A New Lens for Understanding Children’s Behavior

When I was a teacher, at times, kids would refuse to do their classwork. I would try everything I could think of to talk them into doing it. When they wouldn’t, I’d think of them as defiant and just trying to get their own way.

Or if it’s your child not listening instead of your student, you might be thinking that they’re being disrespectful to you.

I’d feel helpless and powerless against this child’s will.

These old thoughts would pop in my mind: you need to set boundaries, be consistent and teach them that not listening has consequences. You can’t let them get away with this behavior or they’ll keep doing it… forever.

If you were a teacher, parent or professional in this situation, how would you respond?

There are two lenses we can use to address this behavior: behavioral or emotional.

Would you view your choices through a behavioral lens and …

  • Threaten to send the child to time out, out of the class or to their bedroom?
  • Take away a privilege such as recess or a fun outing?
  • Take away free time, electronics or send them to bed early?
  • Yell at them?

 Or would you view your choices through an emotional lens and…

  • Ask questions to explore with the child what they’re experiencing?
  • Determine if there’s a specific gap in their emotional or academic skills?
  • Decide if the behavior is more a function of their developmental level?
  • Take into account if they are wired to be more sensitive or strong-willed and need support with regulating the intensity of their emotions?

 Or some other response?

In this case, at this point in my career my training was entirely in the behavioral framework so I addressed their behavior by taking away free time, calling their parents, and/or sending the work home with the student to do later.

What I know now is that yes, the work got completed, but it created power struggles, disconnection and resentment between my student and me.

Also, it didn’t change anything. The student continued to struggle with completing their work and I continued to spend my time disciplining them.

I missed the opportunity to help them discover what was underneath their behavior because I can guarantee you, even though it looked like it, it was not disrespect or defiance.

Now that I know that punishing behavior rarely works long-term, here’s what I would do in the classroom and this is what I do with the kids I work with now in my practice: spend time exploring what’s really blocking them from completing their work. I’d speak to them from a place of curiosity and not be so compliance-driven.

It’s amazing how kids choose a different behavior on their own and the power conflict dissolves when this is the approach.

Does this seem unrealistic, inconvenient, or even time-consuming to you?


However, we are here to teach our children the emotional, social and behavioral skills they’ll need throughout their lifetime so they can understand and love themselves and others. That can’t happen when resentment, anger and power struggles continue to be the norm.

What would be possible if you chose to view children’s behavior through an emotional lens instead of the common behavior lense?

In the Growing Up Confident Collective online membership community we explore these lenses, how to determine which to use when and specific actions you can take to support kids with big emotions.

If you’re interested, or even a bit curious, you can get more details and request your invitation here.