Understanding Behavior as a Byproduct of Our Inner State

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There is no such thing as a bad kid. So why do we make them believe that they are?

In an effort to motivate students, support positive behavior, and encourage focused learning,  many well-intentioned educators have been trained to implement various behavior modification techniques. You may know these techniques quite well. They include sticker charts and prize boxes, traffic lights and warning signals, marbles or gumballs and pizza parties to name a few.

The goal of these all too common practices is to reward the positive behaviors in order to promote them and, for lack of a better word, punish the maladaptive behaviors in order to eliminate them.

If you have been using anything that resembles those types of checklists/systems in your home or your classroom, I want to share something with you.

In the 30 years I have been in education, working side-by-side educators, watching these types of programs be implemented, the words that have consistently clutched my mind and heart have been:

  • Manipulative, 
  • bullying, 
  • isolating, 
  • shaming, 
  • fear-inducing, 
  • and dehumanizing.

Now, I am talking about the technique, not the person administering the technique. Teachers and parents truly want their children to do well and witness how often certain behaviors simply derail learning and connection.

What these practices fail to take into account is that all behavior is biological in nature. What that means is that behavior is born out of a basic inner need. The behavior is produced as a mode of communicating what the body is feeling deep within, when words (cognition) are not easily accessible to articulate what is needed. It can be as simple as, “I didn’t eat breakfast and I am hungry.” Or, “I am tired because I did not sleep at all last night.” Or even, “I am nervous because I don’t understand the lesson my teacher is sharing.” 

All behaviors are the byproduct of our inner state. Inner states are the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are happening in the moment. Unless you have a high level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, your inner state may not be within your conscious awareness. Have you ever noticed that when you are angry, your chest and belly tighten and your body temperature rises? Most of the time, these bodily changes occur before you react at all. Many of the behaviors we label as maladaptive or disruptive are the manifestations of fearful, fatigued, confused, angry, and lonely inner states. Simply put, inner states that just feel awful. Since the body and the brain are constantly in communication with each other with the primary goal of each to maintain a sense of safety, the felt sense of the body acts as an alarm, signaling the brain to figure out how to get to safety. The brain’s first mode of defense is always going to be: fight, take flight, or freeze. Practically every behavior those modification/management systems attempt to abolish are actually some form of fight, flight, or freeze response.

So, what if we started to get a bit more curious about the behaviors we are seeing and ask ourselves, “Is the behavior I am seeing born out of pure avoidance, disrespect, or defiance? Or is it deeper? What is the sense that this child is experiencing?”

Dr. Mona Delahooke, author of “Beyond Behaviors and Body-Brain Parenting” uses the image of an iceberg to understand behaviors a bit deeper (and we have a great free download for you to help you see what she means). The tip of the iceberg is the action of the behavior we actually see. The biggest part of the iceberg, what lies beneath the surface of the water, is the inner state driving the behavioral response. If we can look at the behavior from a compassionate and human perspective, what do you think would be the best aid to our children? Shaming them to comply with how we need them to show up each day, ready to learn? Or showing compassion and a willingness to understand where the behavior is coming from and what basic human need is lacking right now?

There are a few sayings that ring loudly in my ears when I think of the “behavior plans” I have witnessed over the years:

  • There is no such thing as a bad child.
  • Children do well when they can. (It’s not about WILL, it is about SKILL!)
  • When kids struggle behaviorally, they are not trying to give you a hard time. THEY are having a hard time. 
  • Where your attention goes, your energy flows – If you are focusing your energy on the actual behavior, you will magnify that behavior. If you are focusing on how to bring calm, connection, and safety to this child, that is what will give them the support they need to soften the behavior on their own.
  • Misbehavior is often a sign of an unmet need – think “food, sleep, safety, connection, and love”.
  • All behaviors are the byproduct of your inner state. When your inner state is easeful, relaxed, and you feel safe, your behavior is most likely more “appropriate, kind, communicative, and congenial.” When your inner state is stressed, overwhelmed and generally pissed-off, your behavior is most likely short tempered, impatient, and curt. (No judgment. We’ve all been there!)
  • We are not just a brain. We are not just a body. We are always both. 

Here are 5 things you can say to a child whose behavior is indicating that they are having a hard time:

  • I see that you are very upset.
  • It looks like you are feeling ________. Maybe it would help to (cry, take a few deep breaths, sit in a rocking chair, lay down, take a walk, etc.)
  • I am here to help.
  • We will figure this out together.
  • It is okay to feel ____________ and I promise it will pass.

Notice there are NO questions in this list. That is because the heat of an emotional moment does not allow access to the part of the brain that can answer questions. When a child is experiencing emotional distress, they need to feel safe and they need to feel some connection. If we truly want to help them to move through an emotional challenge, these are the two things that will allow all that to happen. Not stickers. Not prizes. Not warnings. Not embarrassing them. Not a time-out.

According to Dr. Mona Delahooke, “The most important environmental aspect is a caring, warm, loving adult, who witnesses your distress. And who doesn’t reinforce you when you’re doing something they think is good and takes away their attention when you do something that they believe is attention seeking or negative.”

Dr. Lori Desautels from Butler University has been a compassionately strong voice for supporting children that struggle behaviorally with compassionate connection and teaching them that their body is reacting to the body/brain alarm system. It is about neuroanatomy.

One of Dr. Mona Delahooke’s most viral posts was 2 simple questions:

“If the ability to control emotions and behaviors isn’t fully developed until early adulthood, why are we requiring children to do this? And then punishing them when they can’t?”

I am a big believer in, “When you know better, you do better.” I am hoping we can all change the tide in the area of “behavior management,” as there is more research and information on how we can truly support the growth and development of the brain and body of our children.