I often use this phrase, and I am often asked what it means. After 20 years in education and more than 10 of those working specifically with at-risk youth, I have never met a student who didn’t have emotional damage that led to the behaviour problems. If I break a bone, I may use something to alleviate the symptom of pain, but that will not repair the break. If that break is not repaired, I may be able to get it somewhat healed, but it will continue to cause problems until I properly deal with the root of the problem. The same can be said for behaviour. The behaviour is the symptom and not the root cause.
The behaviour issues I have dealt with have included both striking out toward others and self-harm in various forms; but the one commonality between the two is that self-esteem and self-confidence are extremely low. The reasons for this can be varied, but almost invariably involve some form of trauma. Simple discipline and consequences may or may not lessen the behaviour, temporarily, but it is never a solution that will last.
Once I realized that the youth are not acting out for no reason, I learned to look for the reason and work with them to help them manage their issues. The youth who have been through the most, can be the strongest and most resilient once they learn how to draw strength and grow in a positive way. I can never undo the damage but we can teach these youth to manage their issues and turn them into strengths.
A simple example would be the student who acted out with my replacements whenever I took time off. Some people may see this as taking advantage of my absence to act out, but what if we consider going deeper. If we find out that he was abandoned and disappointed by many adults in the past, it becomes clearer why he has issues with someone he counts on being away. Discipline will not help the problem, and may even make it worse. Helping him to understand his own motivation and explore his reactions is far more likely to lesson the fear of abandonment and, in turn, lessen the acting out. Indeed that has been the case with many students I worked with who had this exact same issue.
When I have taken the time to get to the root of the problem and teach the student to manage the problem, it has invariably led to fewer behaviour issues, and increase in self-esteem and self-confidence, and that logically leads to them being able to function and learn better as well. I really have never met a youth who I would truly classify as a “problem youth”.