Rudolf Dreikurs (February 8, 1897, Vienna – May 25, 1972, Chicago) was an American psychiatrist and educator who developed psychologist Alfred Adler‘s system of individual psychology into a pragmatic method for understanding the purposes of reprehensible behavior in children and for stimulating cooperative behavior without punishment or reward.
He suggested that human misbehavior is the result of feeling a lack of belonging to one’s social group. When this happens the child acts from one of four “mistaken goals”: power, attention, revenge or avoidance (inadequacy).
Dreikurs’ reasoned that these students will “act out” based on the four, principled, “mistaken goals.” The first reason for their misbehavior is that they desire attention. If they do not receive the attention they crave through their actions (good or bad, e.g. doing well on a paper or throwing a tantrum), they move onto seeking power (e.g. they may refuse to complete a paper). If their power struggle is thwarted, they then try to get revenge. If even revenge does not get the desired response, they begin to feel inadequate.
I teach a graduate course in education entitled Cooperative Discipline, based upon the book, Cooperative Discipline by Dr. Linda Albert. This course is based in part on the Dreikurs model of the four immediate goals of attention, power revenge, and avoidance of failure. When I first began to teach the course I believed that these four motivations worked in isolation and were almost unrelated to each other. What I recently came to discover was that if many students don’t receive attention, either good or bad, for their behavior, then they will raise the stakes and move on to the next level, which is engaging their teacher in a power struggle. If the students lose that struggle, then they may move on to the next level, seeking revenge, usually on the teacher.
But when positive attention is given to students they are then less likely to seek attention in a negative manner. Students who receive positive attention on a consistent basis will naturally become more respectful, more responsible, and will find it far easier to connect and form good relationships with teachers, their classmates, and others of significance in their lives. Conversely, when students don’t receive positive attention they can become frustrated and angry and ultimately they become filled with despair. They begin to feel that they can’t please their parents or teachers no matter what they do so they figure what’s the use in trying at all.
All roads lead to attention. When positive attention is given to a student respect and responsibility become far easier to communicate. Students begin to feel recognized for their achievements and don’t seek attention in negative ways..
As a young parent I became aware of the importance of positive attention with my oldest daughter Sarah who is now almost 18 years old. When she was about 5 years old I was in the middle of my career as a school administrator. I worked long hours and usually came home exhausted from my day. I would get home and quickly change clothes and read the paper or just try and unwind. I didn’t know it at the time but Sarah was waiting very patiently for me to get home. She wanted to play and she wanted to play with dad. She would come up to me and say, “Daddy, will you play with me?’ I would say to her, “Honey, Daddy is very tired, let me relax for about 30 minutes and then I will be ready to play with you, okay.” She would come back to me after the 30 minutes and she would be ready to play. I played with her, but I really didn’t have my heart in it. I just didn’t feel like playing tag or play dolls with a 5 year old girl. I never once came home and said to her, “What do you want to do?” And I never had an enthusiastic attitude when I played with her. Sarah’s behavior began to change; she became more disrespectful and less compliant. I found myself constantly correcting her and I was becoming more and more frustrated with her negative behavior and attitude.
Let’s look at this from a child’s perspective. Anytime my father is spending time with me and talking to me, it’s because I am doing something bad – that’s how I get my dad’s attention. So it is to my advantage to act up because that’s the only time that my father spends time with me and gives me the attention that I want.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter to children what type of attention they get. If they can’t get positive attention, then they will settle for negative attention. It wasn’t until I started giving my daughter the required attention and involved myself with her by playing board games, going to the park, tickling her, and taking a real interest in her emotional needs did she become more respectful, responsible, and compliant.
All roads do lead to attention and if the correct attention is given to a child then respect and responsibility will be far easier to teach.