From Addressing Barriers to Learning,
Vol. 1 (4), Fall 1996

Ideas into Practice

Dealing with Reactive Misbehavior

David (aged 12) has an extensive history of having difficulty at school both in terms of learning and dealing with the rules. As a result, he tends to perceive school as a threatening place, and those at school tend to perceive him as a problem. Thus, when he comes to school, he feels vulnerable, fearful, and sometimes angry. He would like to avoid all teacher demands to perform. If he can't do so directly, he tries indirect ways, such as diverting the teacher to discuss other matters. When he can't manipulate the situation effectively, he acts-out -- arguing, inciting others, clowning around. By now, he has learned a rather large repertoire of behaviors to protect himself from what he perceives as threatening situations. And, of course, the more he displays such behavior, the more those around him treat him as uncontrollable and incorrigible.

Cognitive-affective motivational theory teaches that a youngster who perceives school staff and activities as threats to feeling self-determining, competent, and connected to others will react in protective ways (e.g., protesting, avoiding). Because others tend to see the reactions as misbehavior, they usually respond with threats and disciplinary measures. In turn, these often result in further negative reactions by the youngster. And on and on the cycle goes toward some tragic conclusion -- unless someone intervenes in ways that truly address the motivational underpinnings of the problem.

In working with teachers to address the motivational underpinnings for reactive misbehavior, the focus must move beyond "time out" and other "logical consequences. Often what is needed is a major redesign of the youngster's program. This involves replacing activities that are generating feelings of incompetence, loss of control, and alienation from others. New alternatives for learning and performing involve matching a youngster's current needs and interests. Extra support and direction are required to assist progress. Consequences for inevitable lapses in behavior must be developed with the youngster so that s/he perceives them as reasonably fair, nondenigrating, and not a major threat to personal autonomy.

David's social studies teacher had become so desperate she was willing to try almost anything. It was agreed she would set aside time to help him identify one area he would personally value learning more about. It took some time, but he finally blurted out that he wanted to be a rock musician and would be interested in learning more about how people got into the field; he also wanted to improve his musical skills. A plan was devised. The teacher arranged for a volunteer to help him during composition time to write to his favorite musicians. For reading, he brought got rock magazines from the library and soon sought out biographies on several pop culture idols. A couple of students who played instruments were asked if they could help him with his musical skills after school. Things got better. The next step involved exploring ideas for a special project. The idea that appealed to him the most was to use the computer and CD roms to generate an audio-visual history of rock and roll. Another student loved the idea, and they were paired up to great effect. School got better; so did David.

(From H.S. Adelman & L. Taylor (1993). Learning Problems and Learning Disabilities: Moving Forward. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.)

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