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Monday, April 04 2022

Identifying Source of Dysfunctional Behaviour

In the last newsletters we discussed stress and how the student’s dysfunctional behaviour is a result of their inability to protect themselves.  What we must never forget is that their dysfunctional behaviour produces a stress response for all other members of the classroom, it sets off a chain reaction if you like and that includes the teachers.  To be an effective teacher in a class that contains one or more of these student you need to be able to protect yourself from such outbursts and stay in control of your emotions.  A key to maintaining control is to understand the intention of their behaviours.  In the next Newsletter I will discuss practical techniques for erecting effective boundaries and one of the initial steps is to identify what is really happening. In this Newsletter we will describe how dysfunctional students behave in ways to confront teachers who have stressed them.


Remember all behaviours are designed to have the individual return to homeostatic equilibrium, that is to regain a sense of calm.  It is the stress of being in disequilibrium that is the driving force of behaviour and stress is a result of our inability to maintain our homeostatic equilibrium in the presenting environment.  We behave to protect ourselves from the subsequent painful feelings and when we learn a behaviour that is successful we will repeat it when confronted by similar conditions. Eventually this becomes our habitual response to any perceived attack. The illustration below shows this drive as behaving to protect ourselves, from painful feelings and/or rejection. 



As the illustration above indicates, if we get a behaviour that removes the pain then we will always go back to that behaviour, this is the driving force of all addictions.   There are three types of addiction:


Substance Addiction – this is considered the classic addiction, we have all seen those disturbing images of some emaciated teenager, homeless on the streets.  These exist and are a tragedy, but substance addiction includes all forms of consumptions be they prescribed medication, food, caffeine or the deadly anorexia, the refusal to eat.


Activities Addiction – This is when we have discovered that while we are working, following a football team, making toy soldiers, getting involved with the latest craze - whatever you do that distracts you from the cause of the stress.  Of course none of these behaviours are a problem, they bring colour to our lives, it is a problem when the activity is used to avoid confronting the problem. 


People Addiction – most causes of stress in a group setting is through the challenging interaction between members, it is the behaviour of an ‘other’, or ‘others’ that create the disequilibrium.  The resulting stress is the main driver for the dysfunctional behaviours’ teachers are confronted with while managing their classroom.  The illustration below describes People Addiction and the types of behaviours associated with each style of protection.

When you are being stressed by another person’s behaviour you can either take action and try to control them, make them change their behaviour or in some way resist their impact on you by ignoring them.


This illustration provides a rough sketch of how these three strategies appear to the person being manipulated.  The style they adopt depends on how they think their personal position of power compares to their victim.  For children this belief of superiority or inferiority can be influenced by their family and depends on their position in the family, that is if they are the older sibling they are more likely to be overtly controlling while subsequent children learn they are at a physical and developmental disadvantage and find a covert approach more successful.


Children learn through modelling and if they watch their parents or relatives assume a position of superiority, an upper-class posture over others in the community they will do the same. 


Finally, gender has an influence with males being more likely to take an aggressive stance while females tend to use covert tactics.  The overt type of control is easiest to observe but is not necessarily the most effective and a student may adopt different positions depending on who they are dealing with.  A more detailed description is given below.


  • Overt Control – as can be seen in the illustration the behaviours are designed to intimidate the other person.  Their belief is if you stress me I will stress you more until you stop.  This is an addictive behaviour and as with all addictions as the effectiveness of this tactic declines, the intensity of the behaviour has to increase.  And like all behaviours the more you push people away the less opportunity you have to make connections.  These children are being trapped behind these protective walls of behaviour.


  • Covert Control – this is basically an inverse of the overt position.  In this case the student has the belief that they will be so nice the other will not stress them.  They forgo their needs by acting in a way that doesn’t upset the other person.  These kids become the puppets of other students and the more they employ this tactic the more they will have to give up on themselves.  I have seen students take the blame for behaviour others have done.  For the teacher, covert control is a behaviour that is not easily recognised and these children suffer in silence when trying to get their needs met.


  • Resistance – these students do not engage in any activity thus avoiding any contact with any potential confrontation.  They refuse to participate in class activities and in group work they are very passive.  They will take any opportunity to absent themselves from class, late back from recess and lunch, asking to go to the toilet or just not attending. 


Remember, this model of behaviour describes the walls discussed in the previous Newsletter (Newsletter 195 - Dysfunctional Boundaries 29 March 2022).  The problem with using this approach is that although these tactics do work in the short term albeit they most often require increased intensity to remain effective, these behaviours do not allow the individual to get their own needs met.


This approach to protecting ourselves does not disappear when we become adult.  In any large organisation such as a school you can witness the same tactics being used by the staff members.  The illustration below is a modified version of the one applied to students.


In the children’s case their inability to get their needs met in an appropriate manner impacted on their development.  When a teacher uses the same protective approach in the classroom, that is when they are stressed by their workload, student behaviour, or relational problems their behaviour not only locks them behind these walls of protection their inappropriate interaction with the students will have a knock-on effect:

  • Overt Control Teacher – using the aggressive attacks on the student is probably the most observed dysfunctional approach used by teachers to protect themselves.  This is not surprising as this is the preferred behaviour for controlling those to whom they think are superior.  By being critical, shaming, yelling etc. you can stop the child from stressing you but that child will no longer be ready to learn.  They are being abused and will be busy protecting themselves.


  • Covert Control Teacher – instead of dealing with the stressors that occur in any classroom these teachers will behave in a way that avoids confrontation.  These teachers are ‘nice’, let the kids ‘express’ themselves.  The problem is these teachers do not impose boundaries around their pupils, they do not teach responsibility.  They turn a blind-eye to inappropriate behaviour instead of imposing consequences.  If a student is late in submitting their homework there is no consequence.  The student in this class are not being equipped for the real world and the teacher is denying themselves from becoming an effective teacher.


  • Resistive Teacher – most schools will have one or more of these teachers.  When the day-to-day stresses become too much they ‘drop-out’ of any meaningful participation.  They are often absent from school.  When forced to engage in staff activities say reviewing some school policy they do not participate and if forced they will speak against any need to change.  In fact, I had a classic resistor on my last school staff and when we had a meeting in the library he could always be seen ‘looking’ through some book he picked off the shelf.  Because these teachers rebel against the school their students are denied full access to the efforts of the whole school to assist in their learning.  While they might feel they are protecting themselves these teachers deny themselves the joy of being fully involved in their classroom.


This model provides a broad summary of the types of behaviours they see in their classroom but more importantly the driving force behind these behaviours.  When confronted with student’s dysfunctional behaviours that disturb the quality of your teaching and the other students learning you have a choice as shown below:

This Newsletter has focused on identifying those behaviours that are designed to protect yourself.  These will work in the short term and as noted these tactics keep you in your comfort zone.  The levels of stress remain tied to that particular situation and continual use of the same tactic becomes addictive.


Alternatively you can learn to deal with these disturbing behaviours in a manner that not only deals with the presenting situation the solutions will provide a response that, if confronted again by the same situation you will not be disturbed, you will know how to deal with it and get your needs met. 


At the heart of the acting to learn approach is the development of healthy boundaries that protect you while allowing you to get your needs met in your environment.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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