Why Children Misbehave —- Under Construction

“In his McKenzie’s book: Theory and Practice with Adolescents he understood that adolescent acting out was related to their search for love and structure not only in the outside world but within themselves”. (p138)”
What does this mean to you?
A1: This was a surprisingly tricky question/concept for me to address. (Note: As I am by no means an expert in child development I have quoted directly from others. )

I) Why do teens “act out”?:

a) Frontal Lobes:
“For many years it was thought that brain development was set at a fairly early age. By the time teen years were reached the brain was thought to be largely finished. However, scientists doing cutting-edge research using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, have mapped the brain from early childhood into adulthood and found data contrary to these beliefs. It now appears the brain continues to change into the early 20’s with the frontal lobes, responsible for reasoning and problem solving, developing last.”
(source: http://www.edinformatics.com/news/teenage_brains.htm)

b) The Prefrontal Cortex:
“Every parent of a teenager is familiar with the special behavior that puberty seems to induce – mood swings, slammed doors, rash decisions. Parents often blame such erratic temperament on surging adolescent hormones, but it turns out that the brain has something to do with it, too.
Silvia Bunge, assistant professor of psychology, tells about her research team’s work, showing that adolescent minds haven’t yet developed the same reasoning abilities as adults, and her hopes that this research can improve education methods, as well as the legal system.
Specifically, a teen’s prefrontal cortex – the piece of brain right behind the forehead that is involved in complex decision making – is not capable of the kind of reasoning that allows most grown-ups to make rational decisions.
Neuroscience research has shown that while teenagers’ feet may be done growing by the end of high school, their brains are not. The prefrontal cortex of a 15-year-old is very different from that of a 30-year-old, both physically and in how it’s used. For many teens, the output of their underdeveloped decision processing centers may be as mild as choosing a bag of cheese puffs for lunch or a new purple hairdo. But some youngsters take bigger risks – such as stealing a car or trying drugs. More 17-year-olds commit crimes than any other age group, according to recent studies by psychiatrists.”
(source: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2008/10/16_neurolaw.shtml)

c) The Amygdala:
“When looking at a picture of an individual expressing an emotion “(t)he teens were using a part of the brain called the amygdala, which largely controls emotions, while the most active part of the adult brain was the part controlling logic and reason. That means that if you are expressing an emotion—say, disappointment—a teen’s brain has a 50% chance of misinterpreting it as a different emotion, like anger. Then, since the emotional part of their brain is already active from making that (incorrect) judgment, they become more likely to react irrationally and over the top.”
(source: http://mentalfloss.com/article/29895/5-reasons-teenagers-act-way-they-do)

d) Other factors may include:

  • hormones
  • family & peer relations
  • identification of the self
  • self-acceptance
  • executive functioning (development of) (i.e. managing frustration, monitoring & regulating actions, etc.)
  • media messages

II) The Search for Love & Structure:

Ultimately  “(a)ll behaviour serves a function’.” It follows then that, “that adolescent acting out was related to their search for love and structure not only in the outside world but within themselves.”
Taking the above into account, and keeping in mind that this is a time when both internal and external factors are ever changing, confusing, developing, etc., the need for love and structure, for acceptance and guidance, for affection and supervision may well be at an obvious high.

Q2: “How do you see evidence of this in your practice and/or the world around you?”  

A2:  In the classroom, students may act out in order to find and define that “line in he sand”; they are testing limits in order to establish boundaries.
At times they may be acting out in order to best impress others; to try to establish some kind of pecking order.

At times they may simply misinterpret the actions/messages of peers and or teachers (see: c) The Amygdala above) .
Students may have difficulty with the concept of “fair” vs. “equal”, and become quite “agitated” when it appears that someone is receiving special privileges. They may also confuse “tattling vs. telling”.
In my practice it is ever important for me to make accommodations that best provided a structured and supportive environment for my students … one in which students feel supported, valued and are able to take safe risks. In this way they are best able to achieve individual goals.

Our classroom accommodations include (but are in no way limited) to the following:

  • Timetable clearly posted
  • Classroom rules & expectations clearly posted
  • Alerting students to any changes our timetable
  • Structured breaks
  • Preferential seating
  • The use of a study carol if desired / or a “safe” time out space
  • Breaking assignments and concepts in manageable chunks
  • Having students repeat instructions in order to ensure for understanding
  • Allowing for additional processing time
  • A cueing system (i.e. before giving instructions, to redirect to task, etc.)
  • Modelling and reviewing organizational skills
  • Setting students up for success
  • Being consistent with expectations, rewards & discipline
  • Additional time for tests
  • Colour-code for binders and notebooks

Additional “Classroom Accommodations for Specific Behaviour” can be found here: http://www.caddac.ca/cms/page.php?66

References (in addition to those sited above)


 A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to the teenage brain
“The Globe and Mail”
Published Thursday, Jan. 08, 2015 3:03PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Jan. 08, 2015 3:16PM ESTSource: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/a-neuroscientists-survival-guide-to-the-teenage-brain/article22363180/

Inside your teenager’s scary brain – New research shows incredible cognitive potential—and vulnerability—during adolescence. For parents, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction


Rogers, K., Rose, H. (2002).  Risk and  Resilience Factors among Adolescents Who Experience Marital Transitions. The Journal of Marriage and Family.

Shapiro, Lawrence. (2010) The ADHD Workbook for Kids: Helping Children Gain Self-Confidence, Social Skills, and Self-Control.

Schab, Lisa M. (2013). The Self-Esteem Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Build Confidence and Achieve Your Goals .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s