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Supporting children's development
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1.2 Goals of misbehaviour

Rudolph Dreikurs (1897–1972), a child psychiatrist and educator, believed that all humans, as social beings, want to belong and be accepted by others. He identified four goals for misbehaviour:

  • attention
  • power
  • revenge
  • display of inadequacy.

As a teaching assistant, developing an understanding of why children might behave in the ways they do can help you to be more objective and calm in your reactions to undesirable behaviour. Table 1 offers possible reasons for children’s behaviour and how you may feel and react. It also suggests alternative ways in which you could deal with the situation.

Table 1 The goals of misbehaviour
Child’s faulty beliefChild’s goalAdult’s feeling and reactionChild’s response to adult’s attempts at correctionAlternatives for adults
I belong only when I am being noticed or served.Attention

Feeling: Annoyed.

Reaction: Tendency to remind and coax.

Temporarily stops misbehaviour.

Later resumes same behaviour or disturbs in another way.

Ignore misbehaviour when possible. Give attention for positive behaviour when the child is not making a bid for it. Avoid undue service. Realise that reminding, punishing, rewarding, coaxing and service provide undue attention.
I belong only when I am in control or am boss, or I am proving no one can boss me!Power

Feeling: Angry; provoked; as if one’s authority is threatened.

Reaction: Tendency to fight or give in.

Active – or passive – aggressive misbehaviour is intensified, or child submits with ‘defiant compliance’.Withdraw from conflict. Help the child see how to use power constructively by appealing for the child’s help and enlisting cooperation. Realise that fighting or giving in only increases the child’s desire for power.
I belong only by hurting others as I feel hurt. I cannot be loved.Revenge

Feeling: Deeply hurt.

Reaction: Tendency to retaliate and get even.

Seeks further revenge by intensifying misbehaviour or choosing another weapon.Avoid feeling hurt. Avoid punishment and retaliation. Build trusting relationship; convince child that he or she is loved.
I belong only by convincing others not to expect anything from me; I am unable; I am helpless.Display of inadequacy

Feeling: Despair, hopelessness – ‘I give up’.

Reaction: Tendency to agree with the child that nothing can be done.

Passively responds or fails to respond to whatever is done.

Shows no improvement.

Stop all criticism. Encourage any positive attempt no matter how small; focus on assets. Above all, don’t be hooked into pity, and don’t give up.

Activity 3

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Return to the account of Kyle’s behaviour in Activity 2 and use the goals of misbehaviour given in Table 1 to consider why he might have behaved in the way he did. Jot down some ideas in the box.

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Maybe your immediate thought was that Kyle’s behaviour was attention-seeking. It perhaps depends on what you thought about the act of ‘slumping down in his seat’. Did you think that Kyle was trying to become invisible? Or did you view this as a defiant act linked to power, deliberately showing that Kyle didn’t care what the teacher thought, or about what he was supposed to be doing?

Alternatively, maybe you identified Kyle’s behaviour as a result of a display of inadequacy, and that he was passively responding to the demand that he put his phone away. However, if this is the case, Kyle’s ‘faulty belief’ that he belongs only by convincing others not to expect anything from him and that he is helpless means that his schoolwork is unlikely to show any signs of improvement. Had the teacher responded differently, Kyle’s beliefs might change and lead to more positive outcomes.

Deciding on the goals of misbehaviour is not an easy task as our own values, beliefs and views influence how we react to different behaviours, and to different children. As such there is not a right or a wrong answer. Even Kyle might not be conscious of why he behaved as he did, and intervention from support services might be necessary to support him to manage his behaviour.