School Question & Answer

Q: From a school principal using the principles of InsideOut Empowerment:
Here is the dilemma: A second-grade teacher and I have been attempting to help a second grader improve his behavior in school. He does fairly well in the classroom with the teacher nearby, but when he’s in more unstructured situations (cafeteria, bus, playground, etc.) he makes terrible choices over and over. (He is always watching to see if he can “get away with something.”)


He is physically aggressive with other students, has pulled down his pants and showed his privates to three girls under a lunch table, has urinated on the walls and floors of the restroom, tickled girls, etc.


We have tried rewarding him when he has a “good” day, but he doesn’t often make it through a day, or even shorter periods. We have tried negative “consequences” which have escalated from loss of privileges, such as recess, to after-school detention and recently in-school suspension for the exposure incident. The teacher is at the point of withholding a class trip or field trip if his misbehavior continues.


His mother and father are supportive of whatever actions we take at school, but it seems they may be at more of a loss with what to do with the boy than we are.  His fifth-grade sister is the ”perfect student!”


The boy can’t express why he behaves the way he does, or what needs aren’t being met. How should a student who continues to “misbehave” despite warnings, talks, consequences, etc. be treated?


I’m looking forward to your suggestions!


A: It’s good to hear from you although I do wish you were not having such a challenging situation. My first response is to stop using punitive consequences and rewards. These are all external attempts to control this student’s behavior which will only make the situation worse, as you may have already been experiencing. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences. The consequences are you build relationship with him and ask him some basic questions but without the relationship, he will likely not trust anyone enough to answer the questions. It isn’t that he doesn’t know what he wants, it’s that he doesn’t trust enough to tell you or his teacher yet.

The first thing I would tell this child is that we aren’t going to punish you anymore. However, there are certain things he cannot do in school. When he chooses these behaviors, he may have to be removed from the other kids so they can keep learning and he will have to have a conversation with someone . . . I don’t know if that’s you, his teacher, a school social worker or counselor. The best way to get at the underlying cause of his behavior is to ask him this question exactly while he is in the “act.” “What do you want that you are trying to get by _____________________?” The blank is filled in with whatever behavior he is choosing. You are hoping for an immediate, on-the-spot answer. This is a very different question than “Why did you do that?” Asking why will put him on the defensive or in shut down mode. Believing in InsideOut Empowerment means we know people do everything they do as their best attempt to get something they want. Asking what he wants will likely yield an answer you can work with.

Then, whoever is working with him asking the question, once an answer is given, the next question is: “Would you like to figure out a way you can get _______________________ without hurting people or breaking the rules?” Then the discipline is to proceed with an educational conversation helping him to see alternatives to the behavior he is engaging in now. The person working with him needs to keep all judgment of his behavior out of the conversation. It might sound like this:

What do you want that you are trying to get by pulling your pants down? [Who knows what he will say. It might be I want them to like me. I want to scare them. I was just having fun. I want someone to notice me.] If the answer is something you can think of a positive alternative for, then ask the next question, “Would you like to figure out a way you can get attention without scaring people or breaking the rules?” If the answer you get is still something negative such as “I wanted to scare them” then you aren’t yet ready to ask the question, “Would you like to figure out a way you can scare people without hurting them or breaking the rules?” That would be ridiculous. What you might say is, “When you scare people, how does that help you?” Then you will likely get an answer you can work with. His answer might be something along the lines of “I feel important.” Then it’s, “Would you like to figure out a way you can feel important without hurting or scaring people or breaking the rules?”

I realize I am making this conversation sound more mature than it would actually be. I’ll leave translating into 7 year-old language to those of you who do it daily. Now I’m not saying there is anything magic about this conversation and I’m not saying he will right away stop the maladaptive behavior. But you want start him thinking. You want to give him hope that there is a way for him to get what he wants without negative consequences. You want him to know you don’t see him as a horrible person. You want him to know you are on his side and trying to help him find a better way. Even when he makes a commitment to doing things differently, know that he will fall back into habitual behavior and you just need to be supportive of his attempt and replan to be more successful next time. What you are doing in the meantime is creating a positive relationship with him.

Let me know how you make out.

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