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Are we missing vital opportunities to teach? The value of non-emotional responses to negative behaviour April 3, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Dr Danielle Tracey

In this post, Danielle Tracey points out the educational opportunities that can arise when children engage in negative behaviour.

Few would argue that enhancing the social and behavioural functioning of children falls outside the parameters of what teachers and parents strive to achieve. I hope that my post will provoke consideration of how we currently accomplish this, and more importantly, how we appear to miss vital opportunities to achieve this goal.

To demonstrate my position, I’d like to introduce you to two scenarios that centre around ‘Jack’, a Year 1 student in a local school.

Scenario One

At school Jack has difficulty completing a subtraction sum on a timeline in class. His teacher comes over to his desk, praises him for his effort and then begins to explicitly teach him the correct process through instruction and demonstration. The teacher then asks Jack to complete two more questions while she watches and guides him towards the correct answer. She will keep a closer eye on his performance in this area over the coming lessons.

That afternoon Jack arrives home and walks in with his shoe laces untied. His father patiently sits with Jack and first demonstrates how to tie the laces, then takes Jack’s fingers and takes him through the movements whilst verbally instructing each step. His father then asks Jack to give it a go himself, and encourages each attempt made by Jack.

With these two supportive environments it is no doubt that Jack will soon become successful at both completing subtraction problems and tying his shoelaces.

Scenario Two

In the playground Jack becomes very excited about a new discovery (a dinosaur egg in the playlawn) and rushes to tell his teacher who is on playground duty. He barges through, oblivious to the fact that his teacher is already in conversation with the Principal. His teacher reprimands him for his actions and says that he is being rude, and sends him immediately on his way.

At home, Jack and his older brother have just purchased the new release Ninjago Lego which is a big hit. Jack snatches the Lego from his older brother in frustration as he has been unable to have a good look at the character. His father enters the room and immediately expresses his disappointment at the boys for their inability to share, confiscates the Lego and sends them to different ends of the house to play independently until they can “learn to play together nicely”.

The difference between the two scenarios

This is the same teacher, and the same parent, who react so differently in these two different situations. Why do we deal with these two situations so differently? Why is it that when seemingly negative behaviour occurs within a young child we move into a discipline mode rather than an educative one? Is it the high emotion of misplaced behaviour, or the assumption that the child has been ‘bad’ and their intention to harm was deliberate rather than mistaken? Whatever the underlying reason, in responding negatively to negative behaviour we are missing an ideal opportunity to teach children appropriate social and behavioural skills.

In the early childhood years, professionals have long recognised the occurrence of mistaken behaviour instead of misbehaviour, and these concepts have been well explored by authors such as Gartrell (2011). Once a child moves out of early childhood, however, we appear to lose the ability to view the child and their behaviour in this way.

So, the challenge is placed before you… the next time a young child demonstrates “poor behaviour”, try to remove the emotion from the situation and teach and guide the child toward appropriate behaviour as you would if they were struggling in any other skill. Or is this easier said than done?

ReferenceGartrell, D. (2011). A guidance approach for the encouraging classroom (5th edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Danielle Tracey is a Lecturer in Educational Psychology in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


1. Margaret Vickers - April 11, 2011

I really like this blog – it draws attention to our inconsistency as adults but also makes it clear that ‘good behaviour’ is something we learn, just as we learn to read or write, so patient teaching and support is needed

Thank you Danielle

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