Could it be that....

Discouragement Encouragement  Punishment   
Democratic

As an alternative to punishment or nagging, a parent/teacher can have the following dialog with a misbehaving child/student:


Teacher: Do you know why you misbehave (break the classroom rules, roam around the room, etc.)?
Student: No.

Teacher: I would like to tell you what I think."
Student: OK.

Teacher: (start guessing to determine which of the four mistaken goals a child is seeking. The first 4 groupings of questions are for the mistaken goals of: attention, power, revenge, and inadequacy. With experience, you will be able to zero in on the right question to ask, and when you guess correctly, the child will all of a sudden feel understood, and then begin to become cooperative. Begin your guess with the nonjudgemental phrase "Could it be that...")

Could it be that you want more attention from me?
Could it be that you want to keep me busy with you?
Could it be that you want me to do more for you?
Could it be that you want me to notice you more?
Could it be that you want me to help you more?
Could it be that you want me to come help you more?
Could it be that you want me to do something special for you?
Could it be that you want to keep the class busy with you?
Could it be that you want to be special to the class?

Could it be that you want to be the boss, to be in charge?
Could it be that you want to show me that you can do whatever you want?
Could it be that you want to show me that I cannot stop you?
Could it be that you want to show me that I cannot make you do something?
Could it be that you want to do what you want to do?
Could it be that you want to do it when you want to ?
Could it be that you want to do it when you want to and no one can stop you?

Could it be that you want to punish me?
Could it be that you want to get even?
Could it be that you want to get back at ...?
Could it be that you want hurt me (him, her, them)?
Could it be that you want make me feel bad?
Could it be that you want to show me how it feels?
Could it be that you want to make me suffer?
Could it be that you want to show me how much you hated what I did?
Could it be that you want to show me that I cannot get away with that?
Could it be that you want to hurt me and the other students in the class?

Could it be that you want to be left alone because you cannot do anything?
Could it be that you want to be left alone because you are afraid to fail?
Could it be that you want to be left alone because you can't be on top?
Could it be that you want to be left alone because you can't be first?
Could it be that you want to be left alone because you can't be the winner?
Could it be that you want me to stop asking you to do it?
Could it be that you feel you do not know the answer and do not want people to know?
Could it be that you just do not want to do it, no matter what?

Could it be that you feel insignificant unless you are the best in whatever you do?
Could it be that you feel rejected unless everybody likes you?
Could it be that you feel that you must never make a mistake?
Could it be that you feel that you are trying your best and people show no appreciation?
Could it be that you want to be better than ....?
Could it be that you want to make me feel guilty and sorry for what I did to you?
Could it be that you do not care about the price you will have to pay for making me (him, her) feel this way?
Could it be that you want to show me how much smarter you are than me?
Could it be that you feel superior to me when you put me in a position in which I do not know what to do with you and feel helpless?
Could it be that you are not talking in order to frustrate me (and others) and make me feel helpless and defeated?
Could it be that you are willing to do anything in order to feel like a big shot?
Could it be that you want people to feel sorry for you and give in to you?
Could it be that you use sickness in order to have a legitimate excuse for not living up to your responsibilities?
Could it be that you believe that as a minor you cannot be punished for stealing or destroying other people's property?
Could it be that you are very pleased with yourself when you make other people suffer or feel foolish?

The recognition reflex: When the above series of questions is asked, a child (under age 10) will give him/herself away via a smile, grin, embarrassed laughter, or a twinkle in the eye when your guess is right. S/he may blurt out: "right on." If your guess is not right, the child will simply shrug his shoulders. Older children will say "no," and maintain a deadpan expression, but will give themselves away via body language, such as a twitch of the lips, eye blinking, readjusting themselves in their seats, swing a leg, tap their fingers, or even wiggle their toes when your guess is right. In either case, when you have guessed the correct reason why he/she misbehaves, the child feels understood and changes from feeling hostile and resistant to being cooperative. It is a joyful experience for a kid who has been pushed around and feels s/he has no place in society to feel understood. This is the beginning of trust and confidence.

For example, (on 12 May 2000) while substituting a high school "core math" class, the following occurred. In the lesson plans, I was warned by the regular teacher that "....this class can be quite horrible." Yes, it is true, that when I asked the class to take out their homework to go over it, only one in the entire class of twenty took their work out. As the one student in the class who did the work said he wanted me to go over it, I did my duty. It took perhaps half an hour to go over all the problems, and most of the class slept. After finishing, I opened the class to discussion, and began with an improvised math game of twenty questions which they seemed to like. One of the more vocal girls without permission came up to the front and started writing nonsense on my overhead projector. I read some of it and commented that it sounded like free association. I then turned to her and asked:

Mr. Yen: Have you heard of Sigmund Freud, who tried to get to the unconscious mind via free association? Free association is a technique whereby you say whatever comes to your mind. He invented the method to discover unconscious motivations. Do you know why your up here?

Kesha (not her real name): I'm writing poetry.

Mr. Yen (to Kesha): I don't think that is the real reason. I want to play twenty questions with you to try to guess the real reason, and class, I want you to help me by watching her reactions.

Kesha (clearly delighted with the new game): Great!

Mr. Yen: Could it be that you want more attention?

Kesha (smiling): No.

Class (shouting and hooting): We think she wants more attention!

Mr. Yen: I don't think I guessed it quite yet judging by your reaction. (Kesha continues to remain at the front of the class, pen in hand). Could it be that you want more power?

Kesha (her expression changes a little to hide something perhaps. She puts the pen down. I'm getting warm.) No.

Mr. Yen: Could it be that you want to show the class that you are more powerful than the teacher?

Kesha (shouts, standing tall, she raises both hands upward): Look! I am more powerful than the teacher!

At this point, she goes back to her seat. I correctly identified her mistaken goal, her unconscious motivation. She remained in her seat for the rest of the class and participated in the ensuing discussions with more respect for me and the class.


The list of "Could it be" questions was adapted by Duen Hsi Yen, from the Rudolf Dreikurs etal textbook " Maintaining Sanity in the Classroom" (1982), NY:Harper Collins, pp. 28-32.

Last updated 13 May 2000

Copyright © 2000 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

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