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Is there really such a thing as behaviour problems?

As you may know, I work directly everyday with disengaged students – teenagers who for one reason or another have not worked out in the traditional school setting.

They are sent to me because they are either not attending or they have 'behaviour problems'.

I would like to suggest is that behaviour is not the problem...


Many of the teachers and parents who have watched their student’s journey to my door would most likely disagree. They would say that ‘behaviour’ is exactly their problem! However I would like to examine an idea from the domain of life-coaching and NLP and apply it to our common understanding of student behaviour at home and in the classroom;

In the world of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) there are 11 assumptions that cannot necessarily be proved true or untrue, but when they ARE held true, we find that success follows as a natural course. Some of these assumptions include:

  • All behaviour has a purpose.

  • Behaviour is communication. Actions speak louder than words.

  • People are more than their behaviours

  • People always do the best they can with the resources that they have available

  • There is no such thing as an unresourceful person, only an unresourceful state of mind

  • Signs of resistance indicate a lack of rapport

  • There is no failure – only feedback

  • Always aim to increase choice

  • Importance is the key that sets the mind free

Whilst some of these statements alone can sound a bit cryptic, collectively they dovetail together to form a mindset and approach that allows us as teachers, coaches, mentors and parents to get the best results from our teenagers.

Let’s look at the first 2 assumptions that focus specifically on behaviour. ‘Behaviour is Communication’ & ‘All Behaviour has a Purpose’.

What is a young person’s behaviour trying to say? What is the positive purpose that they are trying to achieve? In a traditional classroom often ‘bad’ behaviour exhibits itself as rudeness such as interrupting, calling out and other more active disruptions. If we hold the 2 assumptions above to be true then we must then question further to determine; ‘What is the purpose of this behaviour? What is the message they are trying to communicate? In many cases disruptive behaviour is a symptom that the student is disengaged with the content – they have failed to understand how listening and learning this content is in any way relevant to their lives either in the present or in the future.

This is where some of the other assumptions can prove effective for us as teachers/coaches to challenge our own practice in order to make positive changes.

  • Recognise that the student is ‘more than their behaviour’. There is an inner-being separate from this behaviour that wants to and is capable of learning but presently their mindset/attitude is not allowing them to do so.

  • People do the BEST they can with the resources they have available – this is a hard one! I don’t know how many times I have looked at a student who I KNOW can do better, but isn’t. When we do a stocktake of the resources that they have available, often the only thing missing is a willingness to engage. We find this difficult to comprehend from our own limited point of view. We don’t know what a student is going through at any point in time and what mental and emotional resources they are dedicating just to be there. This is a common frustration among teachers – we know they would get better results if only they would try harder… this leads us to the next assumption:

  • ‘There is no such thing as an unresourceful person, only unresourceful states of mind’ We expect our students to show up for class, ready to learn – but the reality is that very few of us actively do this. Challenge yourself – what was your attitude like at your last Staff Development Day? Did you mentally prepare yourself to be open, to listen to learn and to positively contribute? There is a story told by Steven Covey* who was travelling on the subway when a father and his 2 boys got on board. When the subway resumed its journey the 2 boys got out of their seat and ran back and forth in the carriage disturbing the other passengers. Steven was irritated by the father’s indifference who just sat staring out the window watching the walls flash by. Eventually one of the boys bumped into another passenger and Steven had seen enough – he leaned over and said to the father, “Do think you could do something about your boys? They are running everywhere and disturbing the other passengers!” The father seemed to come back to reality as though woken from a daze – “Oh, sorry!” He called the boys to him and told them to sit back down next to him. The boys obediently did what they were asked and settled down. “I’m really sorry, said the father, we have just come from the hospital and their mother has just passed away from cancer. I don’t really think they know how to handle it. Actually, I don’t think I do either.” Steven was stuck by the instant realisation that had judged this family by their surface appearance, where as they were only doing the best they could at that time with the resources they had available.

  • Don’t take it personally! – ‘There is no failure, only feedback’ When things go wrong or at least not as you’d planned in your teaching/learning sessions. Don’t get upset. Look for the opportunity to learn – after all that is what we would hope our students would do when we give them corrections – right?

  • ‘Signs of resistance = a lack of rapport’ – this is a major key in achieving true student engagement. Do your students believe that you care for them? Do they trust that you have their best interests at heart? Without this you are relying 100% on discipline. Either the self-discipline of the students or the discipline system of the school. Discipline is a strained relationship that ultimately will never allow true engagement to take place. It is definitely necessary at times but it should have a resolution that draws students deeper into rapport, not away from it. We as teachers MUST invest time, thought and energy in creating rapport with our students if we hope to be successful in meaningful student engagement. True engagement is a heartfelt state of being – not merely sitting down and shutting up. There is much that teachers can do to build this such as ice-breaker games, showing interest in student’s life outside the classroom, valuing them as a person, recognising their unique gifts and talents and incorporating them into your lessons whenever possible.

The main argument against taking this approach is; “I don’t have time to do this in my lessons, I am flat out just getting through the program as it is!”

My response to this would be; “You don’t have time NOT to create rapport with your students. Consider what is of more value – A program of reduced content in which students are actually engaged and learning OR a program jam-packed with content but makes students feel disconnected and overwhelmed?” Creating rapport is like the channel for your teaching to flow through. Would you set up a restaurant, work in the kitchen preparing amazing meals, invite the customers to come in – but forget to hire serving staff? The customers would be sitting at the tables twiddling their thumbs and making their own conversation whilst you would be in the kitchen wondering why no one appreciates your food – it is absurd! We have to invest time into the key role of mindset and communication which is built on rapport.

  • And finally – ‘Importance is the key that sets the mind free’. In our examination of earlier assumptions we recognise that apart from rapport, lack of understanding of how learning what you are presenting is the major factor in leading to unconstructive and unhealthy behaviours. These behaviours have a purpose. That purpose is to communicate their lack of engagement. Importance is the key. People do what is important to them – plain and simple. When we look at a ‘problem’ student, I guarantee that they are placing value on something in some other way. EVERY student who comes to me at the Learning Centre has a hidden passion and often more than one. They value something or multiple things very deeply. In fact, that is one of the most exciting and rewarding things I find about working with youth – how deeply they feel, love and live! Ironically, this is what gives me the edge when I work to engage them in their learning. Often kids who exhibit behaviour problems are ‘strong feelers’ – hence their behaviour. They are not content to sit quietly and be bored. Their behaviour is a shout from the rooftops - THERE MUST BE MORE THAN THIS!! When these students begin to see learning through the lens of their own passions, miracles begin to happen. Don’t get me wrong, it is not always smooth sailing; there are multiple layers of defence and resistance that they have learned in their fight with the system to date, but when ‘importance’ becomes a factor in the equation – true transformation begins to take place.

Peak Performance Coaching and Management strategies are all about behaviours –it is our behaviours that determine our results. However, we also must acknowledge that our behaviours are simply a reflection of the inner world of the client/student.

It is my firm belief that to be effective as coaches, mentors and teachers we must facilitate the passion of youth through our practice and systems of education.

  • Taking time to build rapport with students

  • Explicitly teaching students to believe in themselves and develop a Growth Mindset

  • Giving students project based experiences that allow them to learn about life through the lens of their own passions

For more information on any of these strategies or support implementing these in your classroom or staff - please get in touch with me to find out more...

*Steven Covey – author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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