Teaching in Traumatizing Times: Listening to Misbehavior

“Why can’t you just behave?” I’m sure this thought has crossed each teacher’s and parent’s mind at least once. You may even be thinking about specific children where this thought comes up a lot. Maybe even experiencing your own frustration and helplessness at their lack of change. What if, instead of viewing misbehavior as a problem to be fixed, we saw it as a language to be interpreted and understood. This blog, as part of our Teaching in Traumatizing Times series, hopes to help teachers and parents understand the language of misbehavior and identify strategies for responding to the need the child’s behavior is communicating.

As discussed in the previous blog on attachment, children’s decisions and perceptions of themselves and others are largely influenced and shaped by their environment. Consider how important, valued, and worthy you feel in relationships and settings that foster safety and connection.  Children function the same way. They are motivated by a need to belong, to be seen, and to feel significant. When these needs aren’t met, misbehavior tends to ensue. Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D., a psychiatrist and educator, identified four “mistaken goals” of misbehavior: undue attention, misguided power, revenge, and assumed inadequacy, that children engage in, albeit ineffectively, to achieve belonging.

Undue Attention

Consider the following situation: You are teaching your lesson and there’s that one student…they wave their hand with their whole body, interrupt you, “Hey Miss, Miss, Miss…,” whisper to other students, make noises, the list goes on and on. You remind them of the expectation, and maybe they go back to work for a bit. But eventually the behavior continues and intensifies.

How are you feeling in this moment? Annoyed? Irritated? Hold onto those feelings…

Now, let’s consider what is the child communicating beneath all the annoying behaviors. They are saying, I belong when you pay attention to me, when you notice me, when you help me. They need you to notice and involve them so they can feel useful and important.

How can you respond to this need?

  1. Take a deep breath, notice your annoyance, and regulate your body.
  2. Ignore misbehaviors – remember, the child’s “mistaken goal” is attention, which means that even negative attention (i.e., punishing) and reminding are inadvertently reinforcing that goal.
  3. Praise positive behaviors – “I really appreciate how you sat quietly and waited until I finished to ask a question.”
  4. Be proactive! Give that child a task that will redirect the behavior – “Can you pass out the markers?” or “After the lesson, would you like to help me with…”

Misguided Power

The dreaded power struggles. I’m sure you can conjure many examples where you were pulled in by the child’s “You can’t make me” behaviors and thought, “You won’t get away with that in my classroom.” Think of those moments and how you were feeling? Angry? Challenged? Threatened? Hold onto those feelings…

Again, let’s consider what the child is communicating. I belong only when I’m in control. They need you to let them help and to have a choice.

How can you respond to this need?

  1. Take a deep breath, notice your anger, and regulate your body – Remember, it takes two to have a power struggle and choosing not to engage does not mean giving in!
  2. Try to reflect, connect, and validate your student’s feeling in a respectful manner – “I’m noticing you seem frustrated, and those feelings are okay, what can we do to help that feeling?”
  3. Communicate your perspective and provide an opportunity for your student to do the same – “It seems like we aren’t fully understanding each other, let’s take a pause, and then try again”
  4. Engage them as a helper – “You’re right, I can’t make you do X, but it would be a really big help to me if you would do X”
  5. For younger students, give limited choices – “you can choose to sit at the table or sit on the floor;” “You can choose which problem to start on” – the behavior doesn’t need to be perfect/ideal, just acceptable and nondisruptive will do!
  6. For older students, engage in collaborative problem-solving – “How would you solve this problem?” or “How can we come to an agreement that works for both of us?”

Revenge

Think about times when you have felt hurt and “I’ll show them” automatically popped into your head. This vengefulness often occurs without us even realizing us or knowing exactly where it comes from. The same is true for the children in our lives. You may be the target of hurt that happened at home, in another class, on the playground…the source may not have anything to do with you. So why might that student be targeting you? Let’s go back to attachment here. Maybe they know you are a safer option, and that they can seek revenge on you without you leaving or rejecting them. Maybe this is the only way they have learned to feel connected. When the misbehavior turns to revenge, you may feel hurt, disbelief, and disappointment. Hold onto those feelings…

Underneath this vengeance the child is communicating, “I DON’T belong and am hurting.” They need you to validate their feelings.

How can you respond to this need?

  1. Take a deep breath, notice your own hurt, and regulate your body – break the revenge cycle!
  2. Help the student identify and acknowledge the hurt, by reflecting and validating those feelings – “Seems like you are feeling really hurt by something. I’m here if you’d like to talk about it;” “It makes sense that you’d feel mad when…”
  3. Be a safe haven for that child by being present with them in the hurt feelings. This will communicate that you truly care for them and will strengthen the connection. Remember, sometimes all a child needs is someone to hold them and listen to them, without judgement or advice-giving.
  4. Model alternative strategies for managing hurt by sharing your feelings and times when you’ve felt hurt.
  5. When the child is calm and regulated, collaboratively engage in problem-solving – ask, “What would help you?”

Assumed Inadequacy

This final goal is going to feel different from the others because it may not be immediately apparent to you. It is one that you may notice building slowly over time, with subtle clues throughout the day. There is a helpless quality to inadequacy that you may find lingers within you, even after the final bell rings. Think of a student that truly believes they can’t do it, a student that seems to have just given up. You’ve probably tried to help them, maybe even ended up doing things for them, but nothing seems to help. You may want to give up just as they have. With these students, there is a feeling of being helpless, hopeless, defeated, and inadequate within ourselves. Hold onto those feelings…

When a student has entered inadequacy, the belief is “I’ll never belong.” They need you not to give up and to show them a small step.

How can you respond to this need?

  1. Take a deep breath, notice your helplessness, and regulate your body – don’t give up!
  2. Help the student with the task by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps, praising each success along the way. – “You must feel proud/pleased for getting that done.”
  3. Continue showing them how to do it, but don’t do all the steps for them. This can reinforce that you don’t believe in their capabilities, fueling their perceived inadequacy. – “I’ll do these two steps, and then you do the next two steps.”
  4. Play up the child’s strengths; even if they don’t believe it right now, hearing it repeatedly will reinforce that they are capable.

Remember that a misbehaving child is generally a discouraged child with a mistaken belief that they don’t belong. Knowing the mistaken belief underlying the child’s behavior means you can respond to their need. Noticing what you feel in response to a child’s behavior can clue you into which mistaken goal the child is using and guide you in responding effectively in the moment. Dreikurs said, “A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water.” Connection and encouragement are always best practice in helping your students achieve belonging, and belonging is the basis for behaving and learning successfully.

  • Ashley Geerts-Perry, MS, is a Doctoral Resident at Clarity Child Guidance Center. She is currently in the final months of completing her PhD in counseling psychology with a child and family emphasis at the University of North Texas. Ashley is interested in fostering healthy family attachment systems. She practices from a trauma-focused lens and works to develop a therapeutic relationship wherein healing and growth occur. Ashley is passionate about working with marginalized and under-resourced children and families and prides herself on being an advocate for systemic change.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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