Misbehavior is Just a Symptom; Solution Requires Finding Cause

Dear Dr. Fournier:

I have two boys who are doing very badly in school because of their behavior. I have taken them to the doctor, a psychologist, and a therapist. I have met with the teachers, the principal and the guidance counselor and no one could come up with a solution to their problem. One son has ADHD. He has been on methylphenidate for six months but it doesn’t seem to help him. The other son is just out of control at school. At home, the children are very different people; they are quiet, they do their chores. I have spent a lot of nights crying myself to sleep because I don’t know what to do.

Barbara P.,

Atlanta, GA

Dear Barbara

For parents, a school year can be fraught with work and tears, due to a mentality of desire in this country for bigger, better, sooner and more when it comes to education. This has led to upper level curriculums being pushed down and forced onto children who are not developmentally ready to cope with what they are being asked to do.


Many children fall under the school catchall label, “Does not follow rules,” and yet they seem perfectly able to follow rules at home.

So how is it that a child is unable to follow rules set forth by authority figures in one environment (school) and yet is pleasing and conforms to what is asked of him in another (home)? One of the most common reasons is because these children lack the skills to follow school rules in a way that they are not criticized for something else.

Let me illustrate with just a few examples of students who do well on testing but consistently “under perform” in the classroom:

  • When it comes to long-term assignments, “Will” is always late, or never hands in the assignment at all. The typical assumption is that Will isn’t trying. The reality is that he was never taught the organizational skills necessary to effectively plan for long-term assignments without becoming overwhelmed by details. After having handed in late assignments numerous times – for which partial or no credit is given – Will decided that he won’t waste his time on long-term projects.
  • “Jenny” always seems to be able to understand the work during class discussion and she quickly grasps the “big picture,” but she just doesn’t perform well on tests. The assumption is “lack of quality study in preparing for tests.” The reality is that no one ever taught Jenny how to develop a learning process to memorize the smaller details and paraphrase the information into her own words. Jenny spent more and more time on studying, but it didn’t make any difference on her tests. She despairs because regardless of the hours she puts in, there’s no payoff.
  • “Austin” seems to understand algebra, but he routinely gets every homework problem wrong. The assumption is that he’s just plain lazy, or careless. The reality is that Austin isn’t missing because of errors in algebra theory, but because he never fully learned how to deal with fractions, decimals and other basic math concepts. His “carelessness” soon turns to authentic laziness, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Just as in these examples, when a student fails to measure up to school assumptions, the label is often one of bad behavior. As long as bad behavior is viewed as the root cause for these children who know how to behave at home, then punishment, rewards, bribes, medicine and therapy are all that is left to help and motivate them. None of those things work, however, because they do not teach the child what is missing.


    In analyzing many children who fall into this general description, I must stop and ask two central questions:

    1. What are the rules being defied?

    2. Why does the student defy them, even though it will bring pain to his or her life?

    Talk individually with your boys about specific examples of what has been labeled as “bad behavior.” Make sure you write down a list with each child so he feels involved in the process through self-identification.

    For example, the behavior may be that your son doesn’t hand in homework. His reason: “I try to read the assignment and don’t understand it.” It could be that your son lacks the reading skills to process information from textbooks. He may need to supplement reading with books on tape. Or it could be that your child still has not learned to break away from rote memorization and put information into his own words.

    These are certainly not the only reasons. For some children, handwriting produces fatigue – and frustration Other children have emotional problems in setting themselves up to work for prolonged amounts of time with perseverance.

    But your children’s behavior is just a symptom; it is not the cause of their problems. Instead of just treating the symptom, work with your sons to find out what is causing that symptom to appear. Only then can they be prepared to say: “I know and understand exactly what you want of me – and have the cognitive readiness, emotional security and behavior to carry that out.”


  • Yvonne Fournier
    Dr. Yvonne Fournier has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. She has followed her own roadmap in becoming arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today.