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October 1, 2021

Addressing the Suffering Underneath

When students misbehave, understanding the problem behind their actions can make all the difference in the effectiveness of our response.
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Classroom Management
School Culture
Social-emotional learning
Oct21 Addressing the Suffering Underneath: Illustration of a person walking past a sewer grate showing a group of bears underground.
Credit: October 2021
In my former school, students weren't allowed to chew gum. Teachers saw gum-chewing as a problem: the loud noises distracted other students, the germ-infested gum was sometimes stuck underneath desks, and the gum interfered with students' ability to speak clearly when participating in class. But for many of the students, gum chewing offered sensory stimulation when they were tired or bored.
Teachers and students sometimes view the same behaviors differently. When students break school rules, we consider the behavior a problem. But for the student, that behavior is often a solution to some other problem.
Gum chewing is a small infraction, so let's look at a bigger one: plagiarism. When a student plagiarizes, I can't assess their writing—which was a reason for assigning the writing in the first place. I also assign writing so students can explore topics that matter to them and develop an authentic writer-voice, and when they plagiarize, they're not doing either of those things. I value honesty and integrity, and plagiarism goes against those values. Plagiarism is a problem.
But the student who plagiarizes is trying to solve some other challenge. Maybe they lack the strategies to find more to say or to say it more effectively. Maybe they were about to miss the deadline because something else required their attention during the time they might have allocated to writing. Maybe they think whatever they write won't be good enough to get them the grade they (or their parents) consider adequate, and maybe a low grade means they'll lose access to their phone or something else that matters to them. The student might not like the idea of plagiarizing, but in the moment, it seems like the best course of action.

When students break school rules, we consider the behavior a problem. But for the student, that behavior is often a solution to some other problem.

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Lauren Porosoff

Responses to Misbehavior

Typically, when a student misbehaves, educators respond in one of two ways. One response is to attach an aversive consequence, such as a phone call home or detention, that we hope will help students reflect on their behavior and prevent similar behavior in the future. If the behavior reoccurs, we assume the student hasn't learned the intended lesson and attach an even more aversive consequence.
The problem with adding aversive consequences is that they usually don't outweigh the behavior's appetitive functions. That is, the student was trying to solve a problem, and adding consequences doesn't make the problem go away. The class is still boring even after students get a detention for chewing gum, and writing is still hard even after the student gets a zero for a plagiarized essay.
The second common response to misbehavior is to block it, making it less likely to occur in the first place. One of my colleagues would stand in the doorway before school and hold a trash can in front of any students chewing gum, waiting for them to spit their gum into it. I gave assignments that were impossible to plagiarize because they drew from students' experiences.
Blocking problematic behavior—preferably through systemic solutions such as redesigning the curriculum or schedule—reduces harm. However, blocking any particular behavior doesn't always solve the problem that prompted it. Just like giving a student a detention for chewing gum doesn't address her need for sensory stimulation during a boring class, neither does preventing her from chewing gum in the first place. Barred from gum-chewing, she might find a different and possibly more problematic behavior that serves the same function. Clicking pens, twirling hair, humming, whistling, spinning pencils, hole-punching notebook paper, writing on jeans, making glue balls—students are endlessly creative when they need to stimulate their senses. We can block all these behaviors, and students will come up with new ones.
Of course, we want to stop behavior that causes problems. But when we attach aversive consequences to problem behaviors, or block the problem behaviors from occurring, we aren't necessarily helping the student solve their problem.

Compassionate Responding

Psychologists who practice compassion-focused therapy define compassion as "sensitivity to suffering in self and others combined with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it" (Gilbert & Choden, as cited in Kolts et al., 2018, p. 7). That is, compassion isn't a feeling; it's a series of three actions: (1) noticing suffering, (2) feeling motivated to help the person who is suffering, and (3) doing something that alleviates suffering in the present moment and prevents suffering in the future (Kolts et al., 2018).
If we see that students are suffering, then we might respond to their behavior in new ways. Our response must include stopping the behavior, ensuring the student takes responsibility for it, and developing a plan of care for those impacted. The response can also include addressing the student's suffering. But first, we need to notice it.

The student was trying to solve a problem, and adding consequences doesn't make the problem go away.

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Lauren Porosoff

All behavior has a context, but we shouldn't need to know everything about that context—that the student's dad lost his job or her mom was arrested, or they're going through a gender transition or diagnosed with OCD—in order to have compassion. Instead of prying into how a student is suffering, we can simply acknowledge that they're suffering and look for an unmet need that their behavior might be meeting. We can ask, What is the student trying to get that they're not getting?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1943) developed what is now commonly called his hierarchy of needs. We might instead think of it as a taxonomy of needs, because subsequent research shows that not everyone prioritizes these needs in the same way (Tay & Diener, 2011). In some order of importance, students might have unmet needs in some of the following areas:
  • Basics such as food, water, shelter, sleep, exercise, and medicine.
  • Safety, which includes freedom from illness, injury, instability, and oppression.
  • Stimulation, both sensory and intellectual.
  • Friendship and social connection.
  • Belonging—being seen, heard, affirmed, loved, and supported in one's community.
  • Esteem—being respected and appreciated for one's actions.
  • Achievement of goals that matter to that person.
Think of a student in your class who has misbehaved, or who regularly misbehaves. What unmet needs might that student have, and how might they be suffering as a result? How might their misbehavior be an attempt to alleviate that suffering?

Compassion as a Choice

Even the most problematic behaviors can feel, to the student, like solutions to suffering—but it might be difficult for anyone else to see it that way. Several years ago, one of my 7th graders (whom I'll call Nora) reported that another 7th grader (whom I'll call Owen) made unwanted sexual comments.
Owen's behavior was disgusting and deplorable. To be honest, after hearing Nora, I found it hard not to see Owen himself as disgusting and deplorable. If someone had suggested that I attend to Owen's suffering, I would have been furious. I might have said, "He's the one who caused suffering. He needs to be held accountable. We should be worried about Nora, not him."
We did support Nora, by arranging meetings with the counselor and making sure an adult was nearby as she walked from class to class so she'd feel safe. And I guess Owen was held accountable: He spent two days of an in-school suspension meeting with various administrators and writing an apology to Nora. At the time, it didn't feel like enough to me. Eventually he was asked to leave the school due to other academic and behavior problems.
Looking back, I can see how Owen might have felt lonely and less than capable as a student, but he clearly didn't know how to deal with what he was feeling. I wonder what might have changed for him if teachers had recognized his talents—his perceptiveness, his sense of humor, his creativity—and taught him more strategies for communicating with others in academic and social spaces. Meanwhile, our culture had sent him message after message that heterosexual boys like him are entitled to say whatever they want, and as an Asian-American boy, Owen had encountered racist stereotypes and microaggressions that attacked his masculinity. Could his actions toward Nora have been his way of dealing with his own suffering? What if Owen had more AAPI teachers, a more culturally affirming curriculum, and more effective discussions about issues of identity and justice?
To be clear: No aspect of identity makes someone more likely to do harm, and being a target of oppression doesn't excuse harmful behavior. What Owen did was wrong, he needed to be held accountable, and Nora was the one who needed care and healing. And, Owen was suffering.

New Ways to Look at Misbehavior

Compassion must be a choice. We shouldn't force anyone—including teachers or administrators on a disciplinary team—to focus on the perpetrator's suffering. That would uncompensated emotional labor at best, and at worst it might ask people to empathize with oppressors and possibly retraumatize themselves. If we do choose to acknowledge the perpetrator's suffering, however, we open up new possibilities to hold them accountable and prevent further harm. Let's see how.

1. Redefining Misbehavior as That Which Causes Harm

If a student's behavior alleviates her own suffering without harming anyone, why prohibit it? That was the prevailing attitude at my former school when the leadership team decided not to prohibit gum chewing. Some of my colleagues were still bothered by it, but not because it harmed anyone; they just disliked the sight and sound. Some claimed that there was harm, whether because of gum stuck to the undersides of desks, or because gum-chewing interfered with learning in classes such as chorus and French, where articulation was important. But when creating school rules, we should distinguish between behaviors that annoy us and behaviors that cause harm. Also, instead of creating too many rules in an attempt to restrict every behavior that might possibly lead to a problem, we should start conversations with students about the kinds of behaviors that contribute to a positive learning environment.

2. Teaching Students Alternative Ways to Alleviate Their Suffering

If a student plagiarized her essay because she was struggling with writing, can we destigmatize seeking help and teach her help-seeking strategies? Can we guide the whole class in a lesson on when, why, and how to ask for help? And even in horrible cases like Owen sexually harassing Nora—especially then—can we teach replacement behaviors? If Owen is lonely, what are some positive ways he can get attention and connect with other people? If he's romantically interested in someone, what are some appropriate and consensual ways he can express that interest?
Finding an available alternative isn't learning it. When possible and appropriate, we can provide opportunities for students to practice replacement behaviors in school. When students can't practice the replacement behaviors in school, we can lead reflective activities or discussions to reinforce the new behaviors. Just as students can learn to write essays and solve for x, they can learn to meet their own needs in less harmful ways.
Better yet, when possible, let's remove the cause of students' suffering altogether. If some students have internalized biases against themselves and others, for example, can we actively teach anti-bias thinking and action and provide opportunities for students to build positive identities?
Behavior scientists call such practices stimulus control. I call it dismantling harmful systems and building new ones that promote joy, thriving, belonging, and liberation. Or we could just call it good education.

3. Dignifying Students' Suffering by Connecting It to Their Values

Sometimes, suffering is avoidable. Other times, it's an inevitable part of doing what matters. Writing a book, while often fulfilling, also brings the tedium of editing and the hurt of rejection. Marriage, in addition to providing support and love, sometimes comes with fights and tensions. Think of anything meaningful, and you'll probably be able to think of some type of suffering associated with doing, having, or losing it.
Beyond all we can do to reduce students' suffering or help them alleviate it for themselves, we can teach students that any time they're doing something important, pain and struggle come along for the ride. They can dignify their own suffering by attaching their actions to their values. They can learn to see suffering as something to willingly accept as part of working toward something important, rather than as something to control through problematic behaviors. For a student who feels angry and sad about his social and academic struggles, as I suspect Owen did, we can teach him how those emotions indicate his values—closeness, respect, creativity—and how to enact those values rather than trying to make his hurt go away by doing something that hurts someone else.
When I taught my students to write essays, even though I gave them models and strategies and feedback and work time, I couldn't guarantee that the process wouldn't be painful. Writing, like all meaningful work, is hard.
However, I could help my students discover how their writing matters, to them personally and in the world. We not only brainstormed topics but also discussed how to choose one, based on what's important as opposed to what's easy, comfortable, or fun. We discussed how different editing decisions, from choosing a font to checking spelling, helped the reader access the work and understand its message. None of this makes writing any less tedious or frustrating, but it makes those feelings worthwhile. When we help our students connect their actions and interactions to their own values, we dignify the inevitable suffering they will experience. They learn to see that suffering as something to willingly accept as part of working toward something important, rather than as something to control through problematic behaviors.

Self-Compassionate Discipline

Self-compassion (Neff, 2003) isn't much different from any other compassionate response; it's just directed toward ourselves. That is, we (1) notice our own suffering, (2) feel motivated to help ourselves, and (3) do something that alleviates or dignifies our suffering in the present moment and prevents unnecessary suffering in the future.

Instead of prying into how a student is suffering, we can simply acknowledge that they're suffering and look for an unmet need that their behavior might be meeting.

Author Image

Lauren Porosoff

Sometimes as teachers, we become so wrapped up in taking care of others that we don't take care of ourselves. But self-compassion is important to how we respond to misbehavior. It might mean breathing deeply or eating cookies, but it also means fully feeling our emotions. When Nora told me what Owen had done, I felt furious because I cared about Nora and about all students' safety. I felt horrified because I cared about Owen and wanted him to behave with integrity. I felt sad because I cared about them both and about my own responsibility as a teacher to do what I can to dismantle racism and misogyny.
Our emotions tell us something important is at stake. Sometimes, the most compassionate response is to notice our suffering so we can recommit to ourselves, our students, and our communities.
Cultivating self-compassion means more than just taking care of ourselves so we can fight another day. When we recognize our own suffering, we're more capable of recognizing the humanity we share with our students. Even if we suffer in different ways, and even if we make different choices in the face of suffering, no one is immune to the experience of suffering. That simple understanding can guide us as we strive to work with our students toward behaving in ways that serve our values.

Relevant Read

For more on cultivating compassion, check out Lauren Porosoff's February EL article "Accounting for Vulnerability in Peer-to-Peer PD."


Kolts, R., Bell, T., Bennett-Levy, J., & Irons, C. (2018). Experiencing compassion focused therapy from the inside out: A self-practice/self-reflection workbook for therapists. New York: The Guilford Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223–250.

Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354–356.

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