Q. What is the most effective way to address problem behaviour in students?

A. There are several things we can do to try to understand why problem behaviour occurs, or is maintained. It is important to make the effort to look deeper into the root cause of the behaviours, rather than just trying to address the behaviour directly. This is true of children, youth and adults with problematic behaviours. Understanding must precede addressing the issues, either as part of school counselling or therapy. Building the relationship with the person also needs to precede any intervention, if changes are to be maintained. Punitive measures alone, without relationship, rapport and understanding being established will not lead to permanent changes in individuals of all ages.

It can take time and effort to understand the underlying causes of the behaviour but you can ask yourself a couple of questions to start the process. Firstly, is there a secondary gain for the student/adult to maintain the behaviour and if so, what is it? Secondly, does the person appear to have anxiety, depression or some other internalising problem that may be influencing their behaviour towards others?

Take Alex as an example

Alex is a ten year old boy who won’t listen and do as he is asked both at home and at school. Diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Alex could be deliberately defying his parents and teachers because he gets an adrenaline rush from challenging authority and he enjoys the conflicts. This is called true AWOL behaviour (AWOL is an acronym for A Child/Adolescent Without Limits – meaning that the young person has no self-imposed limits on their behaviour and so they will engage in behavioural outbursts of aggressiveness, bullying, name-calling etc. If he appears selfish, lacks empathy for others and appears to have little or no remorse, then it may be that Alex has true AWOL scorpion behaviour (click here for more information). If he ‘acts out’ in response to a situation that is making him anxious, stressed, depressed, however, then it might also be that Alex is trying to relieve this symptoms by acting poorly i.e., like an AWOL scorpion. Alex may have:

  • Undiagnosed mental health conditions (such as anxiety, ADHD or a mood disorder)
  • Learning problems masked by problem behaviour
  • A food intolerance or sensitivity
  • A lack of vitamins, minerals or other nutritional deficiency
  • A recent stressful event e.g., death of family member
  • Problems fitting in with peers, feeling like he has to be more rebellious to be socially accepted
  • Poor self-esteem and an inability to socialise or communicate with others
  • Lack of sleep resulting in irritability

There are many reasons why younger and more mature people may make poor behaviour choices. Sometimes they don’t know any other way of relating to others, have been conditioned to see themselves acting in a certain way or have significant others in their lives that may also be acting in particular ways that reinforce the behaviour. Young people, such as Alex, may have a negative self-concept, and so they reinforce their behaviour in order to maintain the belief that others have about them, or the belief they have about themselves. In cases such as this, trying to find a ‘fresh start’ with new teachers/school/peer group etc. can be helpful in order to create a new self-concept. The same can be true for adolescents and adults. Look beyond WHAT they are doing to WHY they are doing it i.e., the underlying cause or function of the behaviour. What function does it serve for the person to maintain or stop the behaviour? What has caused the behaviour in the first place? It starts with trying to understand WHY!

Toula Gordillo is a Clinical Psychologist, AIPC private assessor/tutor and regular contributor for Institute Inbrief. Toula has an extensive work history as a Clinical Psychologist, Teacher, and Guidance Officer. For more information, visit www.talktoteens.com.au.