When Poor Behavior is a Sign of Skill – Not Defiance


I have been following the work of Dr. Ross Greene for several years. The quote above has always stood out to me because it has been my guiding belief over the past three decades of working with youth – especially when I am with children whose behavior can be challenging.

Oftentimes, the guiding belief is, “Kids do well if they want to.”

I will never forget walking towards the Pre-K wing and seeing a student hysterically crying in the hallway as the classroom teacher towered over her, arms crossed and stating, “Emily, we do not grab toys from our friends. Now, you need to calm down before you can go back in, and then apologize.”

So many things made me cringe at that moment. However, the greatest challenge that this particular teacher had was her basic belief. She believed that Emily did well when she wanted to. She did not view the incident in the classroom as an act of poor skill; she viewed it as defiance and mean-spirited. OUCH!

Doing well when you “want to” is entirely different from doing well “if you can.”

If you lean towards the belief of “want to,” you will react and intervene in times of challenge as if this child is trying to give you a hard time, annoy you, or get out of doing something. Your intervention will most likely be geared towards extinguishing that behavior (or showing him/her who yields the power). This type of mentality is probably very punitive in nature.

If you lean towards the belief of “if they can,” your intervention is quite different. Here, you will most likely focus on determining what the challenge is that the child is experiencing. What is the skill they actually need here to be successful? This type of response can feel so much better and probably will be addressed with a lot more love and compassion.

How do each of these statements feel to you? 

When your belief is rooted in, “They do well if they can,” it means that you can help them in that moment by teaching or supporting them in the attainment of that skill (or even part of the skill) they are lacking. Here, actual learning can happen. In the scenario of “when they want to,” there will probably be a power struggle as well as a lot of fear. You actually scare the child into doing what you want, but is there actually any learning happening?

What I have found is, even if I cannot determine the skill needed at that moment, by having the energy (the thoughts in my mind and feeling in my body) of compassion, the child begins to soften, listen, and feel safe. This is how learning happens in the brain.

Kids want to do well. They do not want to defy, irritate, and stomp on your last nerve. I am curious, what happens when you change your inner dialogue about this?  

If you would like to learn more, this is a great article to dive into.