Misreading Behavior

In a recent talk on addiction the speaker, a psychiatrist who has treated many such patients, expressed the belief that the motivation for such behavior is often misunderstood.  Addictive behavior is often thought to be an expression of pleasure seeking and risk-taking.  His view was that on the contrary, alcohol and drugs were most often used in an attempt at self-medication and self-regulation by those with emotional difficulties that caused them great pain.  This understanding of the problem leads to a different point of view about the most useful treatment approach.

The differences in this understanding of the problem reflect an ongoing theme in the approach to many aspects of undesirable behavior.  The question raised is whether the behavior is an indication that the person is “bad” or is “sick” in some way.  At various times “sick” has been interpreted as a result of a bad environment – including bad parenting – a biological defect within the individual or more recently a result of specific brain function.  The idea that a person is “bad” leads to thoughts of punishment while “sick” leads to ideas about treatment.

How does this apply to the behavior of children?  It may seem a stretch to go from understanding addictive behavior to thinking about children’s behavior.  The connection, however, is that the way we understand behavior leads to what we decide to do about the behavior.  This is particularly relevant since in the course of their development children’s behavior is often socially unacceptable.  Do we understand such behavior as an expression of where children are developmentally?  Do we call it an indication of being “spoiled” and blame parents? Or do we think a child has a particular problem requiring treatment or remediation of some kind?

Parents – and teachers – are confronted with these questions regularly as they deal with children at home and at school.  When children “misbehave,” parents often think about discipline, which may be just a more acceptable term for punishment.  Children’s behavior can be provocative and elicit the feeling that they should be punished.  On the other hand, sometimes children’s behavior is worrisome and leads parents to wonder if something may be wrong.    

Teachers, on the other hand, deal with children in the context of a classroom and  academic requirements that also are their responsibility.  The individual child and the group can present needs that conflict at times, presenting a different kind of challenge to teachers.  If a child’s behavior disrupts the class or the teacher’s agenda, this can lead to a negative judgment both about the behavior and the child.  Too quickly the onus is put on the child for misbehaving with the implication that an absence of compliance with the teacher is willful. 

This brings to mind the comments made by one of the children I interviewed.  She made the point that sometimes a kid is not “getting it” – meaning what the teacher is trying to teach.  When I asked her how a teacher could tell if a kid was not getting it, she said if a kid is fooling around or not paying attention.  Her advice was not to reprimand a child in front of the class but to talk to that child privately afterwards to try to understand what was going on.

I was impressed with this comment because it so matched my own observations of children who seem to be presenting behavior difficulties in school.  To an experienced observer, it can become clear that a child who keeps dropping his pencil, talking to his neighbor or otherwise not paying attention, is having difficulty with the material being taught.  This is sometimes interpreted as the child having a “bad attitude” in class – deliberately not paying attention and being disruptive.  These days the alternative explanation is that a child has attention difficulties and is unable to focus.  This understanding has too often led to thoughts of medication.

Unfortunately, the contemporary education system does not lend itself to individual differences and needs.  In addition to the general challenge of teaching and learning in groups, the current focus on standardized tests and uniform results does not allows for diversity in teaching or the various ways in which different children learn best.  We know that some children have difficulty learning in a group setting and can learn well when taught individually or in small groups.  Opportunities for such support are often offered.  But how can this understanding be applied by the classroom teacher or parent?

Perhaps most useful is to start without a negative interpretation of a child’s behavior.  Most of the time children want to please and want to succeed.  Conveying to a child that we know that something is hard and want to help him or her – whether it comes from a parent or teacher – is the first step to both understanding the problem and finding the solution.

Ask the kids!