Belief behind the Behavior: Volcanoes and Cops.

Seeing some classic mischievous behavior in the studio as of late has prompted me to elaborate through the lens of Positive Discipline. First lets read Glenda Montgomery’s explanation of Positive Discipline. Glenda Montgomery is a Teacher, Parent, Certified Positive Discipline Instructor and here is her wonderful description, borrowed from the PSA website.

“Positive Discipline is based on the work of famous psychiatrists from the past century, Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikurs, who proposed the idea that human beings are goal driven and that as human beings our top two goals are to feel significant (that we matter) and to feel a sense of belonging. We act in order to achieve our goals. In other words, much of our behavior is driven, often subconsciously of course, by the need to feel both important, and an integral part of something cohesive and larger than ourselves.”

Dr. Jane Nelsen says, “There is a belief behind every behavior, but when confronted with a ‘misbehaving child’ adults usually deal only with the behavior. Dealing with the belief behind the behavior does not mean you don’t deal with the behavior. However, you are most effective when you are aware of both the behavior and the belief behind it.”

This quote is in constant rotation in my mind. “You are most effective when you are aware of both the behavior and the belief behind it.” It is a useful quote to remember when encountering any person and their behavior. In this vein I’d like to share two moments I’ve encountered in the studio that can further explore this idea.

The first encounter I’d like to share took place at the large sculpture table in the Studio. At that time Volcanoes had been a very strong emerging theme throughout the entire school and to further that investigation, the large sculpture materials were blocks, red yarn and volcano books. Throughout the day one could witness cities being built, canals being forged, animals being freed from prison and erupting volcanoes with an abundance of molten lava.

But in Silas’ case this is not so obvious. When passing the sculpture table I was confronted with image of Silas drawing on the blocks with a Sharpie. (In the Studio Sharpies are a tool that is available at all times and is used very often.) With my trusty documentation device I recorded our interaction. I didn’t quite manage to capture me asking him what his idea was and him giving a quick explanation of how a volcano erupts. And no Silas was not prompted or coached! He’s just that understanding and flexible.

And we did check it out! We gathered many toilet paper rolls for Silas to create with. His creativity and ingenuity was contagious. In this situation it was hard for me to not immediately react to our blocks being permanently altered. Instead of telling Silas to put away the Sharpie and spout off adult centered statements about respect and consequences, I invited Silas to share with me his idea. And in our conversation Silas was able to explain to me that he knows Sharpies can’t be erased and because of that he’d be willing to adapt his idea to another medium.

In this simple situation Silas’ idea was respected and the Studio’s blocks were taken care of. Ideally Silas left the Studio that day knowing that his ideas are valuable and important and that our materials are special. Here’s another great quote from Dr. Jane Nelsen.

“What happens to us is never as important as the beliefs we create about what happens to us. Our behavior is based on those beliefs, and the behavior and beliefs are directly related to the primary goal of all people — to feel that we belong and are important.”

The second moment I’d like to share I unfortunately did not catch on tape and so we’ll have to settle for a written rendition.  Earlier this month Atti expressed excitement in police officers and official law enforcement. His excitement was contagious. And because the Studio is a place to elaborate on your interests, I quickly had three very stiff lipped, official police officers; suited, badged and dutifully ticketing me for “talking to much”, “bossing everyone around” and for “littering”.

Because the theatrics were playful and the outfits were finely crafted I played along as the disgruntled citizen. I stated over and over that these citations we unjust and that I planned to take them to court for unlawful ticketing. After it became obvious I was only interested in representing reality I was politely asked to not participate in the game. Over many days I posted pictures of Atti and his friends building their characters and developing ideas about law enforcement. I supplied an image of the SPD badge and a copy of the SPD Mission. This was my attempt to inspire authenticity and instill a deeper meaning in their play. Their work space exuded their excitement and their hard work.


Some days the investigation was about crafting elaborate “walkie talkies” and other days it was about being a K-9 police officer. But when the game took a turn to good old fashioned “cops and robbers” I stepped in.

I sat in between Royal (the robber) and Atti (the police officer) and I asked them, “What makes a robber and robber?” Atti replied, “He’s a thief. He steals money.” I then asked them why they thought robbers and thieves steal money and Atti’s reply was “Because they don’t have any money and you need money to live.” So I responded by asking if they thought ticketing and arresting the robber was the best solution they could think of. I asked them if they could think of ways we can help the robber not steal anymore. Atti then wisely reflected that putting the robber in jail wasn’t helpful but instead was hurtful. Which gracefully takes us back to Jane Nelsen’s quote “You are most effective when you are aware of both the behavior and the belief behind it.”

Obviously through an adult filter this is a loaded and heavy topic that many spend their lives debating and fighting for. But in this one simple fleeting moment, Atti opened himself to deeper thinking. He thought about the belief behind the behavior. He reflected on a person’s behavior in context of our complicated world. If I’m not mistaken I believe Atti ended up making Royal (the robber) return only a portion of the money to the rightful owner and allowed him to keep the rest if he promised he’d not steal.  This game continued to be a playful social experiment for both Atti and Royal.

Let me end with an inspiring video clip of Viktor Frankl. “If we take man as he should be we make him capable of what he could be!”


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22 Responses to Belief behind the Behavior: Volcanoes and Cops.

  1. Sarah says:

    I am just so in awe that not only do you see these moments but that you so articulatly describe them and share them with us. Observation is a powerful tool but only when it is used in this way; to expand upon the learning and to guide you in your work. Deep and powerful stuff in two seemingly mundane and regular events in the studio.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I second what Sarah says. You are amazing in your ability to respond to children and to see beyond the behavior. this is why I love positive discipline. thanks for sharing those quotes too!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing Jaala. All that stuff that the other two commented on, for sure… but also thanks for making me laugh: dutifully ticketing me for “talking to much”, “bossing everyone around” and for “littering”. Love it. Don’t send those badges home with my kids : )

  4. WOW. I’m moved and touch with how you have incorporated real respect, dignity and learning into your life with these very fortunate young people.
    Jody McVittie (your PD trainer)

  5. Lynn Lott says:

    You give me hope for the schools, the children, and the spread of Positive Discipline.
    Lynn Lott co-founder of PDA and PD author, advocate, and disciple.

  6. Anonymous says:

    you have a warm heart Jaala & Happy Valentine’s Day (I AM your father)

  7. What fantastic stories! Those kids are lucky! I’m very impressed, keep up the good work!

  8. change5553 says:

    Jaala, I is difficult to express the warmth and humility I feel in my heart to see how you have implemented Positive Discipline/Adlerian/Dreikursian principles beyond my wildest dreams. What beautiful examples for finding win/win solutions that leave everyone with a sense of belonging and capability. Thank you so much. Jane Nelsen

    • cswsstudio says:

      I’m moved beyond compare to have you reading my reflections and to receive such touching feedback! Thank you Jane for everything you do. Your words live in my work!

  9. Very inspiring to see and hear how you are relating with these young children. Your natural curiosity and respect for each individual is evident in what you shared here, as well as your understanding of Adler, Positive Discipline, and early childhood principles. It is encouraging to me to see “teaching from the heart”- thank you for taking the time to be detailed and intentional about what you share here. And more importantly, thank you for the work you are doing daily in growing meaning-full lives!

  10. Jan Morris says:

    Thank you for allowing these precious young people to experience rare moments in their lives where they are recognized as contributing, capable human beings. My wish and dream is that all human beings would experience those moments of recognition and respect for their individual contribution to others. It is powerful and awe inspiring! Love it!
    Jan Morris, teacher and parent educator of positive discipline

  11. April says:

    One reflection I would like to share is how one moves from a place of “reacting” to a place of “responding”. Understand strategies for positive discipline is an actionable step. Moving to a place where we can manage our own triggers and self discipline is another actionable step. Jaala, I imagine that you had a brief trigger moment in these situations- you know the spot where you feel your own value around whether it be caring for our materials or how people are treated in our society. Yet, you have been able to hold yourself in that moment and connect to the belief behind the child’s behavior. This is NOT easy! I would love to hear you reflect on the strategies that help you to maintain calm, caring, and move forward in this journey.

  12. Pingback: What Your Toddler Thinks Of Discipline | Janet Lansbury

  13. Anonymous says:

    Aww Jaala I’ve finally seen the post of my beastie Silas- thanks so much for the kind of approach that I strive to follow in my own home. Yes it takes ten times more adult effort, but the respect and understanding that is returned to you from the child makes it all worth it. Thanks so much for being such a thoughtful person. (And, um, I’m happy to contribute a few $$ to replace those PERMANENTLY defaced blocks!)

  14. dnvrmama says:

    Hi, I found your website through another while scouring the internet for information on how to discipline my 11mo in a respectful way. I really admire your in-the-moment creativity with your approach to a problem like the blocks. It is so much easier to react in a way our parents would have reacted!
    I’m wondering if the Love and Logic approach would also be considered PD. In Love and Logic, the teacher would probably react in a similar way, but Silas would also be required to come up with a way to “pay” for the classroom material. He could come up with the ideas, or if he didn’t know how he might pay for it, you could offer him ideas like donating a toy to the classroom, or doing some extra cleaning, etc. Would having him pay for the toys take away from what you are doing and the values you are instilling?

    • cswsstudio says:

      Silas is a preschooler and exploring a lot of the world for the first time. In my opinion a monetary punishment is not age appropriate for a preschooler. One must understand concepts such as value and exchange in order to find meaning in this type of consequence. I find Silas’s confidence and integrity significantly more valuable than a toy block. I’d rather hear his ideas about volcanoes than his ideas about replacing a priceless play material.

      I hope that when you read this post you hear my idea that punishment isn’t necessary, but that love, understanding and guidance are the things we must provide for each other. In my personal opinion arbitrary consequences contribute to drastic high school drop outs and over populated prisons. We must model our values if we want to instill them.

      I find that Positive Discipline honors the child’s feelings and needs as well as the adult’s! From my experience of Love and Logic I’ve found that the proposed strategies are not in line with the feelings and needs of the adult. And don’t often honor the emotional outcome of the people involved.

      I am a die hard advocate for the teachings and values instilled in Positive Discipline and would recommend it over any other technique.

      Thank you for your great questions and inquiries! I hope you keep reading!

      Jaala Smith

  15. dnvrmama says:

    Hi Jaala,
    Thanks for your reply. I’ve been thinking a lot about this scenario. I can understand what you are saying about how the interaction with Silas would build his confidence. I’m curious how lessons about responsibility fit into PD. Maybe a monetary consequence isn’t appropriate. At the same time, it seems that having a child take responsibility for his actions in a case like this would also be a valuable life lesson, even though he didn’t intend to do anything wrong.

  16. What a great post. I just posted it to my Facebook page.

    I love how clearly you modeled keeping your cool about the Sharpie and redirecting Silas toward an alternative medium. I also loved that you acknowledged in the piece that you didn’t love that he marked up the blocks, but also did not chastise him for it. And thank you to the mama above asking your questions and stating: “having a child take responsibility for his actions in a case like this would also be a valuable life lesson, even though he didn’t intend to do anything wrong.” I’m glad you asked because it made me think, as I often do in the classes I teach (to parents) about why corrective action” is not necessary and it is actually so well summed up in that Frankl video.

    We can actually ASSUME that the child ALREADY GOT THE LESSON. If you watch Silas, he gets it. His budding neurological and psychological systems know and accurately assess and even STATE the truth of his mistake: “Sharpies don’t erase.” He already felt enough internal pressure, healthy shame, or even “responsibility for his actions,”if you will, WITHOUT the addition of, as you so beautifully put it: adult-centered feedback about the blocks. Even what seems like an age-appropriate follow up about value is not–it is actually too heavy-handed.

    Thank you for this beautiful reminder of what children deserve. I will happily send you a review copy of my book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children if you contact me. It included many suggestions for respectfully interacting with young children.


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