Just like the Iceberg that Kissed the Titanic, it is Underneath the Surface that You Will Find the Four Goals of Inconvenient Behaviour.
Children's behaviour is ALWAYS a form of communication. A way of telling you, showing you, how they are feeling and what it is that they need from you. And if you miss the convenient way that they ask for what they need, they will begin to use inconvenient ways. Some children, by the time they reach our schools or mainstream community services have already been taught that their inconvenient behaviour gets them what they need faster than any other means.
Just like the iceberg which kissed the Titanic, behaviour which is exhibited is only the tip of the story and the real knowledge and understanding lies deep below the surface in the feelings, thoughts and needs of the child. If we can identify and address the feelings and needs of the child, then inconvenient behaviour will subside and be replaced with convenient behaviour.
Rudolph Dreikurs, an Austrian psychologist identified 4 common goals that children are trying to achieve when they are behaving inconveniently. He found that by acting out these inconvenient behaviours children were trying to mediate the uncomfortable and distressing feelings of:
As a famous African Proverb reminds us, "The child that is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel it's warmth"
Dreikurs set out to identify the goals which children were trying to achieve in behaving in inconvenients ways and he identified four clear motivations.
Let's take a look in a little more detail.
When children display inadequacy behaviours we tend to feel frustrated and helpless. This often mirrors exactly how they are feeling, incapable, anxious, frustrated, and more than anything, scared that they will be seen to be "less than" their peers or you. What children need when feeling like this is to know that it is OK to not be brilliant at everything, so talk to them about their strengths and their areas for development.
They need to know that getting something wrong is not being a failure, rather it is just another way to learn. Thomas Edison when challenged by journalists that he failed to make a light bulb over 3000 times, famously replied "I did not fail 3000 times - I learned 3000 ways how not to make a light bulb." There are so many amazing victory stories which children can connect with from hearing that Bill Gates' first business failed, to Albert Einstein not speaking until the age of four, or how Richard Branson has dyslexia and Stephen King's first novel was rejected 30 times before it became a best seller and sold over 350 million copies! (It was Carrie if you were wondering).
But most importantly, they need to know that even YOU fail from time to time. Tell them your epic failure story, it will connect them to you and that relationship is so key in helping them to be ready to learn.
Despite the common attitude that you should not give attention to attention seeking behaviour, this is a mistake. Whilst ignoring attention seeking behaviour may reduce it temporarily, this will just displace it to somewhere or sometime else in your relationship with the child or it will re-emerge in a different inconvenient behaviour such as power and control.
You know the behaviour is attention seeking when you feel irritated, preoccupied by the child and their actions and we want to turn away and give no attention to the behaviour which is irritating us. The key here is not to ignore the child, but instead to give attention to the underlying needs rather than the inconvenient behaviour.
The child will be feeling under-stimulated, overlooked or unimportant, and their behaviour is an attempt to get you to turn towards them not away from them. There is truth in the position that negative attention is better than no attention at all.
So what are the needs which are arising from the above feelings? The child will need to feel stimulated, interested, and they need to receive positive attention or confirmation of the value that they hold within the classroom or peer group.
Examples of ways in which you can meet these needs are:-
1) Pointing out positive behaviour, for example "I really like the way you are forming an argument there - I can see how you came to that conclusion, I wonder if there another way of looking at this?"
2) Shift their focus (and yours) to something you are proud of, for example "Your homework yesterday was so neat, it really made me proud to see how much effort you put into it."
3) Give attention for something completely unrelated, but positive, for example "How did you get on with your football match at the weekend? Was it a win?"
4) Encourage them to do something with you, for example "Could you write the important points up on the board as we discuss them?"
The aim here is to meet their need to connect with you and feel important, not through commentary on their negative behaviour, but rather through commentary on their positive behaviour, (even if it is not currently being displayed).
When children are displaying revenge behaviour we are mostly likely to feel angry, hurt, and sometimes disgusted. When children are in vengeful behaviour patterns it is because they in some way feel hurt and treated unjustly themselves, even if this is only their perception and not based in reality.
Interestingly, even though you might be the recipient of the vengeful behaviour, you are not necessarily the cause of the injustice or hurt that the child is experiencing. Children often transfer this behaviour onto you because you in some way remind them of, or represent the person by whom they feel hurt or mistreated. This might be another authority figure, a parent, or just a grown up. Of course, it could also be you. None of us are perfect and we don't always get it right!
What the child needs is to have their hurt and injustice heard and validated, and they will most likely need this from you before they can attend to validating any hurt they have caused you or another person.
This is sometimes a difficult concept for those parents and teachers who are repetitively experiencing a very challenging relationship with a particular child or student. If you are one of those people, I understand that the idea that you need to mend a bridge with that child before that child can mend a bridge with you seems "a bridge too far." Yet it is effective. So, with compassion for your hurt and upset, I ask you to genuinely open your mind to that child and listen to their story. I fully appreciate and respect how difficult this is but when you hear that story, it will rarely anger you, more often it will break your heart.
It helps to understand why "them first, us second" is the best way to practice. I think of the empathy pathway in the brain a little like a busy road junction. Before a child can progress down an empathy pathway for you or another person's pain and hurt they need to clear the junction of their own pain and hurt. The more pain and hurt they have, the more traffic there is in that busy junction and the less likely they will be able to see or respond to your or another person's pain and hurt.
This is where an adults skills in empathy are really tested. Can you put your feelings of hurt aside to address their hurt first, and in doing so clear their junction and maximise the opportunity for them to hear your hurt at a later stage? In my experience, even the most difficult to reach children respond really well to connecting and empathising with our hurt, when we have first acknowledged and validated theirs.
Power & Control
When children are exercising power and control behaviours we generally feel in struggle with them, a back and forth tussle for the "upper hand."
Contrary to popular belief that children exercising power and control is a "bad thing" it is actually a very necessary developmental skill that meets their need to have influence on people and their immediate environment for the express purpose of increasing their sense of security and safety.
Imagine that you have no control over the environment around you or what people will say or do to you? How insecure and unsafe would you feel? And if you think about Maslow's Hierarchy we know that without this safety and security, there is little progress to be made in empathy building, problem solving skills or achieving educational or social goals.
When met with this behaviour it is important that we do not force our will, as this is the quickest route to the child feeling even less in control and unable to influence their environment, further raising their anxiety about being unsafe and insecure. What we do need to do is give firm boundaries and choices within those. For example, you might say to a child refusing to engage in the lesson "I can see you aren't in the mood for completing this lesson, would you like a five minute break and then complete it, or would you prefer to take it home and bring it in completed tomorrow, and instead work on this other task right now?"
Similarly, you might engage the whole class in choosing between completing this lesson first, or that lesson first. The more choices and personal autonomy you can give a child or class, the more likely you are to get buy in from them as an individual or as a class.
Safety and security is a basic need for all people to achieve in their life to allow them to explore, learn, and take risks to achieve goals. Without safety and security there is no learning. Of course when you put those firm boundaries in place prepare for them to be tested. This is not children intentionally or wilfully causing you difficulty. This is children testing if you will hold them safely and securely.
I think of this a little like being on a roller coaster. When you get on - what is the first thing that you do after pulling the safety harness into place? Yes, you give it a little shake, and then a bigger shake! You test it. Will it hold you safe and secure? Can you relax and enjoy the ride? Most children are on this roller coaster - consistently testing the boundary to see if it will hold so they can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Be their safety net so they can learn.
If you would like to learn more about needs led, and trauma informed restorative practice for teachers, parents and partners, then you can contact Linda here
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer and consultant, living in Northern Ireland. She is partner to JP, Mum to J, a covid redundant hugger and the chief quality and controller of all chocolate in her home.