Negative Behavior

Rudolf Dreikurs, in “The Four Goals of the Maladjusted Child” (Dreikurs, 1947) argued that the child’s main desire is to belong: every action children undertake in a school setting is an attempt to gain social status. Unfortunately, not all children understand which actions will help to bring about the acceptance they desire. In an effort to belong, Dreikurs postulated that some children move through four goals of misbehaviour:

1. Attention: The child attempts to be noticed however they can. Unable to gain positive attention, the child will settle for negative attention, often at their own expense, which they view as being better than none. What to do:

  • Ignore attention-seeking behaviour by drawing the child’s attention elsewhere.
  • Praise on-task behaviour.
  • Catch the child being good.

2. Power: When misbehaviour through attention-seeking does not bring about the desired response, the child moves to power-seeking in an effort to gain control. What to do:

  • Don’t stoop to the child’s level.
  • You won’t model good solutions or win.
  • Appear calm in spite of the battle at hand while conveying your disapproval of the child’s inappropriate behaviour.

3. Revenge: Not able to gain control through power, the child’s moves on to hurt others in order to feel significant. What to do:

  • In an effort to feel love the child may feel so rejected they resort to punishing others.
  • Acknowledge the child’s hurt/sadness.
  • Remove the audience. Don’t allow the child to further shame himself/herself.
  • Tell/show the child you care.

4. Inadequacy: At this point attention, power and revenge have not afforded the child the acceptance he/she desires. The child now feels inadequate. Learned helplessness now becomes a part of the child’s role. What to do:

  • The misbehaviour is now focused on not doing rather than doing. The child is now very discouraged.
  • These children are typically more difficult to reach.
  • Be cognizant of your feelings toward the child.
  • You need to feel and convey interest in the child, accompanying but not over-reacting in your presentation.
  • Look for small successes and build on them to reinforce maturation and provide hope for positive growth.


Disclaimer: Resources, information, and links on the Transitional Care Website are provided as a courtesy to our visitors in order to increase knowledge and awareness of issues surrounding childhood mental health. These are not intended to replace or act as professional medical advice. Please consult a mental health professional if you have questions or concerns.