Focusing on Strengths: A New Approach to Behavior Management

Managing children’s disruptive behavior at home and in the classroom is one of the most frustrating tasks for parents and teachers. Most adults learn and utilize numerous techniques for managing children’s behavior only to find themselves hopelessly fighting a losing battle. In the face of actual behavioral crises, adults sadly realize that most theories and techniques of behavior management are either too detached from the practical day-to-day life, or too technical to be completely understood, hence implemented.

“He can’t be handled…”

Such was the experience of a teacher, who came face-to-face with a disruptive student, whose primary interest was soccer. He was least interested about learning. His unruly behavior caused uproar and discomfort for everyone in the classroom. After trying out a variety of behavior management techniques, the teacher came to a dead end. The unpleasant, out-of-the-norm behavior was reinforced. The student became even more difficult to handle as time went by.

The past and present

In the medical world, physicians treat the sick by identifying symptoms and matching them to appropriate medication. This approach focuses on curing the symptoms. The actual cause of a sickness usually goes undetected. Such diagnosis provides temporary physical relief. Sooner or later, the symptoms surface, and the medication is repeated, with some revision to previous diagnosis, to relieve the person from the symptoms once again.

Adults at home and school have been using a similar approach to behavior management for many decades. They identify misbehaviors and match them to whatever behavior management techniques they are aware of. They try using these techniques to reduce or eliminate misbehavior after diagnosing the crisis situation. However, unlike a wound or some other physical sickness, a child’s behavior cannot be treated at a superficial level. Success in behavioral changes requires the utilization of a more holistic, systemic, and practical approach.

In other words, instead of superficially curing a wound, a good behavior management model requires that the source of the wound is identified and treated alongside the wound itself. If the wound is recurrent, it is possible that the actual root of the whole issue is abuse at home. In this case, treating the wound alone does not solve the problem. Parents and teachers who attempt to reduce or eliminate a disruptive behavior (symptom) at a superficial level commit the mistake of overlooking the actual reason(s) for misbehavior.

The New Approach: Focusing on Strengths

At the core of traditional behavior management techniques is the obsession to focus on the weaknesses of children (their wrong-doings), to the extent that the power of these weaknesses are overestimated. Adults have failed to recognize and make use of children’s strengths to their advantage. In other words, problems in behavior management persist because we fail to look at the right place for solution.

The new approach to behavior management requires that we shift our gaze and attention from children’s weaknesses, problems, deficits, to their strengths and potential. According to Buckingham and Clifton (2001), “the real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths; it’s that we fail to use the ones we have!”

A longitudinal research, conducted over a period of 30 years by the Gallup Organization on the best ways to maximize an individual’s potential found the following:

  1. Each individual’s talents (strengths) are enduring and unique.
  2. Each individual’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his/her greatest strength.

Thus, instead of focusing on a problem behavior (or asking the question, “What is the problem Roy?”), adults should ask themselves and children the following questions:

  “What are your strengths?”

  “What specific qualities, supports, skills, attitudes, aptitudes, and talents have you relied on to make it this far?”

Preoccupation with a problem behavior and trying one’s best to treat, reduce, or eliminate it only accentuate and reinforce the behavior. A better approach to deal with a disruptive behavior is not to talk about it at all. Instead, examining, identifying, and discussing about the strengths one possesses yield a more positive result in the long run. The outcome of such an approach is lasting and genuine (inside-out change). Further, a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment derived from one area of strength help children to gain control of and experience success in other areas of life. Eventually, children become internally motivated to behave constructively in all of life’s situations.

He can be handled

Employing the new approach to behavior management to deal with the child whose preoccupation in soccer causes disruption in the classroom, the teacher stopped focusing on the many misbehaviors displayed during lessons. Rather, the teacher visited the child during a soccer game and watched him in his best state of mind and behavior. The teacher observed the child as he demonstrated his soccer skills and celebrated his strength. By doing so, the teacher communicated an important message to the child – “I am proud of you and I believe in your potential to continually succeed in soccer!”

The outcome of the new approach was fascinating!

When the child came to class the next day, he swapped his back seat to one closer to the teacher, paid attention during lessons, participated when required, and asked the teacher and classmates to help him with homework and other assignments.

This incident clearly reflects the truth in what Saleebey (2001) said about behavioral changes, “People are more motivated to change when their strengths are supported.”

How does it happen? (The process)

The new approach to behavior management takes into account children’s strengths. As such, the primary role of parents and teachers would be to identify and use these strengths to deal with any sort behavioral crises. The process is simple and is illustrated in the following diagrams:

behavior mgt. new approach.ppt


When parents and teachers identify, support, and celebrate children’s strengths, they provide an opportunity for the young ones to find meaning and gain satisfaction in life. Focusing on strengths rather than wrong-doings allows for a more positive interaction between children and adults. As such, the new approach to behavior management is a more constructive intervention tool that yields definite and explicit encouraging results in terms of behavioral changes.

2 thoughts on “Focusing on Strengths: A New Approach to Behavior Management”

  1. hi Dr. Roy,
    sometimes i wonder why most of the boys are very disruptive when they were a child, but they really changed when when they grown up.

  2. boys are affected by gender stereotypes. they acquire many of their misbehaviors from their social environment (partly to belong to peer groups). however, as time passes, maturity strikes in, cognitive as well as social-emotional development help the growing person to understand life from a different light…responsibility, accountability, achievement, meaning, purpose…these are but a few priorities that sets in as more reflection is made about life and existence itself. A variety of complex interacting factors cause misbehaviors…but as teachers, we must acknowledge that people generally don’t want to misbehave if they could. Most often, people are driven into acts that are ‘out of the norm’…because of reasons only known to the person engaging in the misbehavior…identifying this underlying reason is difficult…but not impossible. Once identified, we are better able to help the individual on the road to recovery. Ultimately, no one should be forced to change…unless change is desire from the heart.

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