No one works harder than teachers. They dedicate their professional (and often their personal) lives to making sure the children they serve are as well-equipped and taken care of as any. Teachers have a lot of responsibility, are underpaid, and don’t have enough time in the day to do everything they need to do.

Listed below are three crucial elements of child psychology that will make teachers’ lives easier.

1. All behavior is purposeful and goal-directed. If we, as adults, can get past what we see and understand the reasoning behind the behavior, we will be much more successful in helping children understand their behavior and develop prosocial coping skills. Behaviors serve a purpose. If a behavior is helping a child feel psychologically safe, why would they stop?

Child psychiatrist Rudolph Dreikurs theorized that there are four goals for misbehavior. You usually can tell what the goal is by how you feel when interacting with the child. The key to understanding the goals is to know what the child is after and find creative ways to replace the negative goal-attainment behaviors with positive ones. The goals are:

  • Attention. The goal is likely attention when you feel annoyed, you want to remind or coax, or you are delighted with your “good” child
  • Power. The goal is likely power when you feel provoked, challenged, the need to prove your power, or “you can’t get away with this.”
  • Revenge. The goal is likely revenge when you feel hurt, angry, “how could you do this to me?”
  • Inadquacy. The goal is likely inadequacy when you feel despair, “what can I do,” or pity.

2. Understanding a child’s “lifestyle” is crucial. The way that a person generally perceives different activities or actions is called their style of living (lifestyle), or is also referred to as “how a person goes about going about.” What influences and shapes a person’s lifestyle? A person’s birth order, the rules in their family of origin (both spoken and unspoken), family roles, and home environment.

  • Birth order. A child’s position in the family tends to carry with it certain roles and personality traits that can be generalized to just about any family. Firstborns tend to be reliable; conscientious; structured; cautious; controlling; achievers. Middle children tend to be people-pleasers; somewhat rebellious; thrive on friendships; have large social circles; peacemakers. Youngest children tend to be fun-loving; uncomplicated; manipulative; outgoing; attention-seeking; self-centered.
  • Family rules. All families have rules, even if they don’t know it. Who in your childhood home was responsible for paying bills? Who cooked? Who took care of the car? Who had the final say on important decisions? Who in your family showed emotion? Who didn’t? These are the things that family rules are made of. In many ways they shaped your experiences and beliefs. Every child comes from a different home with different rules and may see the world in a completely different way.

3. The brain is plastic. Everything in the brain is plastic; it is changeable, moldable. No one’s brains are changing more than children’s. Every experience creates new neural pathways and connects neurons to one another, shaping our personality and the way to perceive or respond to external stimuli. There are some areas of personality that are unchangeable, but for the most part, it’s plastic.

That child who comes into your class afraid and lonely because of abuse; that kid who is just plain angry because his mom left; that little girl who believes no one loves her because daddy said so — this is where teachers come in. Every single interaction you have with a child, every experience you give, every field trip you go on, every time you hug that little boy who needs it, every time you look little Suzy in the eye and tell her she is special — it makes a difference. And science backs it up.