Behavior is A Symptom, Not The Problem

classroom management  emotional intelligence 

By Ashley Patek

Behavior is A Symptom, Not The Problem 

Bang! Bang! Bang! 

Every time he kicked his foot into his desk, the class stopped to look. Learning was paused. Kids were distracted. The teacher’s frustration was growing. 

As an occupational therapist, I had a caseload full of kiddos across the spectrum with various developmental abilities and behavioral challenges. This particular boy was deemed a “problem child” by the school system, and he had spent years over-punished, over-corrected, over-demanded, and under-heard. 

The lens had always been focused on stopping or fixing his behavioral outbursts. Something about sitting in the classroom each day caused him to unravel. Hitting. Yelling. Rocking. Kicking the desk. And, a few times, throwing chairs. 

Behavior charts didn’t work. Referrals to the office didn’t work. Isolation didn’t work. And so I was called to push in to the classroom to observe. I was trained to look past behavior to see the whole child. And while I didn’t know what was going on just yet, I knew that he was communicating to all of us, with his full body, that he was struggling with something. But what?

Fast forward a few weeks, and the boy and I had built a rapport. I asked him what felt hard … what it felt like in his body when he “acted out” … how I could help support him in his classroom environment. Then, I listened. We put our heads together, him and I as a team, and we uncovered our answer. 

This child was hypersensitive to various stimuli including auditory input. When he sat in his classroom, he could hear the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, and it sent him into sensory overwhelm. Unsure how to regulate that overwhelm, he responded in the only way his body knew how - behaviors that felt disrupting to the rest of the class but were really a desperate attempt to self-soothe and self-protect.  

I brought this solution to his care team and, eventually, the lights were changed. No more buzzing, no more behavior. This child was better able to sit and focus in school and to actively participate in his learning process because he was no longer in survival mode. His protective responses could put down their guard so that he could access the learning parts of his nervous system. 

A Shift In Lens And Practices 

As therapists, educators, counselors, and parents, we are problem-solvers. It’s what we do. But somehow, somewhere, when it comes to challenging behavior, we often pitfall into modifying the behaviors through charts, restraint, or seclusion.

These kids move through the system labeled as uncooperative, unmotivated, and manipulative. And depending on the size of the school, we see the same 10 … 20 … 30 kids account for 80 - 90% of discipline referrals, which tells us that punishment or bribes in the classroom are missing the mark somewhere. 

Classrooms that have thrived off of punishment and reward systems will protest, “but they do modify the behavior! I have seen it!” The challenge is, however, that there is a durability issue when using these tactics because, once the program is removed, the challenging behavior typically returns to baseline. 

Why? Because this type of management focuses on the wrong thing.

Behavior is a symptom, not the problem. And when we focus solely on the symptom, the problems causing these behaviors remain unsolved, and they stack up. 

So, yes, we need to manage the classroom and yes certain behaviors cannot be tolerated. But the children we are rewarding and punishing the most, are the children who benefit from this type of management the least. And while we might make a dent in the behavior, we have failed to solve what is underneath it. 

Stopping Classroom Disruptions 

It’s when we change our lens that we can change our practices. Instead of suppressing behaviors through behavior modification, we can solve the problems that are causing the behaviors by asking ourselves three proactive assessment questions: 

1. What is the expectation the child is having difficulty meeting?

In the scenario with the student above, the expectation was that he would sit in his classroom, listen to his teacher, and do his schoolwork without disruptions. 

2. What is making it hard for the child to meet that expectation? 

Again, with the scenario above, outwardly, it appeared that the boy’s behavior (kicking the desk) was the problem - it was disrupting the whole class! But really, it was merely a signal that there was something else going on. 

These children - the “disrupters” - are communicating with their actions that there is 1) a lagging skill, 2) an unmet need, and/or 3) an expectation that is too heavy. 

The boy was kicking his desk because of an unsolved problem that had been getting in his way for a long time. The buzzing of the lights was sending him into sensory overwhelm and he didn’t yet have the awareness to pinpoint his source of dysregulation nor the skills to self-regulate or communicate the issue. 

And while he was able to meet classroom expectations occasionally, he didn’t meet them consistently. Was this because he was defiant? A trouble maker? Manipulative? No. 

This was a case of lagging skills, not lagging motivation. And the profound thing is, this isn’t an isolated occurrence. It is happening every day in homes and schools. When a child meets an expectation sometimes, there’s a fairly common adult assumption that a child can meet that expectation every time. But just because a child can do something doesn’t mean they have mastered it. Development marches at its own pace for each child, and when we notice and meet them there, and set age and developmentally appropriate unbiased expectations, we can truly help them learn and grow. 

3. How can I help this child in a way that gives them some agency in their process?

When we can solve the true nature of a problem, and not suppress it through rewards and punishments, we actually decrease classroom disruptions. Taking a collaborative approach with the child, making each child a part of their own process, transforms interventions from something we do to the child to something we do with them. 

Behind every desk, there is a child wanting to feel seen and heard. While we may not agree with what we hear, we can listen, and that is the first step. When staff and students feel safe, powerful, and connected, problems are solved and behaviors transform. 

Some phrases staff can use with these children to communicate safety include: 

  • "We are going to work through this." 
  • "You are not in trouble.”
  • "Nobody is mad at you.”
  • “I want to hear from you."

Creating Time

While this particular lens sounds good in theory, many educators have the very valid concern of time. “I don’t have time to implement this with every child.” The truth is, however, when we look at the data, it’s not the entire class slipping through the cracks. It’s the same 10 … 20 … 30 kids who are having the most trouble. This is a good place to start, and eventually, we can shift to encompass all children. 

If you tell a teacher their job security is based on high stakes tests then you are forcing them to focus on high stakes tests rather than the social-emotional needs of a child. And it pushes teachers into using behavior modification systems rather than uncovering and solving the underlying problems. 

So, what are educators to do?

Dr. Ross Greene, American clinical child psychologist and author of the books The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Lost & Found, and Raising Human Beings, encourages administrators and educators to use buried time - before or after school, during lunch, etc. He also suggests creating coverage systems. “If someone (a therapist, counselor, etc) can provide coverage, a classroom teacher now has time to solve problems with students. This is important because we never want to be the school that says we don’t have time to solve problems with our students.”

Teachers also have the opportunity to build mini moments of connection all day long. In 2-5 minutes a day, the classroom community can form and strengthen through the use of morning meetings, mindful moments, meditation, check-in chats, and classroom circles. Front-loading social-emotional learning skills at the beginning of each year and at the start of each day through small routines and the use of a classroom calming space will actually create more time for learning. Because a classroom full of students that feel safe, supported, and seen will spend less time with behavioral issues. 

Summing It Up 

All classrooms need expectations, and those expectations must be realistic to what is walking in the door. When a child is having trouble meeting an expectation, we have the choice to work with them proactively and collaboratively. And this cuts across race, socioeconomic status, attachment disorder, neurodiversity, and trauma. 

Educators have a tricky job and they are under great pressure. Yet, Dr. Greene encourages, “If you put humanity back at the top of your job description, the academics will not suffer. You have permission to do ‘human work’ because you are nurturing humans after all.”

•  •  •

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