Earlier this week, I wrote about how to respond to commonly expressed thought patterns about kids with challenging behavior. These thought patterns are pervasive in schools, not because teachers or other adults who work in schools think the worst about kids with challenging behavior, but because—well, that’s probably the subject of another post. Working with kids who don’t meet our behavioral expectations is incredibly difficult and frustrating, and I think in the absence of better solutions, we are apt to repeat what we’ve heard before or simply go with the most logical explanation.

The problem is that a lot of these typical or traditional explanations of what causes or what’s “behind” challenging behavior are not only inaccurate, but perhaps more importantly unhelpful in working to change or replace students’ maladaptive behaviors.

Here are three more, again adapted from Meyer and Evans’s School Leader’s Guide to Restorative School Discipline:


  • She just doesn’t care about learning. She just doesn’t care about school.


  • Would she have any good reason to care—is school a positive place for her?
  • Is she having any success at all in learning, or is school mostly punishing for her?

This is a tough one to swallow when you’re a teacher with 1000 other things on your plate. You might imagine yourself saying, So now it’s my fault that the kid doesn’t’ care? I’m supposed to make the kid care? No, it’s not the teacher’s fault that the kid doesn’t care (at least not usually). But if we believe that kids do well when they can, then we should also assume that if she could do better, she would do better. Therefore, our responsibility is to help kids build the skills to the point that they do feel they can do better. A lack of caring is often a mask for a lack of ability (or a self-perception of a lack of ability).


  • She comes from a bad home/bad family.


  • Why is this relevant to her relationships and behavior in school?
  • What do we really know about her home anyway?
  • Even if the home is dysfunctional, why can’t school be a positive experience for her?

This has become almost taboo to bring up in schools, lest it be perceived that a teacher is writing a student off based on their home life. It’s pretty rare to hear a teacher say this these days (at least in my small personal sample size). Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be verboten to talk about a student’s home life. Learning more about what’s going on about a student outside of school can offer powerful insight into understanding possible antecedents/triggers and unsolved problems.


  • He makes bad choices


  • Is it possible that the bad choice he makes ends up getting him what he wants?
  • Would an alternative good choice lead to a positive outcome for him?
  • Does he have the skills to make other choices?

I suppose it’s possible that he makes “bad” choices, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t have a whole lot of other “choices”—at least not choices he’s skilled enough or confident enough to successfully make. If we believe that kids do well when they can (rather than kids do well when they want), then it’s safe to assume whatever “choices” the student had were all unproductive choices. It’s perhaps even more likely that the “choice” the student “made” was the one with the most heavily traversed neural pathway—a behavior that the student has engaged in for so long that it truly does feel like there is no other option.




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