Monday, February 20, 2017

Why Do Children Misbehave? A Montessori approach

We approach the child from the perspective that the child is constructing herself from her experiences. We believe that children are social beings, and they make decisions during their experiences that determine who they are. How can we prepare children to respond to situations in their lives? How can we help them interpret the situations they have encountered in a healthy, appropriate way? Children are constantly making decisions about who they are and who we are as the adults. They want to know how to survive and thrive in their environments. Along the path of their behavior choices, we can support children in terms of their interpretations of events and situations—and how that fits into their belief systems. We help them to make good decisions by helping them contextualize who they are, in perspective with others. This connects to the Montessori idea of social cohesion, which Montessori believed would bring about peace for society, broadly.

What kind of decisions are children making? They are thinking about:

  • ·       Others: How do I feel about them? Are others helpful or hurtful? Do they like me?
  • ·       Themselves: Am I good or bad? Am I enough? Am I capable?
  • ·       The World: Is it safe to make mistakes? Is it possible for me to make a difference?
  • ·       What They Need to Do: What is my work? What must I do, and what is my choice?

We also know the child’s behavior serves some goal. The primary goal for the child's behavior is belonging and significance. A misbehaving child can be considered a discouraged child, regarding these behavioral decisions about the world. Ultimately, a sense of belonging and significance answers the primary need for the child and will alleviate many misbehaviors; however, children are not born with social skills for helping them connect with others, and misbehaviors will persist even given ideal warm, welcoming circumstances.

When children are seeking belonging and significance, without knowing how to achieve those appropriately, children will go about seeking acceptance in clunky manners. This kind of child might have temper tantrums or might move around disturbing others. Younger children will look for social significance from the adults in their lives, and older children will look for a sense of belonging among their peers. Beneath the surface concern of the misbehavior, there can even be a large iceberg of mistaken ideas in the sense of belonging and significance.

An answer to a child’s misunderstanding of ways to belong and be significant would be giving the child opportunities to develop social responsibility. When a child develops social responsibility and service, the child develops a community feeling and self-esteem—this leads to a sense of belonging and significance. This is where our connection comes in as teachers and guides in the school. You cannot give children enough trophies and prizes to give them the appropriate recognition, for contributing to the community. But in exhibiting social responsibility, they can develop the sense of self-recognition. Then, the need to misbehave will, many times, fall away.

How do we uncover why this child is feling so disconnected? How can we help her interact with others so that she can achieve a sense of community belonging and significance? The key will be a sense of equality. Here, this equality refers to children deserving equal dignity and respect to the adult. No, the child is still not driving many of the interactions, because the child does not have the ability to make so many appropriate decisions alone. The adult is still guiding interactions in a vertical relationship of parent to child, in most families—or they are in a permissive relationships where the child is given too much autonomy and not enough support for appropriate behaviors. This model would give a third option of a horizontal relationship of guidance and support, often even quite firm, but couched in the framework of equality between the adult and the child. We are both on a learning journey.

There are three principles of effective discipline:
  1. ·       All effective discipline teaches valuable social and life skills, and it will be effective long-term.
  2. ·       Effective discipline will also foster and environment where mistakes are seen as an opportunity to learn. 
  3. ·       It will be kind and firm, and the same time, fostering a sense of belonging and significance. They will be able to predict the rules because of consistency, and it builds a sense of connection to the environment, to the other, and to the self. 


The Most Common Misbehaviors
We keep asking, “Why are children doing that?”, because we know that every behavior has a root cause. We can define four mistaken goals:
  • ·       Undue Attention: This child wants to keep others busy and get special service. The adult tends to react by reminding, coaxing, and doing things the child could do for themselves. The child will often stop temporarily and quickly resume. The child is coding messages, “Notice me, involve me usefully.”

o   We can empower this child by expressing how much we care about this child with the promise of spending time together later. We set routines, use problem solving, encourage, use family meetings, use touch to show we acknowledge the child without words, we can ignore the child’s attention seeking at times, and we can set up nonverbal signals of attention.
  • ·       Misguided Power: This child wants to be the boss. The adult tends to respond by fighting, giving in, and attempting to make the child behave appropriately. The child will often intensify the behavior and feel that they have won when the adult is upset. The child may also look for passive ways to find power. The child is coding messages, “Let me help. Give me choices.”

o   We can empower this child by redirecting positive power by asking for help, offering limited choices, not giving in, being firm with the child, and being kind with the child. We can let routines be the boss instead of us as the teacher, so the struggle is not against us. After establishing mutual respect, we can set reasonable limits. We will encourage the child and set up family and class meetings, and we will schedule special time together.
  • ·       Revenge: This child wants to get even. The adult rends to respond with disappointment, disbelief, and even disgust. The child may intensify retaliation and escalate, or else they will chose another weapon. The child is coding messages, “I’m hurting. Validate my feelings.”

o   We can empower this child by acknowledging hurt feelings, avoiding punishment and retaliation. The adult should also avoid feeing hurt or dismayed about the revenge behaviors. We can build trust with this child through reflective listening, sharing feelings together, and supporting the child in making amends. We show we care through our actions with the child, more than with our talk. This child may not believe just the talk. We will encourage the personal strengths of this child, use family and class meetings, and schedule special time with this child.
  • ·       To Give Up and Be Left Alone: This child operates from assumed inadequacy. The adult rends to respond by doing things for the child and over-helping the child. The child may show no improvement and in giving further retreat into inadequacy. The child is coding messages, “Show me a small step towards a goal. Please don’t give up on me entirely.”

o   We can empower this child by breaking tasks into smaller steps. We can stop all criticism for some time and encourage any positive attempts. We can show great faith in the child’s abilities and focus on assets. We will certainly not show any kind of pity for the child for what they cannot do. We do not remind them of  what they cannot yet do. We set opportunities for success and directly teach skills that will give the child a sense of pride. This way, we can shift their own self-image. We encourage, use class and family meetings, and schedule special time together.


One of the most common root issues that we encounter in classroom environments is children who do not feel that they belong. But to validate the child’s feelings of rejection or isolation—that is so often the opposite of the adult response. Punishment through isolation and making the child feel bad will only intensify the despair. We have to break out of the punitive system and work toward restorative models of justice with the child. In all we do to support behavior, we work to restore the child’s relationships with their community, with individual peers, and with themselves. We begin with validation and reflective listening, but we end with the child empowered to make amends and make appropriate choices in the future.

Reflections following a talk by Chip DeLorenzo, M.Ed, AMS, “Breaking the Cycle—Uncovering the Roots of Misbehavior” from the American Montessori Society, Recorded Oct, 2016.

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