The Four Mistaken Goals of the Discouraged Child
Parental love is best demonstrated through constant encouragement toward independence. We need to start this at birth and to maintain it all through childhood. It is made manifest by our faith and confidence in the child as he is at each moment. It is an attitude which guides us through all the daily problems and situations of childhood. Our children need courage. Let us help them to develop and keep it. (Dreikurs, p. 55)
This framework applies just as much to the teacher's role in the classroom as it does to the parent's role at home. Applying his framework to my classroom management has been a lifesaver and an opportunity to generate meaningful connections.
For this reason, Dreikurs invested an enormous amount of energy in his research into understanding what it means for a discouraged child to be discouraged. Through this research, he identified what he called the "four mistaken goals" of the discouraged child. Understanding these mistaken goals makes it possible for an adult to learn appropriate, insightful, and very creative methods of responding that will redirect the discouraged child into a more productive approach to finding belongingness.
The four mistaken goals of the discouraged child can be summed up as follows:
1. undue or excessive attention-seeking
2. a struggle for power
3. escalation of the power struggle into the pursuit of revenge and retaliation
4. shutting down and giving up as a form of self-protection against further discouragement
Even though these are dysfunctional strategies for dealing with discouragement, they deserve acknowledgment for how brilliant and resourceful they are. But they are dysfunctional and we can help students to do better, both for themselves and for the whole classroom community. And this is where the framework of the four mistaken goals of the discouraged child offers highly effective ways of helping students find their way back into healthy belonging and connection.
I want to emphasize that understanding these categories isn't a panacea. Nothing will be instantaneous. But Dreikurs' methods provide a sane, bounded, and healthy lens through which to understand what is going on with these students and to reflect on meaningful ways to address it.
Here's how I experience these in my math classroom.
1. Undue Attention-Seeking
Misunderstanding unpacked: "I only have value if I receive individual one-on-one -- and often immediate -- attention from the teacher." This can take a few different forms.
During collaborative mathematical group work (using Complex Instruction or other approaches), the student who insists on turning away from their table group and receiving help directly from the instructor is seeking undue attention. This is the reason why we keep returning to the Complex Instruction rule of "only whole-group questions" to the instructor. Part of what students are learning during mathematical group work is self-reliance and peer-reciprocal-reliance. Students are also building their capacities for executive function, self-regulation, and impulse control. Our goal for students is to help them become self-confident, independent, and self-directed learners. They are learning how to look inward to construct their own answers using the best tools and ideas they know, and to engage in positive, pro-social, and interdependent analyses and investigations when they run out of their own personal knowledge. We want them to learn how to exhaust their team's collective resources first before reaching out to the teacher because this is how healthy adults function in the outer world. This is a very different approach to authority than younger children take, because students' self-actualization learning goals are as important as their mathematical learning goals.
The purpose of the "only whole-group questions to the teacher" rule is to build a healthy student fluency in independent thinking, problem-solving, and self-regulation
Another way I encounter undue attention-seeking is during unstructured group work or classwork. When students run out of runway, I encourage them to come up and ask their questions. Over the years, I have become a master at asking questions that elicit the student's thinking and at crafting the tiniest possible hint I can provide. My goal is to help them access the framework they have and to give them a little boost that can help them break through their stuckness and get them moving to the next level.
There are healthier and less healthy ways that students try to use this kind of access. The unhealthy ways of approaching this that spill over into undue attention-seeking occur when a student plops themselves down and tries and monopolize as much time and attention as they can access from me. This is where gentle redirection is so important. I tell them I will only dispense one hint or piece of help at a time, but I invite them to come back with their next stuck point as many times as they need to. I reinforce that they're welcome to come back with their next question if they need it.
I try not to allow any one student to monopolize access to me as a classroom resource. This is part of building trust and also of building classroom community and positive interdependence. In my 7th block class this past spring, a new piece of classroom culture emerged, in which students talked openly about "sharing the wealth." The student who had come over to ask for help on, say, problem 11, became a kind of shared community resource. Another table would call this person over to ask for guidance and they would confer and share insights -- never simply doing the problem for each other.
This was far and away the greatest high point of my teaching year.