procedures · routines

What are they hoping to get?

At my school, today marks day four for students. We are nearing the end of the honeymoon period. You know what I’m talking about, right? The newness of starting  school is wearing off and we’re starting to see the real kids behind the new school clothes. So how do we move past the honeymoon and into the norms of school?

When I was a classroom teacher, there were two “rules”  —

  1. Come ready to learn.
  2. Be polite.

Everything we needed to live by was summed up by those two classroom norms. They were short and easy to remember. Still. They are sometimes hard to live by (for me too!). I think sometimes when students aren’t ready to learn or they are impolite, we want an easy fix. We want to send them to the principal’s office so they will do the right thing next time. We wonder if they need medication to control themselves.


I’ve began asking myself: What are they hoping to get from their behavior. This is a much different question than: Why are they acting that way?

When we adopted our daughter at age four, there were many behaviors that needed to be redirected. We began, as most parents would, by trying to slap a consequence down each time the behavior was undesirable. We were hoping with consistency and an expected consequence the behavior would change. This theory is often true for children who have adjusted to the norms of society. However, for others, it isn’t such an easy fix.

We began asking ourselves: What is she hoping to get by acting this way? Then, even more importantly, we began asking her, at age four, What are you hoping to get by acting this way? She might shrug and we would nudge a little more, “Maybe…”

Because we gave space for her to answer, she did. She began to verbalize the reasons she was choosing her behavior. At the same time, we were able to redirect in a way that made it more likely for her to get the things she wanted. There were still consequences, but the purpose wasn’t to “fix” the behavior. The purpose was to help her get the things she wanted.

So it might go like this…

Mom: What were you hoping to get when you shoved him down and took the toy he was playing with?

Child: I wanted to play with the toy.

Mom: I understand, but now you are in time out instead of playing. I bet we can think of another way to play with the toy, without getting in time out.

After time out was over, we helped her ask the person to join him and play with the toy together.

I imagine a middle school conversation might go like this.(Away from everyone else, of course!)…

Teacher: What were you hoping to get when you yelled, “This is the stupidest thing ever?”

Student: Shrug. Glare. Eye roll.

Teacher: Maybe… (And let it hang there. A middle school kid wants nothing more than to be with his friends. Perhaps a nudge–) The sooner you talk with me, the sooner you’ll leave.

Student: Sigh. I didn’t want to read that dumb book.

Teacher: I understand, but now you’re staying after class instead of talking with your friends. Tomorrow, if the book looks dumb, talk to me, quietly instead of blurting it out for the entire class, and we’ll look for a book you want to read.

In addition, I’ve also come to realize that some students have to learn to care. That, however, is another post entirely.

And just so we’re clear, there is no easy fix. The behaviors and reasons for the behavior have developed over years. It will take consistency in consequences and continual redirection. Until then, godspeed in figuring out what the kids in your classroom are hoping to get from their behavior, and then help them get it in a more satisfying way.

13 thoughts on “What are they hoping to get?

  1. This struck a chord with me, as well. Responding to misbehavior from a “What are they trying to get?” point of view gives the adult an opportunity to ally with the child instead of being an adversary. Your hanging “Maybe…” responses remind me of the “Could it be…?” step in what Responsive Classroom calls problem-solving conferences, and the idea about not making assumptions reminded me of a great book I read recently called The Behavior Code, which gives teachers (and parents) tools for figuring out “what are they trying to get?” when it’s not so easy to tell.


  2. Thank you for your comments. This was a post that made me nervous to share. I appreciate your positive feedback. And yes! yes! to Peter’s work in CHOICE WORDS and OPENING MINDS.


  3. It’s always great to hear from teachers who are setting a good example. I love the simple rules. I remember reading something (maybe it was Love and Logic?) where they talked about a school that had a long list of rules and one day a boy pointed out that there was no rule against putting a fish in a girl’s ear. 🙂 Clearly, at that point, you need to rethink the rules system. 🙂 And I appreciate the reminder about the behavior…I will try to use that approach on my four year old next time. In fact, I think most things, when approached with questions rather than assumptions, are approached more successfully.


  4. I love the simplicity of your “rules” not only because they are easy to remember, they are also easy to “enforce.” As teachers, we often have to reason with ‘angry” or “frustrated” students. While we can’t change all the circumstances of their lives, we can make our rooms “safe” places where children can clearly see that someone cares about them. Thank you for an inspiring Saturday morning post!


  5. Conversations like these often become an “a-ha” moment for the student. Many students haven’t thought about why they do what they do – or what they might do differently.

    My only addition is that sometimes students are simply impulsive – they don’t know why they do what they do. These are the kids that look at the floor when they talk to you – and have tears in their eyes when they look up. They tell you they always get into trouble.

    In those cases, it’s important to help them understand the situations that trigger impulsive reactions and make plans to avoid the triggers.


  6. You’ve nailed it so clearly. My 3 yr old son has the same beautiful, strong, free will that my middle school students have – and dare I say it – I have – we all want to exert control over our circumstances. No one wants to feel they are under another’s thumb. As teachers we need to be open to our students as people with as much to say/feel/want/offer as any adult might. Your phrasing “What are you hoping..?” is great because it’s not judgmental but it seeks to understand. Thanks for this reminder, I still have another week to prep for my classes, this has helped!


  7. Happy new school year!! This is a topic dear to my heart, one that my colleagues and I talk about all the time…trying to understand those challenging behaviors. I think your approach is absolutely the right path toward the larger goal of helping children “learn to care.” I suspect one of the very best ways to nudge children towards this higher goal begins with having them reflect on their behavior with the simple but powerful question “What are you hoping to get by acting this way?” Thank you for the reminder that it begins with the simple but important expectations of “Come ready to learn” and “be polite.” Truly, everything falls into place if these are practiced!


  8. Ruth, this really strikes a chord with me! I plan on shortening my list of rules to just your two. Everything seems to fit. I am trying to wrap my head around asking my second grade students to be able to explain what they are hoping to get when they make an incorrect choice. My room seems to be the one that the “naughty” boys are placed. Often, they are unable to communicate why they make bad choices and I am left to assume. I struggle with these behavioral challenges every year and haven’t been able to “fix” any of them so these kids can get down to the business of learning in my classroom. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for all you do for teaching and learning!


  9. Great post! I took a grad school about behavior interventions, and I am hoping it will help in dealing with behavior. If anything, building that relationship with a student is more important than ever!



  10. Very well stated. It often takes a semester for that one kid, that “hates” writing and acts out, to soften and give things a chance.


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