Human behavior (action), according to Jewish thought, is called a “soul garment”. It is called a garment because, like clothing, one behavior can be exchanged for another. Although changing a certain behavior can take significant effort depending on one’s natural tendencies and social circumstances, ultimately our actions lie within our control.
The Nature of Behavior
There are two kinds of behavior: non-moral and moral. Although we have control over both kinds of behavior, in one case our control is limited while in the other case unlimited.
Non-moral behavior includes any area of human experience in which a person is limited by nature (e.g. physical ability) or nurture (e.g. cultural upbringing). Within a particular set of natural and social parameters, a person has control over his or her actions. Thus, within the non-moral realm of behavior (e.g. becoming a professional basketball player), each of us has a limited responsibility for our actions, for we can only be expected to act according to our unique, individual potential.
Moral behavior, by contrast, lies completely within our control. Although inborn traits and environmental circumstances influence our behavior, they do not determine our behavior. This means to say that while doing the right thing may be difficult for certain individuals in certain situations (e.g. controlling anger), a human being always has the absolute freedom and ability to overcome any moral obstacle.
According to Jewish thought, even non-moral behavior – to the extent that we are granted control over it – can and should be directed toward moral ends. For example, taking care of one’s health is essential to taking care of others. Hence, non-moral behavior can become moral behavior.
Every challenging behavior is an opportunity for growth. G-d only presents His creatures with challenges that can be overcome (although we may not always appreciate our success). A child or educator faces a challenge is a vote of confidence from the Creator of the World that, with effort, victory is immanent. Belief in the inner ability of every individual to change undesirable behavior enables us to (1) feel hopeful (2) accept these behaviors as a reality to be faced and addressed rather than to be feared and avoided and (3) to communicate this optimism to children.
The first question we need to ask ourselves is whether a particular behavior even warrants the title “challenging”. Does the child actually need intervention, or are my expectations of the child inappropriate? IS THIS BEHAVIOR CHALLENGING OR IS IT JUST CHALLENGING FOR ME?
The way to gain objectivity and clarity is by asking another question. IS THE BEHAVIOR DANGEROUS, DISRUPTIVE, OR UNACCEPTABLE? If so, then we need to ask an additional question. DOES THE BEHAVIOR OCCUR WITH FREQUENCY AND INTENSITY? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then we can conclude that the child is exhibiting a challenging behavior which requires intervention.
There are two aspects of every behavior: form and function. The form of the behavior is the act itself (e.g. pushing); the function of the behavior is its purpose (e.g. seeking attention). Like most human behavior, challenging behaviors have at least one purpose (though a child may by unaware of this purpose). The two most common reasons why children “act out” are (1) to obtain a desired outcome (e.g. get attention) or (2) to avoid an undesirable outcome (e.g. to get out of an activity).
To have a purpose means that a behavior communicates a message, an underlying need. For example, let’s say a toddler begins biting other children in the classroom. The question we need to ask ourselves is: WHAT PURPOSE DOES THE BEHAVIOR (BITING) SERVE? Alternatively, WHAT IS THE UNDERLYING NEED OF THIS CHILD? For example, the message the child might be communicating is “I’m hungry when it gets close to lunchtime”, “I need space from other children”, “I feel angry”, or “I’m trying to get what I want without the necessary language to express myself”.
The educator or parent is responsible to try to figure out the underlying purpose and, in turn, some developmentally appropriate intervention. Merely stopping a challenging behavior is insufficient (e.g. reprimanding the child). Rather, we need to teach children how to communicate their underlying needs and how to act in positive ways to accomplish important goals. But we need to keep in mind that the first strategy may not work (possibly because we misunderstood the underlying message), that generally progress is non-linear, i.e. things may actually get worse before getting better, as the saying goes “two steps forward, one step back”, and that children need our vote of confidence.