E.S.P. (Estrangement, Shame, Powerlessness) - The big 3 causes of behavior problems


These are the big three underlying causes of behavioral problems. If you don’t address these, behavior won’t get better. If you simply react with the usual consequences teachers emply, things will probably get worse, especially if you simply keep doing more of the same when it doesn’t.

Try to have your most troublesome students in mind as you read through the big 3. Is what I'm saying true about your students? Could this be a different and more helpful way to view them and what they do? Might it offer up some different ideas about how to deal with them that might work better?


Some students simply don’t feel connected to, or like a part of what is going on in classrooms. Kids naturally want to be, but some have early experiences that get in the way, and that understandably cause them to be anxious, even withdrawn. They will often be on the lookout for any signs of rejection, and be overly sensitive to it. Some will overcompensate by trying to get inordinate amounts of attention in ways teachers find unacceptable, even annoying. Instead of seeing either behavior as a symptom of estrangement, teachers too often perceive it as a problem for them. By what they do, especially in the latter case, teachers often exacerbate the estrangement without intending to or realizing it. The student’s sensitivity to rejection kicks in and exacerbates their reaction.


Shame comes from being told and believing you have not lived up to expectations. Misbehaving students usually have had a lifetime of being told and believing that. Just think about your most troublesome students. Don’t you think that’s true for them? Shame breeds anxiety. Shame about the past and anxiety about the future because of it are the two ingredients for low self-esteem, which can get in the way of students doing so much that might be good for them. Shame about the past makes everyday life events and challenges seem like threats instead of opportunities. You get either “turtles” who suck into their shells (or “jackrabbits” who run away) or “rattlesnakes” who coil, rattle and even strike out because they feel threatened. Too often teachers wrongly conclude that the real problem with such kids, especially the rattlers, is that they have no shame, and try to shame them into working or behaving. That’s like giving alcohol to an alcoholic to stop his drinking. What teachers do with “rattlers” too often ends up being like poking a real rattler with a stick. That never ends well.


This can come from having overbearing or even abusive adults in their lives. It could also come from being mistreated by other kids. But it can also come from simply feeling ways they don’t like, and not being able to feel better. It can come from simply not being able to get their lives to turn out the way they want, or be like the lives of other kids around them. They often adopt the “mistaken” goals of Power and Control in an attempt to compensate and gain some sense of power and control. They do things adults don’t want them to, to prove they do have power and are in control instead of adults. Inevitably, most adults will gladly take the bait and get drawn into power struggles with such students. These students end up giving away power and control in and over their lives in the long run, but reflexively keep returning to their “mistaken” ways of trying to get it anyway. And teachers and administrators are willing to keep the fire burning by doing more of what they’ve already done to them.


There are a lot of simple things teachers could do to try to alleviate the feeling of estrangement, but sometimes these can backfire if you don't do more to help a student better manage what goes on inside their own head first - the thoughts and feelings they have about themselves, others, life and what's happened to them. Teachers will often do these common sense things to help students feel included and like part of things, and get frustrated because they don't work, and then give up. We have no control over how what we DO will interface with what's in a student's head. So the more we target and address that directly, the better chance of success we'll have.


Above all, teachers should first and foremost try to abide by the "first do no harm" rule that governs those in the medical profession. If you can't make it better, at least don't make it worse. Too often the latter happens in classrooms and schools because teachers and administrators don't fully understand what they're dealing with. And, they believe they always HAVE TO do something, and even something dramatic at the first sign of behavior problems.

There are two ways to make something you don't like worse. Do nothing and overreact to it. Teachers and schools too often do the latter.  Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing, especially if you're not sure what you're dealing with. At least until you get a better handle on what you're really dealing with. Behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. There's always a lot going on beneath the surface. The more you start to understand what you're really dealing with, the better you can plan a course of action, and the more likely it is that it will be successful.


The first thing I always do is tell troubled and troublesome students that I have UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance for each and every human being on the planet. I say, “There something I want you to know about me first, about how I look at things before we go any further. I have something called UOA”. They often ask what that means. Even if they don’t I explain. “It means that I truly believe with all my heart that whatever any of us thinks, feels, says or does is perfectly understandable given that we’re human, fallible (which I explain means we aren’t perfect and make mistakes), and what we each have been through in our lives so far. It doesn’t mean that I like or agree with, or even will tolerate what others think, feel, say or do. It just means that I believe that if you put others through exactly the same things we each have been through, most would probably think, feel, say and do much the same things we do. Some might fare better, others worse, but most would end up the same”.


I explain to them why I think looking at things this way is so important. The reason is SHAME. Shame comes from being told and believing you don’t live up to expectations. We all have all kinds of expectations placed on us by others, and place more on ourselves. So that means plenty of opportunities to feel shame. Many students have had lifetimes of being told and believing they don’t live up to expectations, so they will have a lot of shame. Many beat up on themselves quite a bit privately, even when they seem self-confident and self-assured publicly.

Shame is often the primary feeling young people seek relief from in using alcohol and drugs, by not working in school, or even dropping out. It’s even why some try to take their own lives. But shame also can cause them to keep what they think and feel a secret, and to be less likely to seek or accept help that is available to them. They fear that if others found out how they think and feel, or they sought or accepted help, it would make them look bad in the eyes of others. In this way, shame can block change for the better. Keeping secrets can be especially dangerous because they get to practice and rehearse thinking in the same ways without challenge from others. That can make simple and unhelpful opinions about themselves, others and life start to feel like facts instead of the simple opinions that they really are, and to have an inordinate and unnecessary negative impact on how they feel and their lives.


One of the techniques I use to get them to see the logic behind looking at things the way I suggest is to ask them to imagine that on the day that they were born, we started running an experiment. We took 100 other babies, and from that day forward, we put each one through every single life event they have been through to this day. Then I ask them, “What do you think those 100 kids would think, feel, say or do today? Don’t you think they’d probably think, feel, say and do much the same things you do now?” I often talk about bell curves - how whenever you look at anything about human beings, you always get some who have little of something, or do something poorly, and some who have a lot of it, and do something very well, and a whole bunch in the middle. Then I ask them, “Is it possible that you might even have ended up at the top of the class if we ran that experiment?” The answer of course is “Yes”.


I also tell them that I’ve always believed that we should all come with movies of our lives that others could and should watch when they first meet us, and get to know us. Then I ask them, “If someone watched a movie of your life, would they see the understandable reasons why you think, feel, say and do what you do today?”


Having UOA also means that I believe that we’ll never be the first or last person in human history to think, feel, say or do something. We’ll always have a lot of company. In my mind that just proves that it’s part of being human to think, feel, say and do some things, including things that make us feel worse than necessary or helpful, or that cause our lives to be worse than they need to be.


Finally, UOA also means choosing to believe that none of us is perfect, and we all make mistakes. It means choosing to see everyone as what Dr. Albert Ellis called FHB’s or Fallible Human Beings who at times think, feel, say and do things that make our lives, and sometimes the lives of others worse instead of better. Welcome to the human race.


Then I encourage them to look at themselves the same way – to have Unconditional SELF-Acceptance or USA. It’s a choice they alone will have to make though, a choice that they alone have to make, and that I can’t make for them. They can choose to start looking at what they think, feel, say and do the way I’ve suggested, or continue to look at what they do the same shame-producing ways they always have. I can’t make that choice for them. Only they can.


I caution them that they will have a tendency to look at themselves in their old shame-producing ways, even if they want to look at themselves in this new way. The reason being that we all have “ruts” in our brains from practicing and rehearsing thinking, feeling, saying and doing things the ways we always have. Ruts make thinking, feeling, saying and doing things automatic. That can be good or bad news, depending on what thoughts, feelings and behaviors the ruts lead to. Ruts are why people recreate their pasts, and why their histories become their destinies. That can be good or bad as well. It depends on what our history has been.

The catch is that once we create such ruts, we can’t get rid of them. We can only make new ones, and hope they compete for use with our old ones. So when “ruts” lead to unhelpful, shame-producing thoughts, they can be a curse. We all tend to slip into our “ruts”, and they probably will to. Slipping into old ruts is part of being human. It’s like finding a new and better way to work, but one day mindlessly taking your old way. Either turn around and go back to the junction where you made the wrong turn and go the new way. Or, just make a promise to yourself to take the new and better route the next time. Knowing about ruts is part of learning to have USA and UOA.

You can read more about USA and UOA at:


You can read more about ruts, and why change is hard, and what it takes at:



The second thing I usually do is promise to teach them to have REAL power and control in and over their lives. I first talk about what REAL power is NOT. It’s not:

1)      Getting angry

2)      Telling people off

3)      Doing things others tell you not to just to prove you can

4)      Getting physical with others

5)      Thinking you can upset others (because you really don’t, they do)

I also try to show them examples of how they actually give away power and control in and over their lives all the time by doing the above things. They give other people opportunities to do things to them that they won’t be able to stop or control – opportunities those other people wouldn’t have had if students had not done the above things first.


Then I explain to them what REAL power means, at least in my mind. It means being able to:

1)      Choose whether you’re going to get upset or not, and how upset you will get

2)      Feel the way you’d like to about yourself

3)      Feel as good as possible regardless of what happens

4)      Keep other people out of your head

5)      Defend yourself against other people, especially those already in your head

6)      Have your life turn out the way you’d like it to as much as possible

Remember that the two sources of powerlessness are not being able to feel the way they want to, and not being able to get their life to turn out as they would like.


Most people have an external locus of control. That means they wrongly believe that what others say and do, and what happens is the cause of how they feel. Looking at things this way puts them at the mercy of others and their life events. That typically causes them to feel worse than is necessary or helpful, for longer than needed. But that’s not really the way things work. No one upsets us, we upset ourselves.


The main way to teach them to have REAL power and control is to teach them to have an internal locus of control. It’s really what they choose to think about what others say and do, and what happens that really determines how they feel. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. Whatever they do choose to think is always understandable given what their life experiences have been. However, what they do is not “cast in stone”. They can learn to choose to look at what happens, themselves, others and life in new and healthier ways that allow them to feel better. It just takes practice.


I teach them that we all have a host of cognitive choices that they alone can make. For example:

1)      How they LOOK AT what happens

2)      What MEANING they attach to what happens

3)      What they REMEMBER about the past at any given moment

4)      What they IMAGINE will happen in the future

5)      What they FOCUS on

6)      What they COMPARE things to

7)      What they EXPECT of themselves, others and life in the first place

8)      How much IMPORTANCE they attach to what happens

I teach them that their power comes from the fact that no one can make these choices for them, unless they let them. People let others make such choices for them all the time. It’s why bullying can negatively impact kids so much. But with some guidance and practice, they can learn to stop letting others do that, and retain that power and control over their emotional destiny for themselves.

You can read more about how to teach kids to have an internal locus of control at:



The steps outlined above are the first steps in what I call the “Tool Time” approach to troubled and troublesome students. A few years back, I volunteered to teach the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life to the most troubled and troublesome students at my wife’s school. The kids named the groups “Tool Time”. I liked that idea so have kept the name. You can read about the steps at:


Mindset is key to dealing with the most troubled and troublesome students. There’s an article on this site that’s been very popular with teachers and educators about the mindsets I have for working with such students.