Behaviour Management

Defining the Problem

Defining a problem is so obvious, you might just forget to do it.

Tim Ferriss specializes in interviewing successful entrepreneurs, athletes and investors. He collated all these interviews into two books called Tool of Titans and Tribe of Mentors. Both books are a great read and in the latter book, Tim asks everyone the question if they had a billboard in a prominent place that they could write any message on, what would it be? What a great question this is and the answers that are given provide great insight into the mindset of the interviewee. I know if I am ever presented with this opportunity, I just want three words printed in black bold font:


Such a simple statement with a simple meaning. It is as applicable to life as it is to behaviour management and especially helping meet the needs of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Yet, I feel it is a very simple step that can be overlooked because it is nearly too obvious. Of course, I know what the problem is. Everyone knows what the problem is. Or do they?

The Problem with an Undefined Problem

From my experience, teaching children with behavioural difficulties can be stressful and challenging for everyone involved. The principal, parents, special needs assistants, special education teachers, class teacher and classmates as well as the child themselves can become frazzled, frustrated and disillusioned if progress is not forthcoming.

Stressful situations can lead to a blame game. Parents may believe the problem originates in school. Schools may believe the problem originates at home. The problem may be perceived as the teacher is not good enough. The problem may be perceived that they’ve got a diagnosis of ADHD, ADD or ODD etc. Or my personal favourite, the problem may be perceived as the child is just “bold”. What do all these problems have in common? They’re all pretty much useless.

Truly defining the problem is simple but not easy. It requires the class teacher to sit down and reflect on what they are seeing and hearing whilst discarding emotions and perceptions or, even better, it requires all the parties involved to sit down as a team and coherently decide what is the problem they are trying to solve. If you find yourself using phrases like “they always do it”, “they’re annoying” or “they never do it”, you may benefit from taking the time to pause and reflect as these statements are often factually incorrect and driven by emotion and frustration.

There is an old adage that if you don’t have a goal, you can’t score. The same can be said of a problem. You can’t solve a problem you can’t define.

Defining a Problem: How To

Gather as many of the people as deemed possible or necessary and set the goal of the meeting as defining the problem. This could cause surprise should the child in question be receiving a high level of support already or perhaps, is already subject to several different interventions. It is worth undergoing this process, however, as there is a body of literature to back up the assertion that defining the problem leads to more successful outcomes so persevere.

Asking a group this question could result in a few different responses. This is a great demonstrator of how different perceptions exist. Perhaps the responses are like the ones I touted as unhelpful above. Perhaps, they are extremely helpful but different from the other peers at the group. I would suggest that it is rare that everyone at the table will have the exact same answer. Different problems need different solutions and if everyone is trying to hit a different target, you could well end up hitting none. One could surmise that it is best for the group to focus their aim on an agreed first target before moving on to a second. The power of the many exceeds the power of the one. A group all pulling in the one direction will get to their destination quicker than a group pulling in different ones.

Below is a list of questions that I would make sure the group can answer clearly before leaving the meeting:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Why is it a problem?
  3. When is it a problem?
  4. Who is it a problem for?
  5. Where is it a problem?

If you can’t write a simple, two or three sentence answer to each of these questions. You haven’t defined it simply enough. Applied behaviour analysis recommends limiting behaviour as anything that can be seen or heard and creating operative definitions that are crystal clear and upon reading them, the reader would be able to accurately repeat the behaviour. This is worth keeping in mind when following through these questions. 

Following this process can be helpful as it starts to clear your mind and narrow your vision. Suddenly, it might not be “always” as it’s only during math and science or in the afternoons. Maybe, the behaviour is only present when a teacher is assigning silent individual work. Potentially, the problem might only occur when they are sitting beside a certain classmate. The problem may not be spoken about anymore as they have ADHD which doesn’t help as much as when it has been clearly defined as “banging their pencils and shouting out when the teacher is issuing instructions”. Answering these questions can create a eureka moment for a teacher without any further steps as they recognize patterns and can start to experiment with interrupting them. If the problem arises during prolonged silent deskwork, maybe try ensuring that an energetic lesson has preceded it to see if it will help them settle. Ask them to do small jobs every few minutes to get them out of their seats before they realise they need to disrupt the class for their usual break. It may still be trial-and-error but with a clearly defined problem, at least it is clearly known how to gauge success. 

This process proved beneficial to me previously as a five-year child I had was renown for jumping on tables and chairs. I had inherited the information from a previous teacher to keep anything that may be desirable up high as it needed to be kept out of his reach. This problem continued for quite some time with no success. I tried reward charts, social stories and other incentives along with stern words to no avail. It was only when I took my advice and sat down and clearly defined the problem, I realised that he jumped on tables and chairs to get to and see the stuff that needed to be kept out of reach. The following day, I removed all the objects from high places and stored them in locked presses. The child who “always jumps on tables and chairs” was no more.

A simple tip: define the problem. I always think when I read this, that I know this already. But do I do it? There is a difference between knowing and doing…


3 replies on “Defining the Problem”

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