What Lies Beneath Behavior?
Every novelist, psychologist, anthropologist, and your Aunt Jane have wanted to know this.
What motivates people and what’s going on when their behavior is irritating or just plain doesn’t
At MSODT, we encourage adults to look beneath the behavior of children and to understand
‘behavior as communication.’ It may be that the child is choosing a way of communicating that is
hard for you to deal with but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the behavior is driven by some
deep need or physiological response. These behaviors are often punished and then we wonder
why the child is “always getting into trouble” or “never learns!” when we haven’t dealt with the
root cause of the behavior.
This is never more true than in the classroom where – teachers often tell us – they don’t have the
luxury of getting to know each child and their needs when trying to wrangle 30 children, meet
common core standards, and deal with whatever new mandate the school district has handed
down. (And too bad if you have a personal life that needs attention.)
So we have come up with a handy-dandy infographic to help adults – and teachers in particular –
go through a process of elimination to figure out what’s going on with a child whose behavior is
causing concern, starting with basic human needs and graduating to the more serious impacts of
trauma. A little time spent in this kind of reflection can help us develop more compassion and
support children who are struggling to tell us just how overwhelming it can be in their world.
Let’s go through the questions in the infographic:
1) Is this child communicating some basic human need? Perhaps David is wriggling around and
disturbing his classmate because he needs the restroom. Could it be that Sandra is not able to
concentrate the period before lunch because she’s hungry? These needs are all in the present and
can be met in real time.
2) Does this behavior reflect the developmental stage of the child? Maybe Alex is putting his
head on the desk because he’s a teenager and he’s not getting the copious amounts of sleep
young people need at this age. Does Nicole space out and forget to bring home all her homework
books because she is only eleven and her brain hasn’t developed yet to do the advanced planning
we are asking of her? These behaviors should resolve themselves as the child develops.
3) What is the current state of the nervous system? When we are excited or freaked out about
something we cannot concentrate, much less remember and learn. We all respond to stress and a
perceived threat in this way. Maybe the students have seen a famous person on campus. (If it’s
George Clooney, I certainly would not be able to concentrate!) Maybe there’s been a fire drill.
The nervous system can be under-activated too. Friday afternoon during a heat wave. Lots of
abstract math equations right after lunch. We can stimulate or calm down the nervous system and
help students get back into ‘the zone’ – when we talk about nervous system regulation, we call it
the Resilient Zone.
4) Is the student stressed into a survival response (fight, flight, freeze)? This is a primal
physical response to perceived danger. The stress response gears up to battle stations and that
thumping heart sending blood to your arms and legs results in a child who throws a chair or runs
out of the class. We are programmed to respond this way and if our survival instincts detect no
opportunity to fight or flee, we will instead shut down. (That is the child who seems to have left
his body behind in your class while his mind orbits another planet.) If an attacker came into the
classroom, we would consider it a smart response for the student to throw a chair, run away, or
check out to protect themselves against an overwhelming situation. There is nothing wrong with
the survival response – it is in fact life serving – the problem is when this response is the child’s
default way of reacting to the smallest of stressors because they live in a constant state of high
5) Is the student using a coping strategy that no longer serves? Any child who has lived through
danger and trauma is a brilliant tactical survivalist – they had to be to survive. However, perhaps
the strategies that kept them alive are now showing up in your classroom where they are getting
in the way of creating relationships and learning. A hostile stare can get a child suspended in
school, but maybe keeps them alive on the violent streets in their neighborhood where it’s
important not to look like a victim. Staying quiet maybe kept a child safe in a household where it
was dangerous to draw attention to oneself, but maybe now the teacher interprets this as noncomprehension
or lack of motivation to learn.
6) Have there been structural changes in the brain? Long-term exposure to toxic stress or
trauma can have lasting effects on the architecture of the brain. The areas responsible for
emotional control, memory and learning are often affected. It is also possible for there to be
damage to other areas that can result in depression, less nuanced (‘black and white’) thinking,
and difficulties with concentration. We often see difficulties in interpreting and responding to
social cues as well as a lack of emotional development. All these changes are reversible.
However, in many cases these changes are interpreted as symptoms of ADHD or fall under other
popular diagnoses and labels, when in fact the science points to a safe, stable nurturing
relationship with a caring adult as being the number one way for a child to recover from trauma.
7) Are we witnessing trauma-induced thinking or conditioning? Trauma shapes how we see
the world and provides a narrative about what we can expect. It informs the stories we tell
ourselves about whether the world is safe and people are basically good, or whether the world is
full of hidden dangers and people are out to get us. Sometimes a child will react according to
their interior monologue about how trustworthy you are and what is needed to stay safe.
Sometimes they reenact a scenario just so that ‘the other shoe will drop.’ For example, if children
have been placed in foster care and experienced that as abandonment, they will push every adult
they come in contact with to the point that the adult gives up, thus proving that their world view
and the provisions they have made to survive in it are correct. If they believe that they will
ultimately be abandoned, better to get it over with rather than live with the suspense. We all have
stories we tell ourselves but we can change our perceptions with positive self-talk and
challenging our negative beliefs. So can children.
8) Finally, let’s ask ourselves the question “How is this ‘problem’ the child’s solution?” No one
acts against their own self-interests. Even if this behavior is a problem to you, in some way it
represents a solution to the child. If we take this view, it is easier to put ourselves into the child’s
shoes and rather than fight the behavior, understand the value it brings so that we are better
positioned to offer safer alternatives.
Our goal at MSODT is simple: Let’s stay open and curious to what lies beneath behavior and
most importantly of all, ensure that no more children are punished for a failed attempt to
communicate just how very much they have already been punished by life