Breaking Bad

Behavior Interventions: Strategies for Educators, Counselors, and Parents

Breaking Bad

How many times in your childhood were you told to stop being “bad?” Were you ever forbidden to hang around, date, or associate with certain kids because they were “bad?” Furthermore, what characteristics make children so “bad” that others are forbidden to have a relationship with them? The idea that certain children display behaviors that warrant separation, isolation, and even avoidance is a societal norm that has existed since the beginning of time. Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, said one of the most powerful and truthful quotes about children:

“Kids do well if they can.” Not “Kids do well if they want to.”

If a child or teen is struggling to manage emotions or make good choices, it is rarely because they want to be “bad” or disrespectful. I ask you to consider that there is likely a barrier keeping these children from being successful, and it is our job as the adults who care for them to coach them through it.

How I Got Here

I am a self-identified, self-proclaimed “control freak.” Anybody with me? Anyone else a member of this gang? If you are not sure, ask the people who live with you. I have been this way since I can remember, and it has brought me great success in some ways and caused disappointment and pain in others. I do believe I was born with this tendency, but life circumstances and environmental factors fostered my need for control.

My parents divorced when I was six years old. I remember very little about being six years old, but I do remember sitting in the driveway in my dad’s Camaro with my little sister, Laura, who was four at the time. Our dad told us that our mom would no longer be living with us and we would only be living with him. We both cried, asked a few questions, and that was it. No fighting. No drama. Just over. I have only a few memories of living in that house with just my dad and sister, and the memories are seemingly good. How could they not be? We had a Camaro.

Fast forward one year to a vivid memory I have of my dad talking to a classmate’s mom at pickup from Mrs. Dodge’s Daycare where I spent much of my young childhood. She asked if we wanted to go to her house for tacos, and my dad accepted. (Side note: I wrote an essay my senior year of high school titled “What Tacos Can Lead To.” The answer—a stomachache.) My dad and this woman married not too long after that, and the following five years were mostly hell until they divorced and we moved out. I was powerless to protect myself or my sister from mental warfare with an adult who had years of war game experience on me. My need for control quickly magnified, and behavior problems that likely always lived under the surface found a clear path to the top. To share this is not intended to hurt any of the amazing adults in my life, but rather to share the firsthand knowledge of how a child becomes one who struggles with self-worth, self-image, boundaries, and love. I love my parents and each of their long-time spouses very much, but I also know that the traumatic experiences that happened during my childhood fueled many of my negative behaviors, poor choices, and years of dark moods that defined much of my adolescence. I was that “bad” kid who became known for my poor choices and whose reputation often preceded me.

Growing up, there were several adults who saw past what was “wrong” with me and found something right. My father had the insight to arrange counseling for me starting around age thirteen, so I worked with a therapist who had a very positive impact on my self-image, although my behavior did not improve much. My therapist helped me realize that I was more than my bad decisions or disrespectful language, and I knew that I wanted to be like her when I grew up.

I wanted to be an adult who focused on what’s right with kids vs. what’s wrong.

I wasn’t sure what that would look like, nor did I have visions of an actual career. I just knew I wanted to have that kind of impact on kids like me. I don’t use the word “bad” to describe children now, but at thirteen years old, I did. It was what I heard growing up—about me, about others who misbehaved at school or around my neighborhood, or about any kid who was disrespectful, defiant, or oppositional. I carried this identity of being a bad kid into my freshman year of college, and then I had a life-changing conversation with another adult who I credit with leading me to find my purpose.

I wish I could remember his name because I would have contacted him to let him know how much his guidance influenced the trajectory of my life. It was my first meeting with a college advisor to discuss my class schedule and choose a major. He was a very nice man who seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me. I don’t remember the first few questions he asked, but I definitely remember the most important one.

“What do you want to do every day for the rest of your life?”

I thought to myself, Dude, it’s Tuesday. Let’s simmer down a bit.

He must have recognized the panic on my face because he said, “I’m not trying to stress you out. I would just like to know what you always wanted to be—what did you dream of growing up?”

I had completely memorized Eddie Murphy’s stand-up special Delirious in fifth grade (this may help you understand some of my behavior struggles at school), and I dreamed of being a stand-up comic. I never shared that out loud because it seemed ridiculous and not what a young girl should aspire to be. But there I was being asked by a stranger, so why not be honest?

“I want to be a stand-up comic like Eddie Murphy.”

Silence and confused staring ensued, and then he added a follow up question. “Do you have a Plan B?” he asked without laughing. It was not a great start to my comedy career.

“I do,” I responded. “I want to work with bad kids.”

His simple response immediately altered my view on children and their behavior.

He said, “Let’s not call kids bad. Let’s call them challenging.

Wow. Seventeen years of believing that some kids are just bad, myself included, was suddenly challenged with his matter-of-fact statement. At the beginning of my career in education, before I took the first course, his comment made me think of kids’ behavior differently. After discussing several career options, he suggested special education, ensuring I would have the opportunity to work with children with challenges every day of my career. This was a perfect fit for me because my younger sister, Jenni, has special needs, so I felt confident and comfortable with the idea. It was the most important piece of advice I have ever been given.

I was born to be a special education teacher, and I share this story with every audience of educators with whom I have the opportunity to teach. I ask them to raise their hands if they were ever told to “stop being bad” or if they were not allowed to hang out with certain kids growing up because they were “bad.” Almost 100 percent raise their hands. This is the belief system that so many of us were raised with and subconsciously carry into our everyday interactions with students. I knew as a teenager that I wanted to be a different kind of adult for kids, and with the help of some amazing teachers, mentors, and my family, I found the pathway to do it.

I titled this introduction “Breaking Bad,” but this is not about making bad kids behave or trying to force an end to negative behaviors that all

children will exhibit to some degree. It is about changing the way we see and respond to children’s behaviors and breaking our own beliefs that some kids are just bad and cannot improve. If children and teenagers know, feel, or sense that you think that way, they will believe it to be true. I know I did for a long time.

I share my personal story to make the point that even the kids who challenge us the most can grow up to be successful, happy, contributing adults. I have spent my career teaching and supporting amazing and often uniquely gifted students who generally did not have a successful school experience. I regularly think of my former students and wonder where they are now and how they are doing as adults. I know you do too. The lifelong concern for “our kids” is part of who we are as educators, and we hope and pray they find happiness, peace, and success. The deep care and concern we have for our students never go away. When they leave our classrooms, we continue to care about them from a distance while hoping they’ve found their way in the world.

Why I Wrote this Book

It is ingrained in us from a young age that having an opinion that differs from adults, asking why, and removing ourselves from difficult conversations are disrespectful acts worthy of punishment.

Why is that?

I remember being confused by many of the expectations placed on me as a child and especially as a teenager. I was considered sassy, disrespectful, and even defiant. I didn’t understand why my opinion didn’t matter as much as the adults in my life, and my powerlessness to ask questions seemed mean-spirited and dismissive. What fourteen year-old hasn’t felt this way? Of course, many of my attempts at communicating my opinions were laced with a snappy tone, sharp tongue, and the occasional eye roll. To avoid further examples of my childhood woes, let’s just say these attempts at communication were not well-received in the deep South of the U.S. of A.

It was during those formative years that my interest in human behavior became a passion for me. I was always interested in why a person made the comment or decision they made. What had happened in this person’s life to cause them to feel or react this way? The why still fascinates me today after twenty-eight years in the field of education. I hope after reading this book, you feel that same passion for solving behavior problems and agree with this first principle:

All behavior is an attempt to communicate a need.

Everything we do, consciously and subconsciously, is an attempt to have a particular need met, yet children are typically not taught how to communicate their needs. They respond to an emotional or physical need, and then are told how not to respond rather than how to respond differently. Teaching kids how to cope, communicate, and respond has been my mission as an educator and as a mom to my three sons. I shared that I wanted to be a different kind of adult who focused on what’s right with kids. More importantly, I want you to be able to be a different kind of adult for the students who challenge you while also recognizing the amazing gifts and talents they possess. Ghandi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” These words inspire me to be passionate about my work with kids, and they also remind me to be even more passionate about my work with the adults who love them.

I have worked with thousands of teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents throughout my career, and easily as many students. I have been able to create positive connections, help children change their behavior, and see the long-term positive impact that behavior instruction and coaching has had in their lives.

This book is about how we, the adults who love and support kids, can directly teach children/teens how to communicate and make decisions to get their needs met in positive ways. Every child deserves the opportunity to make mistakes, to be taught how to recover and benefit from mistakes, and to feel loved in spite of those mistakes. My goal is that, as parents and educators, you feel equipped with knowledge, skills, and resources to support and encourage the students or children you love.

If I can do it, I know you can too.

Teach hard. Love harder.

Get the book at

Written by Amie Dean.

NCYI Original

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