This article was originally published in The Ascent
I’ve spent the last two decades in the most ideal laboratory for studying human behavior.
At first, I did what any teacher does. I imparted my wisdom and knowledge on them. I taught “right” from “wrong”. I managed their behaviors with rules, rewards, consequences, and praise. This seemed to work for most kids, but there were always a few kids that would not comply to these conditions. When this happened, I blamed the child, the parents or myself and kept using the same approach even though it wasn’t working for these “difficult” kids.
Don’t judge me for this. It’s what most of us do when we see no other way.
As time went on, I adopted more progressive strategies such as providing choices, visual schedules, charts, emotional management tools, positive communication techniques, and so on. If you work with kids or have kids of your own, you know what I’m talking about. There is no shortage of strategies (or opinions) intended to magically resolve challenging behaviors.
Some of these strategies had a temporary effect, but for the most part the extreme behaviors persisted, and I felt more and more like a failure. I came home almost everyday exhausted and questioning everything. I became obsessed with finding the perfect method that would work for these “difficult” kids and finally bring me some peace.
I remember this one little boy in Kindergarten that was having a particularly rough time. He was melting down multiple times a day, triggered whenever he lost a game, wasn’t first in line, or didn’t get the toy he wanted. You would repeatedly hear him say “It’s not fair!”, even when things were more than fair. No amount of explaining, reasoning, rewarding, punishing, ignoring or special accommodations had any impact on his behavior or how he perceived his experiences. In fact, the ways that others responded to him was almost always used to further validate how he saw things.
When the other kids got upset when he pushed in line, this proved that nobody liked him.
When he was kicked out of a game for not playing by the rules, this confirmed that he was being treated unfairly.
When he received a reward for good behavior, this supported his belief that winning was the only way to get his needs met.
It occurred to me that the problem wasn’t the effectiveness of my strategies or my level of consistency. The real issue was how he was interpreting his experiences. I had been so focused on how I saw things that I couldn’t understand why he didn’t “get it”.
It was then that I made the following 3 key distinctions that completely transformed the way I understand and address a child’s “difficult” behaviors.
1. I had only been responding to his surface behaviors and was not addressing the underlying beliefs that were leading him to perceive his experiences in a way that wasn’t working for him.
2. I was evaluating every situation based on my point of view, rather than trying to understand the world through his lens.
3. I was focused on creating the external conditions to make him behave, instead of fostering the internal conditions for that positive action to be inspired from within him.
In summary, I was trying to “manage” behaviors from the outside in, rather than resolving them from the inside out. It wasn’t about the strategies I was using. It was about where I was putting my focus.
So, how can we resolve behaviors from the inside out?
I believe the key to transforming a child’s difficult behaviors is not in finding improved ways to control their outer experience, but it is in better understanding what is going on within. To do this we must uncover and address what I call their “Theory of the World”.
What do I mean by “Theory of the World”?
We all have our own unique theory of the world that powerfully affects how we perceive and respond to every experience. It consists of the subconscious beliefs we have about who we are and how the world works. These beliefs are developed when we are very young at a time when we are personalizing every experience, when we do not yet have the cognitive ability to question and think critically and when our subconscious mind is very open to outside influence.
When a child develops a healthy theory of the world, they will naturally act in the best interest of themselves and others, have positive perceptions of their experience, and will make choices that reflect their highest potential. I have yet to meet a child or adult that does not have some beliefs that are not serving them, but those that are really struggling likely have a theory of the world that is working against them in some way.
When a child has an unhealthy theory of the world, this sets them up for low self esteem, dissatisfaction, challenging relationships, and reduced potential regardless of the opportunities available to them and the strategies used by parents and teachers.
We’ve been led to believe that better opportunities, better parenting strategies and better teaching methods will lead to success, but if kids are taking the world in through the filter of their beliefs than these things can easily be distorted. What a child really needs is better beliefs!
Unless we work to shift the unhealthy beliefs that are leading to surface challenges, then whatever patterns or “themes” that are perpetuating in childhood will follow the child throughout their life. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t other factors at play that affect a child’s behavior, but in my opinion, these unhealthy beliefs are at the core of most imbalances and are most often overlooked because they are not obvious on the surface.
So then how do we uncover a child’s “Theory of the World”?
Well it can’t be uncovered with a brain scan or by asking them to tell you what their theory of the world is. And they don’t have it written on their forehead either! But when you know the clues to look for, their theory of the world is actually not that difficult to uncover.
What are the clues we should be looking for?
There are 2 types of clues that can help us to get a better idea of what is going on at a subconscious level.
1. Situational Triggers: These are the specific situations that regularly cause some form of stress or negative reaction (e.g., losing, someone copying them, not having enough, etc.)
2. Repetitive Statements: These are the short phrases that the child repeats frequently, especially in times of stress, but they may also be made casually or in jest (e.g., “It’s not fair”, “You don’t understand”, “I never do anything right”, etc.)
Simply put, when we identify a child’s predominant situational triggers and repetitive statements, we can then look for patterns that reveal underlying themes that are leading to these imbalanced responses.
Once uncovered, how then do we shift these unhealthy beliefs?
This may be a topic for another article, but in short it involves…
To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that we stop having rules, boundaries and consequences or that we not make use of the many helpful strategies available to us. We just need to be more thoughtful about how our actions are being interpreted by the child and intentional about sending them messages that will help them to shape a healthy theory of the world.
And here’s one more important distinction. Let’s not confuse the imbalanced response from an unhealthy belief with personality.
We tend to label kids as bad because we see their triggered behaviors as an aspect of their personality. This sends them the message that their negative behaviors are part of who they are, which further ingrains the undesired behaviors. You see, we’ve been confused into thinking that it is their personality traits that need fixing. We see a child with persistence, and we think we need to knock this quality out of them. This will never work, by the way, unless we break their spirit.
Yes, it’s true, a persistent child that has an unhealthy theory of the world is a recipe for great challenge. However, persistence matched with a healthy theory of the world is a recipe for great success!
I have been using this approach in my work with kids for the last few years and it’s making a world of difference (pun intended)! Suddenly, the behaviors that I didn’t understand before now make sense and I am no longer taking things so personally. The change doesn’t happen overnight, because it takes time to shift beliefs that have been held for a long time, but the effect is trans-formative and lasting.
The best way to set a child up for a happy and fulfilling life is to help them shape a theory of the world that will support their well-being and highest potential.
I believe that understanding this simple idea has the power to change the trajectory of a child’s life and if we start doing this for all kids, it has the potential to transform the world! So next time you are frustrated with a child’s (or adult’s) behavior, ask yourself, “What is their theory of the world?”
And it wouldn’t hurt to consider your own theory of the world too 🙂
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