It’s Not About the Behavior, It’s About the Motivation

Becky Bailey, at the NAEYC Conference, drew up the analogy of a wedded couple arguing about who should take out the trash. Instead of either party deciding to take the fatal blow of taking out the trash, both decided to argue. Both decided that they wanted to “Be Right” rather than “Have Peace.”

So often, we have these same arguments with young children. It is the argument where no matter what the other party does, each person is convinced beyond conviction that they are right.

Does the following scenario sound familiar?

Scenario A: Junior throws apples all over the floor. Teacher says, “Now, we have to pick it up!” (But by “we” she means “you” and Junior understands that) Junior says, “No.” Teacher tells him he can’t finish eating until he picks it up. Junior cries. Teacher goes all cold shoulder on him.

Or how about this one?

Scenario B: Suzy hits Nate. Teacher stops Suzy from hitting Nate again. Teacher says, “Now look at him! He’s so sad.” Suzy doesn’t care to look at him (she’s been through this before). Teacher tells Suzy to go say sorry and give gentle touches. Suzy says no and runs away. Teacher chases her, tries to corner Suzy or keep her in one place, but Suzy is crafty and gets away.

In both cases, the Teacher had the intention of being right. In both cases, the Teacher, in many ways, is right. But what about the child?

Junior thinks he is right, too. He didn’t want apples, and didn’t want them near him, so he felt the best way to handle that was to get rid of them. On the floor.

Suzy thinks she is right. She was so mad at not being able to get her shovel, that she knew no better way then to bonk him.

Now the teacher, in a position of authority, uses this time to teach the children a lesson. What have they learned?

In the first scenario, Teacher wants to teach the child that if we make a mess, we are responsible for cleaning up.

In the second scenario, Teacher wants to teach the child to be gentle with friends.

In either scenario, the teaching objective was not met. Junior will continue to throw food on the floor. Suzy will keep hitting her friends. Why?

Well, it’s because in both scenarios, the Teacher did not in any way address the MOTIVATION behind the behaviors.

The motivation behind all behaviors are the thoughts and emotions that eventually overwhelm a person to do something about it.

Junior thought, ‘I don’t like those apples.’ Then he felt angry because he didn’t want those apples near him. Then the behavior was throwing the apples on the floor.

Suzy thought, ‘I want that shovel.’ Then she felt upset because Nate took the shovel. Then the behavior was to hit Nate.

So what does that tell us? It tells us that the behavior could really be anything. Junior could have screamed and yelled about apples being near him. Suzy could have ran and hidden in the corner.

The best way to teach them how to change their behaviors is to get the child to identify and understand the emotion that causes them to act in that way. Teachers should focus on the thoughts and feelings that lead to the behaviors. Take the above scenarios and try this on for size:

Junior throws apples all over the floor. Teacher says, “You seem so mad. You’re face is like this (She makes his face).” Junior looks at her out of curiosity. They have eye contact. Teacher asks, “You didn’t like those apples did you?” Junior nods. Teacher gets her teaching moment, “Well, if you don’t like those apples, you can push them to the middle of the table for someone else to get. When apples are on the floor, no one can eat them.”


Suzy hits Nate. Teacher stops Suzy from hitting Nate again. Teacher multitasks and comforts Nate while saying to Suzy, “Your face is like this (She makes face).” Suzy looks at teacher. They have eye contact. “Did Nate make you feel mad?” Suzy says, “Yeah, I wanted the shovel and he took it.” Teacher gets her teaching moment, “Well, I can always get another shovel for you or we can play over here with the bikes. What do you want to choose?”

In neither scenario does the Teacher actually address the throwing food on the floor, or the hitting. And now you would ask, well then how is that effective? Why would it be at all important to care about the motivation when it is simply inappropriate to throw food on the floor and to hit each other?

I agree, it is inappropriate to throw food on the floor and hit each other. But those behaviors will continue to persist because they aren’t developing the real skill they need to stop throwing food and hitting. The real skill they need is to self regulate. They need to control those emotions.

Children need a variety of skills to be able to cope with them. They need to identify the emotion when they are feeling it. They need to control that feeling so that it does not overwhelm them. They need to control their thoughts and be flexible. They need to do so much to be able to get to a point of keeping food on the table, and finding something else to do.

Also notice, that in the second take of the above scenarios, the teacher was able to connect with the child in a different way. The children suddenly feel that someone understands them. They feel that this person can be trusted to help.

Look at it this way, it’s as if a child takes a math test, answers a question wrong and then the teacher says, “That answer is so wrong! You need to try again and do it right!” But the teacher has given no guidance on HOW to do it right.

When children learn to control their thoughts and emotions their behaviors will change, because a child who has no reason to hit will not hit.

Only then do we entirely avoid the argument about who is right. It doesn’t matter who is right, all we want is peace.

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