Flipping the gaze back on the myth of bad behaviour

Raunak was six years old when he was punished by his teacher for “bad behaviour”. He was made to sit in his class during break time for a week. And what was the “bad behaviour”? Raunak had not been regular with his homework, and in the class, rather than sitting and working, he would be found staring out of the window. Things came to a head when Raunak tried his best to write a few lines, but his teacher immediately scratched it out with a red pen and wrote, “Shoddy work.” Raunak was devastated and started crying, and when other children started making fun of him, he reacted by hitting a child and running out of the class.

When I met Raunak, I was struck by Raunak’s playful energy, glee and confidence, despite what had happened in school. He shared his love for insects with me and how he wanted to grow up to be an “entomologist” (he had to explain to me what it meant). A part of me relished the conviction of his dreams, and another part could not stop wondering; “Will this confidence start fading away as the world starts convincing him that he is not good enough? How will his dignity be stripped off in the coming years with the single story of being “lazy”, making him doubt his own dreams? Will there be a time, many years from now, when he would come back to me — slouched shoulders, sapped of all his joyous energy, struggling with depression, drugs or self-harm as a reaction to years of judgement and invisibility? Misunderstood, dismissed and diminished just because he did not fit in with society’s idea of a good child. Sounds farfetched? Let me deconstruct this drama of “bad behaviour” to explain.

Each child is wired and inspired differently: Raunak’s parents described him as an exceptionally bright boy but assumed that he was lazy as he could not keep up with the school work. Raunak told me that he struggled to write, and no matter how much he tried, his teacher was always unhappy with his work. My initial assessment was that Raunak had graphomotor difficulties (also called Dysgraphia), which made it difficult for him to hold his pencil correctly and, therefore, making the writing process painful and exhausting. Most “bad behaviour” classified as “does not sit still”, “refuses to study”, “gets bad grades” speaks of children who are wired differently. They are not doing this on purpose or because they are lazy or “dumb”. They are neurodivergent, and typical classroom structures do not play to their skills and strengths.

Children are not passive recipients of hardships: The more intense the anguish, the stronger the response. Raunak told me, “I want my teacher to like me, but she does not like me.” This statement made with a tremulous voice and drooping corners of the mouth brought an instant lump in my throat. How often have I heard this statement from children when they do not get the message of what I call WOW (acronym) — You are worthy as you are, you are original and unique, and you are welcome, you belong. When children do not get the message of WOW, they do what they can to protect themselves. They might withdraw, try to please others or lash back as a way to keep themselves safe. Take any “bad behaviour” from shouting, rudeness, hitting, lying, stealing, drug use, and you will find a story of a child trying to find a way to survive, numb the pain or respond to abuse.

Stories not only describe children’s lives but shape their lives too: When we start telling single stories about children, not only do we diminish and overlook their abilities, but it also makes them live their lives according to these problem stories. Raunak, at the age of six, had started believing that he was “dumb”, “lazy”, and though at this age he was able to shrug it off with his playful energy, in time, maybe, that could become the dominant story of his life. Children start internalising these stories and measuring their worth according to them, robbing them of their sense of agency of their own life.
Children’s behaviour always makes sense: “Bad behaviour” is not a call for judgement but an opportunity for us to see what is implicit in the pain. Anger might hide pain of not being seen, frustration as a testimony to seeking meaningful friendships, and hitting out as a way to not let shame define them. We have to stand up to the dominant narratives around children’s “bad behaviour” as they are extremely dangerous. So rather than jumping to conclusions let’s stay curious. When we meet a child who has got the label of “bad behaviour” let’s not ask “what’s wrong with him?” but wonder, “What is he trying to protect? Is this the only thing that is helping him to keep going? How is it sustaining him to live with the pain?”

This power drama has no villains: I would like to clarify that it is important that we do not blame Raunak’s teachers, classmates or even his parents for his experiences. There are no binaries of good-evil as we are all indoctrinated into this dominant idea of a “good child/bad child” and pushed to promote it. Even psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists can be recruited into this dangerous manufacturing of good behaviour and fixing children. Requests and referrals for “needs anger management”, “get better grades”, flood our systems and unwittingly, we can become the teeth and claws of this dangerous beast. It is the institutional violence against children that we have to stand up and not let it divide us.

Raunak’s parents decided that rather than apologising, they had to become advocates for their child. They worked hard with the school management and teachers until there was a higher acceptance of his neurodivergence, acknowledgement of his richer stories and inclusion of him as a valued member of the class. I admired their commitment to their child but I also cannot but feel annoyed about what an uphill task it is for every parent who takes on that role. What about our role in this? Every time we judge or diminish a child, we misuse our power. The scary bit is that nobody is there to hold us responsible as we are all complicit in this drama of power.

We are not just accountable for our children; we have to be accountable to them too. So, I am leaving you with a few questions to reflect on:

What role do I play in being complicit to this drama of power?
What can I do when faced with “bad behaviour” without diminishing or dismissing the child?
What role do I play in making this world a safer space for each and every child?

Imagine, if we always put children first. As Nelson Mandela put it, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”