The Meaning of Behavior
The theme of this issue of this journal — discovering virtues in delinquents — is an excellent reminder of the power of perception. "Virtue" and "delinquents" are two words that do not seem to belong in the same sentence, and by positioning them together, we are challenged to perceive them in a diferent way. What could be virtuous about delinquency?
Anyone who has worked in the fields of human service or education knows that behavior tends to be categorized as "negative" or "positive." When we assess at- risk or troubled youth, we identify their strengths and their deficits. What we often fail to recognize is that seeing a behavior as positive or negative — a strength or a deficit — often has more to do with the context in which the behavior is displayed, rather than with the behavior itself.
As an example, a teenager who is extremely stubborn and recalcitrant about complying with the requests of parents, teachers, or others in positions of authority is seen as difficult, or even defiant. That same behavior is applauded if a teen is stubbornly refusing to go along with peers who are using illegal drugs or engaging in other criminal activity. Stubbornness is seen as a virtue in one situation and a character flaw in another.
As we train staff members to work with youth who exhibit challenging behaviors, there are some key points about the meaning of behavior to consider which may increase staff effectiveness and stimulate proactive thinking:
1. Positive and negative behaviors are often two sides of the same coin.
It is easy to fall into the trap of labeling a specific behavior as a strength if the behavior is used in a way that conforms to our values and as a deficit when it is used for purposes we do not support. As a result, staff members sometimes try to extinguish those negative behaviors, rather than channeling them to more productive purposes.
Think about the different connotations of the following pairs of words and phrases — which describe very similar behaviors. Was the young person:
Taking a break . . . or being off task?
Persevering . . . or perseverating?
Standing up for himself . . . or being noncompliant?
Being persistent . . . or being stubborn?
Changing her mind . . . or exhibiting a short attention span?
lnsisting . . . or tantruming?
The words we choose to describe a particular behavior tend to cast that behavior in either a neg- ative or a positive light. We must be mindful of the power of our words.
2. All behavior has meaning.
No matter what the behavior — and whether or not we understand it — it means something. It has a function.
It is very easy to misinterpret the meaning behind acting-out behavior. For example, many experts now believe that acting-out behaviors in individuals with cognitive deficits — who are unable to communicate verbally — most frequently have a physical, pain-related cause.
Rather than drawing immediate conclusions about disruptive or aggressive behaviors, look for patterns that might help decipher the meaning behind the behavior. The student who acts out just before it is his turn to read, the foster child who has a temper tantrum every time he comes back from a supervised visit with his mother, the teenager who seldom speaks at all — think about what these behaviors might mean and continue to pay atten- tion to patterns. Check hypotheses with other staff members or stakeholders and with the youth when appropriate.
3. Behavior is adaptive.
People learn to behave in certain ways as a response to their environment. Those who have been institutionalized often develop repetitive and/or self-stimulating behaviors as a means to cope with long periods of boredom and inactivity They may pace or rock. Often these behaviors continue even after the person has moved to another setting which offers more opportunities for activity and interaction. While the behavior may no longer be adaptive, it began that way.
Similarly, a child may have learned to be manipulative because she was never allowed to express anger or ask for what she needed in a direct way. Another child might have become aggressive because he had to defend himself against his mother’s abusive boyfriend. lf a child’s environment changes, the behavior might no longer be effective or necessary but it is important for staff to recognize that at one time the behavior could have been critical to the child’s very survival.
Remember, too, that the behaviors developed over time, as the child adapted to his environment. lt will take time to unlearn behaviors that no longer serve a necessary or helpful function in the youth’s life. Patient teaching is essential.
4. So-called ”negative" behaviors can sometimes be channeled into positive action.
During the summer of 2007, a program in Milwaukee took a "negative" teen behavior — walking the streets — and channeled it toward a productive purpose. About a dozen youth, some referred by the court system for their "delinquent" behavior, studied Milwaukee’s open housing marches of 1967 through a project sponsored by the Social Development Commission. They learned about young people who "walked the streets" 40 years ago as part of an effort for minorities to gain access to housing in all parts of the city. The teens also learned how their predecessors channeled anger and frustration into non-violent action that brought about positive change.
As a culminating activity the program participants will walk the streets in a march that com memorates those civil rights marches of 1967. In doing so, these youth are learning that behaviors often associated with delinquency — such as walking the streets and expressions of anger — can be virtues, as well.
The actions of troubled youth can be puzzling as we watch them engage in behaviors that seem to work against their own best interests. lf we search for the meaning behind behavior and identify its adaptive function, we are in a better position to help youth channel their behavior in a positive direction that will move them toward autonomy self-responsibility and productive change.
This feature: Shubert, J. (2008). The Meaning of Behavior. Reclaiming Children and Youth 16,4. pp. 17-18