Analyzing Discipline Problems (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Lack of Understanding

Perhaps the child has the needed skills but has chosen not to use them. Sometimes children behave in unacceptable ways because they don’t understand why they shouldn’t. Perhaps the cause of the problem is a lack of knowledge about how to behave or about the results of certain actions. Young children need assistance in learning about cause-and-effect relationships. They need to learn that their behaviors have certain results or consequences (Brady et al., 2003).

Adults often have trouble allowing children to learn from experience because of the desire to protect them. Although you do need to keep children away from harm, you don’t want to protect them so much that they lose the opportunity to learn. Finding out that you get cold if you don’t dress for the weather or that you get hungry if you don’t eat are valuable educational lessons. They are examples of natural consequences (Dreikurs, 1964). Related consequences are adult-imposed, but they link the behavior to a result that demonstrates why the behavior needs to be changed. Too often, adults expect children to learn from lectures and forget that experience is the best teacher. Natural and related consequences are effective forms of guidance that help children gain knowledge, which in turn guides youngsters in self-regulating their behavior.


Sometimes children have learned the wrong things. These children have learned to get their emotional needs met in counterproductive ways. In this case, the needed discipline approach involves reteaching. Children need to unlearn old ways of getting attention and learn new ones (Curwin & Mendler, 1999). Judicious use of behavior modification techniques guides teachers in ignoring undesirable behaviors and encouraging desirable ones.

Another type of mislearning is a result of undesirable role models. The need to counteract this influence cannot be overstated (Levin, 2003). Sometimes the undesirable role models are older children, family members, or sports heroes. Additionally, educators frequently model power tactics that model a “might makes right” approach (Butchart, 1998).

Whatever the source, positive role models who build trusting relationships with children are desperately needed as the antidote. Teachers must be moral, caring, and socially skilled so they can demonstrate important skills and understandings in word and deed (Watson, 1999). The most effective models “transparently” model desirable behavior by talking to themselves out loud, demonstrating the thought processes behind their actions (Dill, 1998).

Unmet Emotional Needs

If you are sure that a child knows better and is capable of behaving better, but is still acting out, you need to look deeper for the cause. Sometimes undesirable behavior is motivated by children striving to feel okay in spite of experiences that have left them with emotional deficits (Landy, 2002). Strong survival instincts motivate these youngsters to try to get their needs met, and they frequently act out in extremely disruptive ways that show misguided efforts toward “wholeness.” Other youngsters with emotional deficits give up and retreat into their shells. The latter may be easier to deal with but are ultimately an even greater cause for your concern and attention.

If unmet needs are the cause of the problem, a truly effective discipline approach must involve attempts to help children get those needs met. These attempts might be made in conjunction with other approaches that will make the symptoms more manageable, such as related consequences. It is important to keep the cause of the problem in mind, however, and continue to work on helping the child get his or her needs met.

Serious Problems

Teachers frequently find that a child in their care has unmet needs or other problems that they cannot adequately address by themselves. These problems, although manifested in undesirable behaviors, may not actually be guidance or discipline issues. Rather than being addressed through teaching, they may need to be dealt with by medical practitioners or social workers. In some cases, the child’s entire family must be helped in order to benefit the child. There is a limit to what can be expected of teachers and caregivers, and they must insist on outside expertise to help children with severe behavior problems.

Family Communication and Complexity of Causes

Typically several different causes are interacting with one another when a child is acting out. Teachers often need information from the child’s home in order to get a clear picture of the possible causes. The following example shows how a teacher and a mother worked together, sharing information about the child to figure out why she had a hard day at school.

Corrie had a terrible, awful, no-good day at preschool. She screamed and cried and clung to her mom at school. Her mother explained that she couldn’t stay with her because she had to take Corrie’s baby sister home for her nap, but Corrie continued to cry and insisted that her mother stay with her. After mother finally did leave, Corrie followed the teacher around and wouldn’t engage in play with the other children.

Dennis talked to Corrie’s mother on the phone that evening in an effort to figure out the cause of her daughter’s problem and keep her from having more such bad days. They took into consideration maturational factors: that Corrie was too young to understand other people’s needs, so she naturally didn’t respond to the explanation of what her mother needed to do. They also acknowledged that preschool-age children still have a long way to go in learning to control their emotions and express them appropriately. Young children can’t distinguish between a momentary frustration and a true tragedy; therefore, they tend to respond in the extreme to all upsetting events.

Corrie’s teacher and parents had previously discussed her innate temperament: emotionally sensitive and also slow to adapt to change. Because she is more than typically emotionally sensitive, Corrie experiences her feelings deeply, making emotion regulation even more difficult for her. When she gets upset, she has great difficulty getting over it. Corrie’s other identified temperament challenge, difficulty in adapting to change, means that disruptions in her schedule upset her. Therefore, it is very significant that this was Corrie’s first day back at school after a 2-week family vacation.

As Dennis and Corrie’s mother talk, the mother acknowledges that Corrie was pretty tired after their trip and notes that she had been sick most of the time they were gone. In fact, given the day’s problems, Corrie’s mother now worries that Corrie may still not be feeling well.

Whereas she had previously been frustrated with Corrie, the mother now realizes that Corrie’s distressing behavior was probably inevitable, given the combination of factors. The horrible, no-good day was a result of normal maturation limitations interacting with Corrie’s individual temperament and compounded by unmet physical needs.

Rather than a list, a set of concentric circles might be a better way of analyzing some behavior problems. We could start with the behavior itself shown as a tiny circle in the center, and then make surrounding circles that show the context in which the behavior occurred. This way of analyzing a behavior problem may be helpful in connecting multiple, interwoven causes.

The next larger circle can be used to show any unmet physical or emotional needs involved. For instance, is the child tired, hungry, or ill? Could the child be worried, sad, or fearful?

Another larger circle around that one could show the related maturational limitations. Typically, you would expect that young children would not be good at perspective-taking, emotion regulation, or any type of logical thinking.

The next circle could be used to show the child’s unique characteristics such as temperament and cultural influences. A final, outside circle might look at related learning: What missing skills might be involved? Does the child need help understanding why the behavior is inappropriate? Has the child learned inappropriate behavior due to poor role models and/or reinforcement of misbehavior?

View Full Article
Add your own comment
DIY Worksheets
Make puzzles and printables that are educational, personal, and fun!
Matching Lists
Quickly create fun match-up worksheets using your own words.
Word Searches
Use your own word lists to create and print custom word searches.
Crossword Puzzles
Make custom crossword puzzles using your own words and clues.