Monday, October 1, 2012

Are children in control of their misbehavior?

When faced with working with children who are the hardest to like and educate, some adults like to pronounce that:
Children are in control of their behaviour. They choose to either behave or misbehave.
I've often heard this as a kind of Aha! moment -- as if this statement told us something we did not already know about a child who has difficulty navigating their day.

While it's true that some children in extreme cases may not be able to control their behaviour, this is far from the default. For the most part, every child is in control of their behaviour. But focusing on the idea that children are in control of their behaviours and are choosing to behave or misbehave can lead to a predictable and unfortunate mindset:
If we focus on the idea that children are choosing to misbehave and be unsuccessful, we might be tempted to frame this as a motivation problem which we believe can be solved with rewards and punishments. If we apply the right kind and amount of carrots and sticks,  we can make kids make better decisions.
It's at this point that I use some of Dr. Ross Greene's work to help me reframe this mindset. Like Ross Greene, I believe that children will be successful if they can -- this differs greatly from the mindset above which tends to believe children will be successful when they want to. The point here is that children don't go bad -- they get lost, and it's our job to help them find themselves.

My experience working in both a mainstream middle school, a lower socio-economic K-8 and a children's inpatient psychiatric assessment unit tells me that misbehavior is not the problem -- it is a symptom of a much larger problem that tends to get ignored because we are busy snuffing out the misbehavior. 

Like Ross Greene, I frame a child's difficulties not necessarily as a choice that needs to be convinced otherwise -- instead, I see a child's difficulties as proof that the child is lagging skills, and it's our job to help teach them those skills.

Are children in control of their misbehavior? 

Who cares. 

We are far better of spending our limited time, effort and resources using misbehavior as a symptom that helps us identify the lagging skills that are creating unsolved problems for the child and the adults in their life.


  1. As an adult who remembers misbehaving from sheer boredom I loved this column.
    By having teachers guide me, much like you did back then, I was able to reach a greater potential. I remember defiance being a thrill for a grade 8 child suffering from boredom.
    The teachers that responded with understanding and more specifically intellectual understanding helped me go beyond that simple cheap thrill and move onto better ones. Like personal academic success.
    I enjoyed learning as soon as it became relevant to me. Once a few good teachers did that , misbehaviour became irrelevant and eventually disappeared.

  2. Joe, I so appreciate your knack for getting to the root of things: "Who cares."

    You are someone who moves and shakes with a purpose, and THAT is what we need--> Open Bower Style!

    : )

  3. I like this post. I think rewards and punishments have their place, but it is too easy for adults to think that all they can do is to create rewards and punishments, and not focus enough on helping a kid build the necessary skills. Therefore I like the dictum that "children will be successful if they can."

  4. Ross Greene continues to explain -' who cares' , because ultimately a kid's motivation, perspective or concerns will be discovered during the cps - collaboration problem solving process.

    Even if we thought that a kid could control his behavior, using extrinsic motivation to make him wanna behave is damaging as it undermines intrinsic motivation and does not help the kid reflect or internalize values and what type of person do I want to be


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