The 5 Root Causes of Challenging Behavior

Across the United States, in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, residential facilities, and homes, teachers, therapists, and parents are working overtime with their kids, desperately trying to motive them to do well, to make better choices, to take their meds, to take a shower, or to get up and get to school. Virtually every parenting manual, school discipline handbook, and residential behavior system is built on the idea that behavior is a matter of will, and that, if we want our kids to do better, we must engage in a grueling process of punishing children so that they learn to make better choices.

The science, however, is overwhelmingly clear: challenging kids lack skill, not will. Over 50 years of research into our neurobiology has confirmed that challenging behavior is a symptom of a deficit in one or more skill areas vital to our success. Our kids already want to do well, but some of them have hard time making it happen.

Below we’ll talk about the five categories of skills every child needs to thrive. These are the skills that the world around us demands we demonstrate all day, every day. While you’re reading through the list, I invite you to imagine the most challenging kid you can - maybe it’s a child you work with, maybe it’s your own child - and see if these skills ring a bell in terms of what your selected kiddo is struggling to do.

Communication and Language

Communication and language skills: the ability to communicate your concerns and needs to other people, or the ability to interpret for yourself what your needs and concerns even are.

Some kids don’t know how to express their needs, while others have a really hard time assessing their needs in the first place. Some kids really have not yet made the connection between the name of an emotion and the emotion they’re feeling. Other kids just don’t know how to express their emotion (or need, or concern) in a way that makes sense.

Imagine if you ended up in a country where the primary language was not your own. Imagine having no way to communicate via spoken language, and then imagine the citizens of this city placing extraordinary demands on you. Imagine someone comes up to you in this country, and issues an instruction in a language you can’t understand, then rapid-fires questions at you again in the language you don’t understand, and then punishes you when you inevitably get frustrated, or when you just don’t respond at all.

That scenario isn’t far off from what many of our kids experience every day. Some kids struggle to interpret the information, others struggle to organize their responses, and others still can do both, but need more time to get it done.

I train a lot of people in a lot of different fields, and one of the secret training tricks that has been passed down from generation of trainer to generation of trainer, is that when you ask a question and are hoping for a response, sometimes you’ve got to stand your ground and just wait. Eventually someone will offer an answer, even a desperately unsure one, just to make the silence stop.

Processing takes time. Most of us can do it fairly quickly, but even the best of us often find ourselves needing time to process a question or an idea before providing a coherent response. The same is true for our kids. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve worked with who will respond, immediately, to virtually every question, with “I don’t care,” or “I don’t know.” A few years ago, I worked with one young student who would say “I don’t know” even before I asked the question - any question.

I struggled a while with this student. Finally I asked her, “I can’t help but notice that when I ask a question, you almost always say ‘I don’t know,’ even if you really do know. What’s up with-” before being interrupted, right on time, with another “I don’t know.”

This kid really did know, but what she wasn’t always able to communicate is that she just needed more time to think about the question, and that “I don’t know” was often an easy shortcut out of the conversation and a trick to get the adult to help her out.

How much time? Sometimes 30 seconds. Sometimes 45 seconds. Eternities, on the adult clock. Seriously. Try waiting 30 seconds in silence the next time you’re talking with a friend. Let me know how it goes. I often do this when I’m training audiences. I’ll talk about processing time, and then tell everyone we’re going to wait 30 seconds. I announce the time ever five seconds or so, and we usually don’t make it past 15 seconds before people are cracking up at the brutality of waiting A HALF A MINUTE.

Attention and Working Memory

Have you ever misplaced your phone? Have you ever misplaced your phone more than once in the same day? The same hour?

How about a simple memory exercise to demonstrate what we’re talking about.

Let’s say I give you a sequence of numbers: 2, 4, 6, and 8. And let’s say I ask you, without writing them down, to repeat those numbers back to me in order from greatest to least: 8, 6, 4, 2. Pretty easy, right?

How about this sequence: 1, 13, 7, 28, 14, 0, 6. This time, instead of greatest-to-least, I want you to repeat them back to mean in sequential order. Here you have the advantage of looking at the numbers, but if you pushed yourself to do it from memory, you’ve likely discovered this is a much more challenging working memory problem.

Want something even more challenging? How about this sequence, which you can find in classrooms all over the US:

At the start of the day, when you arrive at your classroom, shake the teacher’s hand. Then go to your cubby and take off your backpack; take off your coat and hang it up on the hook; remove your winter boots; put on your inside shoes; put your boots on the tray; open up your backpack and take out your homework folder; walk with your homework folder over to your carpet square - your carpet square; sit in your carpet square, remembering to use a voice level 2 or lower; open up your homework folder; take out your homework and pass it to the right; and take your neighbor’s from the left.

Whew. I don’t know about you, but that feels like a lot. Even so, that’s a sequence of events that’s really, really common in our classrooms. And some kids can knock even this sequence out of the park!

Other kids… well…

Sometimes you’ll get a kiddo who comes in, shakes the teacher’s hand, and then wanders off into the wilderness, never to be seen again because they can’t remember what’s supposed to happen next.

Other times, you’ll get a kiddo who shakes the teacher’s hand, then goes to the carpet and kicks off one boot, heads over to their cubby to stuff their backpack in it, then remembers their boot, runs back to the carpet square, kicks off their other boot, heads back to the cubby for their inside shoes, stuffs their boots into the cubby, then digs past the boots to get to their backpack for their home work, then…

You get the idea. Some kids have trouble remembering the sequence of events, while others might remember, but have a really hard time doing things in the right order!

Emotion- and Self-regulation

But self-regulation is also about our ability to exercise impulse control.

There are kids out there that very literally don’t know what they’re about to say until the words are coming out of their mouths. Yikes! That’s a recipe for disaster. Imagine what might happen if you spent the whole day tomorrow saying the first thing that came to mind for the whole entire day: when your boss asks you to work late; when someone really blasts the bathroom at work; when a client requests a major project change the day before the deadline...

Would you even make it the whole day? I’m not so sure I would!

Impulse is our ability to filter out the really, really bad ideas for the ones that will at least keep us employed for another day. Impulse control is all about taking a look a menu of options, considering the possible outcomes of each action, evaluation the possible consequences, and then choosing the option that gets us closest to the set of consequences we’re hoping for.

When we’re talking with kids, we talk all the time about impulse control, but we do it in secret code. “Make better choices” is another way of saying “use your impulse control” to go through that menu and select the best option.

We already know that kids who can make good choices usually do! But we tell all kids to make better choices, even the kids who have shown us time and time again they really don’t know what goes into making a good choice in the first place!

As a school social worker, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed a variation on the following conversation:

Discipline staff: “What happened at recess?”

Kiddo: “I hit Marcus because he was bothering me.”

Staff: “Okay, you know that hitting Marcus is wrong, correct?”

Kiddo: “Yeah.”

Staff: “What’s something you could do next time instead of hitting Marcus?”

Kiddo: “I could talk to a teacher, or take a break…”

Staff: “What else?”

Kiddo: “I could count to 10, or color, or just ignore him”

Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve had this conversation at your school, or at home with your own kid. Maybe you’ve had this conversation a lot.

A lot of times, kids can tell us all about the different options they have, but in the moment, when Marcus is being a brat, they don’t have the impulse control skill to pause and really think about all those really awesome choices they described to you earlier. And when they can’t pause and take a look at their menu of options? Marcus is getting clonked again.

Sorry, Marcus.

This is all because while “make good choices” sounds really simple, it actually demands a fairly high level of a few different skills to make happen.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility covers the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, the ability to move off of an original idea, and the ability to see other perspectives. When a kid tells you “that’s not fair!” a lot, you’ve got a child who is demonstrating their cognitive inflexibility.

Kids with cognitive flexibility challenges show up in other ways, too. For some kids, if you do a thing for them, one way, one time, that’s the way it has to be done for the rest of time. Any change in routine, any deviation from the expected plan, is cause for major, major troubles for kids who are really inflexible.

Cognitive flexibility is also the ability to see in shades of grey. Kids who struggle with this skill often see in black and white: everything, or nothing. Stop me if you’ve heard a variation on any of these": “everyone hates me,” “you always say that,” “you don’t love me,” “you just want me to suffer,” etc. The kids who invoke these messages are kids who are showing us they have a really hard time taking the perspective of other people, or even acknowledging the perspective exists. Inflexible kids may zero in on what therapists often call “negative cognititions,” or the little voices of self-doubt that we all feel, and may become immobilized while self-doubt washes over them. Inflexible kids may have remarkable memory when it comes to remembering all the times their parents didn’t follow through on a promise, and an equally remarkable inability to recall all the times their parents did follow through.

Social Thinking

Social Thinking: the ability to read the room. The ability to understand how your presence impacts other people. The ability to know when the girl you like is flirting with you, when your jokes aren’t landing, or when you’re talking wayyyyy to close to someone else.

I often think about social thinking skills in terms of intent vs. impact. A kid who gets into a battle of friendly insults with another kid only to keep on rolling when the other kid starts crying may well tell you that they didn’t mean anything, and that they were just joking around, and they may well be telling you the truth. The problem isn’t that the kid is trying to ruin the lives of everyone around them, it’s that they have a genuinely hard time understanding when they’ve crossed a line and moved from friendly jabs to jokes that are just a little too pointy.

When my wife moved in to my home, we had a long conversation about my unflattering practice of leaving my work clothes all over our room. It’s a habit I’d gotten into after, you know, 30-some years of not sharing my room with anyone else, and it definitely wasn’t working for my wife. Now, was I trying to irritate my wife when I left my chinos on the rocking chair? Of course not. …right? No. No, of course I wasn’t trying to irritate her. Definitely I was not doing that…. I think. Anyway, the impact was something I missed - I lost track, for a moment, of my social thinking skills, and didn’t realize that my slobby, lifelong habit was destroying my wife’s soul.

The Good News

The good news is that anyone, any kid, can improve their skills. Any kid. Kids who are non-verbal can improve their skills. Kids with serious cognitive disabilities can improve their skills. Kids with substance use issues can improve their skills. Kids who hear voices can improve their skills. Everyone can improve their skills. We know because we’ve seen it happen, thousands and thousands of times.

There are lots and lots of ways to build skills. Here at Socorro, we use an approach called Collaborative Problem Solving, which has been used to remarkable effect in schools and homes and residential facilities across the country.

Regardless of your approach, the most important step recognizing what the science has been telling us for years: kids do well if they can, not because they want to.

To learn more about skill-building, Collaborative Problem Solving, or to book Ed Morales to speak with your organization, whether it’s local to Minneapolis or anywhere else, contact us.