Pay Attention

Pay Attention

I don’t like teachers.

The first day of school is always fraught with anxiety for teachers and students alike, and this was intensified for me as I was beginning a new position. Other teachers had already warned me about Malia, who I knew was returning to a general education classroom from a program for students with behavioral disorders. Many of my colleagues indicated that they thought she would remain in the behavioral placement for the rest of her high school career. Although this unnerved me, it didn’t sway me from committing to try. To ensure that we got off to a good start, I approached her desk and extended my hand to introduce myself. Before the words were even out of my mouth, she turned away, facing the wall, and said, “I don’t like teachers.”

This was not an auspicious beginning. “I don’t like teachers.” But the next day and the next, and the day after that, I continued to cheerfully greet Malia by name each morning. It rapidly became clear that she had the potential to be a good student, and that she wanted me to see this in her. Woven between bouts of being disrespectful, she shared insightful comments, and, on the days she did her work, she demonstrated good understanding. It was certainly not smooth sailing. Malia was involved in verbal and physical altercations far too often. Her grades fluctuated based on her emotional stability. But by the end of the first semester, she was spending significant time in my classroom after school. Despite her challenges, she managed to pass that year and to move on to the 11th grade, and even the naysayers had been swayed into letting her continue in the general education environment. That following year, I moved to a different building, but Malia remained in contact with me, inviting me to every choir concert and other major events. 

This from the girl who had once so rudely turned away saying, “I don’t like teachers.” However, the greatest and most beautiful irony occurred several years later, when she told me that she had decided to pursue a degree in education. Perhaps some day, she will, in turn, profoundly impact a struggling student.

Teaching is at least as much art as science, and paying attention to student needs requires vigilant application of artistic skill. Most public school classrooms are comprised of 25-35 students, each of whom arrives at school every day with animage abundance of needs — tangible needs such as school supplies, a lunch, or a band-aid, as well as intangible ones like a check-in, a hug, a word of caution, or, like Malia, just plain-old-fashioned attention. How can teachers possibly recognize and address all of these many needs, and teach content, too? They can’t, but making a conscious effort to pay attention to student needs every day might be enough.

All teachers have stories of students who challenge their authority and who openly push them away. We often react with hurt, or anger, or self-doubt. Traditional educational pedagogy seems to validate this personalized reaction – the assignment of rigid consequences, removal from class or from school, and zero-tolerance policies are all in alignment with this idea that disrespect of authority and failure to follow expected procedures must not be tolerated. While it is true that students must be held to high behavioral expectations, it is imperative that teachers understand that this disrespect, these apparent “rejections,” are often opportunities to see a student’s vulnerability, and are very misguided invitations to establish connections.

This is part of the art of teaching — the ability to step back from the moment of interaction, and examine the subtlety contained in the big picture. What is the student telling you that is not being directly spoken? What clues are available in tone and body language? What can be inferred through an examination of situations that have occurred previously? What outside information about the student provides insight into the current behavior? It is only through this careful and conscientious examination of the broader context of the interaction that the deeper message can be discerned.

This concept, that misbehavior provides clues related to unmet needs, is not a new one. It dates back to the research of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, in which they identify four “mistaken goals” that lead to misbehavior:pay-attention-to-needs-2

  • undue attention
  • power
  • revenge
  • assumed inadequacy/avoidance

The premise of their philosophy is that when children misbehave, it is a misguided attempt to fulfill the essential need of all humans for belonging. “Children are social beings. Thus their strongest motivator is the desire to belong socially.”[1] When children are struggling to demonstrate appropriate behavior, they indicate an underlying feeling of a lack of belonging, and the mistaken use of inappropriate behavior to attempt to belong. The theories of Adler and Dreikurs have continued to be studied and utilized by psychologists, parents, and educators.

A helpful resource when applying this philosophy to educational practice is the “Mistaken Goal Chart.” (see link) This table identifies the behaviors most typically associated with each of the four mistaken goals, a description of the mistaken goal, adult feelings and behaviors that often occur in response to the related misbehavior, and strategies to assist the child in re-gaining an appropriate sense of belonging through meeting the underlying needs that the behavior is concealing.

It should be noted that students generally demonstrate a range of behavior that falls into multiple “mistaken goal” categories; however, there is often a predominant category in which a student’s behaviors tend to cluster. Through the observation and awareness of the emergence of this pattern, teachers can begin to address underlying needs.

Ultimately, I developed a powerful relationship Malia. She regularly visited my classroom after school, preferring this to going home, and remained in touch with me long after the end of her tenure in my class. Establishing this relationship required that I saw beyond their initial hostility and looked deeper to the underlying needs that were being revealed through the behavior. While, initially, it appeared that Malia was pushing me away, in actuality, she was crying out to be noticed and was desperate to be accepted for who she was – problems and all. Her exhibited behavior indicated that her mistaken goal was “revenge” – the behavior was an attempt to hurt others or get even; my related feeling was “hurt.” The underlying belief associated with this mistaken goal is, “I don’t think I belong, so I’ll hurt others as I feel hurt. I am incapable of being liked or loved.”

With Malia, I followed the advice of Adlerian disciples: Show you care, encourage strengths, and avoid punishments and retaliation. Malia’s outward behavior may have been demanding that I keep my distance, but what she was actually saying was, “Help me belong. Love me unconditionally.”

This is not the same thing as “Allow me to behave in any way that I wish,” or “Like everything that I do.” There is a common misconception among children and adolescents that being cared about and supported is the same thing as being given permission to do as one pleases. By no means is this the case. Rather, guiding students toward true belonging and loving them unconditionally requires holding them accountable for their behavior while providing correction in a way that keeps the behavior separate from the person. Although “what you do” may not be acceptable, “who you are” always is.

Knowing students as individuals is critical in order to decipher their needs, but this can be nearly impossible when teachers, especially those at the high school level, are working with more than 100 students over the course of each day. This is precisely why misbehavior is an effective, even if problematic, way for students to demonstrate needs.

Managing student misbehavior may be the most difficult part of teaching. Establishing rigid consequences and/or removing students from the classroom or the school are tempting palliative quick fixes. They at least temporarily stop the disruption – a short-term fix. During the 2011-12 school year, the US Department of Education counted 130,000 expulsions and roughly 7 million suspensions among 49 million K-12 students—one for every seven kids.”[2] Utilized in isolation, however, these approaches don’t help to improve children’s behavior, which is the needed long-term fix – both from the perspective of managing a functional classroom, and from the perspective of helping students “develop into thoughtful, intelligent, inclusive human spirits who contribute to the stewardship of our community and planet.” While this mission statement is specific to Gamble, there are few, if any, teachers who would state that this isn’t the ultimate goal of teaching.

When viewed through the lens presented by Adler, student misbehavior is a misguided means to address an unmet need. If teachers only focus on the behavior without examining the unspoken needs that are driving the behavior, the problems will continue to occur, and will likely escalate.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Teachers are human too, and it is natural to feel hurt, reactive, and retaliatory in the face of student resistance or disrespect. Here are some strategies to help navigate the murky waters of student misbehavior. 

  • Q-TIP = Quit Taking It Personally

Much of the time, student behaviors are related to other things going on in their lives. Teachers are in the role of a safe adult who regularly provides correction; often students will take this opportunity to act out. We better serve our students when we can detach ourselves from misbehavior. Our correction is far more effective when we are able to not personalize problem behaviors.

  • Use behaviors as a tool to gather insight into student needs

When students are acting out, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a pattern to the behavior?
  • What leads to the behavior?
  • What purpose does the behavior serve? What is the student getting?
  • How can you help the student achieve this purpose without evidencing the behavior?
  • Seek out every opportunity for relationship building with students

This happens gradually and over time, but every interaction counts. Remembering to smile and say good morning, asking about their weekend, checking in with them when they seem down are all things that help develop relationships. While the development of relationships with students is not considered a “measurable outcome” on the bubble tests, it is a required precursor to academic gains.

  • “Find the good, and praise it.” Actively and intentionally seek moments for students to see themselves as their “best self”
  • Provide positive feedback at every opportunity
  • If you struggle to find anything positive, look harder. See past the challenges. Remember, you are issuing an invitation – a possibility for them to grow into
  • Be careful to avoid back-handed praise. Steer away from qualifiers such as: “When you don’t,” “Even though you usually ___________, this time you _____________.”

Directly addressing unmet needs, and teaching students alternate methods to meet these needs, not only assists with the challenging work of classroom management, it also actively works to change behavior. This strategy teaches students that the adults around them are working to help them to be successful, rather than simply punishing them for their failures.

Student misbehavior is difficult to ignore, and it increases in intensity if the underlying issues are not addressed. Students rarely present these needs overtly; it takes a lot of courage and insight, more than most students possess, to identify problems and ask for help. More often than not, teachers need to infer these needs based on exhibited behavior concerns. This ability isn’t something that is taught in the esteemed schools of education. Perhaps it can’t be taught. Perhaps this is what makes teaching more art than science.

Additionally, this filling of student needs can’t be measured. None of the bubble tests students take, the data talks they engage in, or the multitude of scores that will be aggregated and disaggregated in order to determine a student’s progress, a teacher’s worth, and the effectiveness of a school, will ever come close to measuring a teacher’s ability to pay attention to student needs. And, yet, it remains crucial to an educator’s success, because if underlying needs are not addressed, none of the instructional components that the high-stakes bubble tests try so hard to quantify will matter.

 Pay attention to needs. See misbehavior as a form of communication. Look for mistaken goals and proactive ways to address them. Provide students with the critical sense of belonging that they seek. It is so easy for student needs to get lost in the shuffle; noticing and responding to them is truly an art. And it is this – not test scores, not grades, maybe not even curriculum – that students will remember.

That idea is beautifully described in this letter, which begins, “Dear Young Teacher Down the Hall.”

So from one teacher down the hall, remember this. “At the end of the day people pay-attention-to-needs-1will forget what you said. People will forget what you did.  But people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Angelou)

A lot is asked of us – day after day after day. Let’s make sure we don’t lose the most important pieces in the rush of all the other demands. Pay attention to students’ needs – for some, you may be the only one who does.

[1] Slavik, Steven, and Jon Carlson. Readings in the Theory of Individual Psychology. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.


[2] Lewis, Katherine Reynolds. “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong.” Mother Jones July/Aug (2015): n. pag. Print.


3 thoughts on “Pay Attention

  1. This works not only with students, but co-workers, sales clerks , and other “grouches” you may see daily.

    • True. I have never fully understood why we, in general, do not extend the same benefit of the doubt to adults that we give to children. While it is likely impossible to determine the underlying needs of those with whom we come into casual contact (sales clerks, etc.), if we assume that behavior comes from an unmet need, we will be less likely to personalize the situation, and more likely to be sympathetic. Certainly, with those adults we know well, it is just as appropriate to seek out unmet needs as the source of problem behavior as it is to do so with children. The ideal is, of course, to become an astute self-observer, and to identify and address one’s own unmet needs. This, however, is far easier said than done!

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