For Educators: Why Focusing on Bad Behavior is the Wrong Approach

When a child or teen presents with disruptive or aggressive behaviors, they are often labeled with terms such as “oppositional, defiant, stubborn or lazy.” Often this is done by caregivers who are understandably frustrated, exhausted, and at times emotionally hurt by the child’s behavior. It is a significant challenge for a teacher, coach or other youth professional to feel disrespected, disregarded, devalued or demoralized in this manner. This is especially true if you have worked hard and given a great deal of yourself to a child or teen who does not seem grateful, is not putting in any effort to change, or does not seem responsive to your best efforts to help.

As teachers and youth workers, one of the biggest hurdles we face in addressing these problem behaviors is managing our own feelings and reactions. A good understanding of what triggers the behavior it is critical to lowering your frustration level. Then, you are freed up to really begin to help. Behavior problems should be thought of as a signal that there is something else wrong in the child’s life. The behavior can be seen as a signal or alert. The behavior itself is rarely the actual problem but usually the product of something else.

For example, imagine getting into your car and seeing the ‘check engine’ light on. None of us would label the light or the indicator as the problem. We understand that we need to look under the hood or take the car to a mechanic to determine the true source or causes of the indicator light. A mechanic will try to determine what happens before the light comes on to understand the real problem.

In the same way, a child or teenager misbehaving can be thought of as a signal that something else is wrong. Solely viewing a child’s behavior as the problem and thus focusing on changing the behavior usually contributes to frustration in all parties and leaves everyone without understanding.

Often the child or teen does not have the words or awareness to communicate the specific problems they’re having. In other instances they may know what is wrong but are either afraid or ashamed to tell others. In either case, there are barriers to the child or teenager being able to communicate their needs verbally to others who wish to help. Unfortunately, this can contribute to frustration on the part of the teacher or caregiver, who then may attribute negative and even malicious motives to the child or teen (i.e., they are just lazy; this kid needs to learn respect and responsibility; and so no).

When this happens, our responses to the child or teen’s behavior tend to focus on correcting a perceived motivational, moral or character defect in the child. The goal is focused on trying to ‘teach’ or to get the child or teen to ‘learn’ how to ‘behave appropriately.’ Tragically, this common approach, while well intended, is often born out of frustration and emphasizes compliance rather than understanding. This rarely helps anyone involved in any lasting way and can contribute to disruption in any previous bond, as well as other psychological problems in both the teacher/caregiver and child.

Common reasons a child or teen may be misbehaving include stress from their social or family life, underlying limitations due to unrecognized developmental delays (usually in the areas of speech or motor abilities), undiagnosed learning disorders, cognitive or skill limitations, and unrecognized or undertreated psychological symptoms. These factors, as well as others, often contribute to a child or teen not completing tasks, displaying a bad attitude, misbehaving in some way and even becoming aggressive.

While it may be difficult to do so, teachers and caregivers should focus on identifying the real problem anytime a behavioral problem is present. Resist the urge to try to control the situation or express frustration through focusing on the behavior and/or compliance alone. When we are able to recognize that the problem behavior is an indication of another deeper problem, it communicates that we truly care about understanding what’s going on, and helping the child overcome it.

This, in turn, provides a model where the teen or child will be more likely to trust others to help them in the future, and creates a greater sense of hope that their real issue will be both identified and resolved.

For more information about how to understand behavior problems in children visit Lives in the Balance. If you need support from a licensed professional, please check the services we offer on our website or other resources in our community on the One in Five Minds website.

Learning together,

Dr. Josh Essery

Dr. Essery is Board Certified in Clinical Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is a Clinical Professor in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Dr. Essery is a member of Division 39 of the American Psychological Association, the American Group Psychotherapy Association, the San Antonio Group Psychotherapy Association and the San Antonio Society for Psychoanalytic Studies.

If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).