students with sensory regulation, check out our blog). 

So how do we work out the function?  

Behaviour A-B-Cs

To determine the function of a behaviour we need to know our A-B-Cs. To do this, we work out the antecedents, the target behaviour, and consequences of the behaviour pattern. We do this by asking the following questions: 

  • What is the target behaviour - what is the student doing and what do we see? (Behaviour)
  • What is happening right before the behaviour occurs? (Antecedent)
  • What happens immediately after the behaviour occurs? (Consequence)
  • What purpose does the behaviour serve for the individual? (M-E-A-T-S
  • What is the individual trying to achieve or communicate through the behaviour? 

When we look at these factors, it is possible to identify common patterns and determine the underlying function of the behaviour. 

Using A-B-Cs and find the M-E-A-T-S in a classroom 

The next time you experience disruptive or difficult behaviour in class try these three steps. 

STEP 1: Stop and work out your A-B-Cs. Take the time to complete a behaviour table. 

STEP 2: Determine which M-E-A-T-S are present. 

STEP 3: Proceed with an intervention the meets the M-E-A-T-S 

Understanding the function of behaviour is crucial in addressing and intervening in behaviour effectively. If we don't intervene based on the function of behaviour, the behaviour may continue to persist or escalate, and the underlying issue or pain point may not be addressed. Working out the A-B-C and finding the M-E-A-T-S is essential to assess the root cause of the behaviour and provide strategies that address the underlying issues. 

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