Friday, June 30, 2017

Troubled Students: Recognizing Irrational Belief Systems and Mitigating the Conflict Cycle

By the nature of their environment, inclusive classrooms require effective utilization of positive behavior interventions within the educational system rather than mere deployment of basic classroom management strategies presented during a teacher preparation course.  Educational staff and other stakeholders involved with a troubled student must recognize the student’s feelings, beliefs, and subsequent behavior towards adults, school, peers, or life itself, may be fueled by an irrational belief (IB) system.  The level of awareness of students’ irrational belief systems and the staff’s interaction with sequences of the conflict cycle (Long, Morse, Fecser, & Newman, 2007) either exacerbates problematic behaviors or increases a climate of sustained success that promotes the mission of learning for all (Lezotte & Snyder, 2011).

The conflict cycle (Long, Wood & Fecser, 2001) suggests the following sequence:

  1. Self-Concept as a Setting Event
  2. A Stressful Event Occurs
  3. The Event Activates Irrational Beliefs
  4. Negative Thoughts Trigger Feelings
  5. Negative Feelings Drive Inappropriate Behavior
  6. Behavior Incite Staff
  7. Staff Pick Up Student’s Negative Feelings and Frequently Mirror Student Behavior
  8. Staff Behavior Increases Student Stress and Escalates Cycle
  9. Student’s Self-Fulfilling Prophesy is Reinforced

A child’s self-concept develops from the on-going feedback he gets from significant adults and peers in his or her life.  This feedback determines how the child perceives him or herself.  Over time, the child learns a specific way of thinking about him or herself.  As a result, the child begins to make certain assumptions and develop certain beliefs about him or herself.  These can be positive or negative messages.  For example:

“I can’t do anything right” vs. “I’m good at things”

“I have to be in control of everything to survive” vs. “I can let things happen”

“I’m unlucky” vs. “I’m lucky”

The child also develops a personal set of beliefs about the people in his world and what they are going to do to him. For example:

“Teachers care about me” vs. “Teachers don’t care.” or

“Teachers want to help me” vs. “Teachers want to punish me.”

By elementary age, these beliefs about self and others merge and become a major motivational force in the child’s life.  These beliefs result in a characteristic way of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and behaving in all current and future situations.  These beliefs form the foundation of the troubled child’s self-concept or character.  The irrational belief system becomes a setting event for dealing with situations.

The child also develops a personal set of beliefs about the people in his or her world and what these people will do or how they will react and behave.  For example:

“Teachers care about me” vs. “Teachers don’t care.”

“Teachers want to help me” vs. “Teachers want to punish me.”

The theory connecting irrational beliefs and problematic behaviors is based on cognitive behavior principles.  Problematic behaviors result from faulty thinking about events rather than the events themselves (Long, et al., 2007).  At the core of faulty, irrational thinking are rigid and absolute beliefs: musts, have to, and ought to self-messages, in concert with their derivatives: awful beliefs that lower self-efficacy.  The troubled student’s belief system is considered “irrational” because his or her beliefs are anti-empirical, illogical, and self-defeating.

 By elementary age, these self-beliefs and assumptions about others merge and become a major motivational force in the student’s life.  These self-beliefs and assumptions result in a characteristic way of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and behaving in all current and future situations.  These often become the foundation of self-concept, character development, and self-esteem.  They become a setting event for dealing with interpersonal relationships and life situations.  For troubled students, their self-concept will be colored by irrational beliefs or cognitive distortions.

Examples of irrational beliefs or cognitive distortions include:

“I must be good at everything.”

“Everybody ought to like me.”

“Not getting 100 on that math test is the worse thing in the world.”

 When these beliefs become a characteristic way of perceiving the world, the irrational beliefs can lead to mental health problems and behavior disorders.  Children who have been abused, neglected, and rejected, have to explain to themselves why such situations occurred.  Children who have experienced failure in school also have to explain why failure has occurred.  The search does not take place in reality but rather in their belief system.

 The distinction between rational and irrational beliefs is vague for these children.  It’s vague because the abuse, rejection, and neglect suffered at some point in their past has blurred reality, preventing them from seeing things through “normal” lenses.  It’s vague because low-achieving children have failed to achieve in school at some point in their past.

How are irrational beliefs formed?  One answer is overgeneralization.  For instance, troubled children consider the following scenarios and conclusion to be sensible:

“My parents have rejected me: FACT!

I can’t count on them to take care of me: FACT!

Therefore, I can’t count on adults in the future to either accept me or take care of me.” 

 This is an IRRATIONAL BELIEF but this belief must be disproven before healing can occur.

Why do troubled children maintain their irrational beliefs?  Irrational beliefs (IB) are critical to the lives of these children because it forms some type of grounding.  Pathology is a form of adjustment.  These IB bring order and stability to what has been a chaotic life.  IB make life manageable and predictable for these children because they are able to know in advance what is going to happen to them.  Since the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy is an unknown to them, IB protect children from the feelings of dread or helplessness.

How do troubled children maintain their irrational beliefs?  Troubled children project their IB on others by engaging them in chronic and absurd power struggles, seeking to validate the student’s IB.  The process results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.  For example, the student relying on IB believe: Some teachers didn’t care about me.  Therefore no teacher will ever care about me.  Now your critical behavior proves that you don’t care about me!

Stress is defined as an incident which threatens a student’s well-being or state of comfort.  Stress often triggers a student’s irrational beliefs.  If 10% of life consists of actual stressful situations, then the other 90% is determined by the way we think about the stressful situation.  Therefore, it’s not the event that causes the stress but rather how we feel about the event and how we think about the event that matters.

There are four types of stress:
Developmental: The stress that results from life cycle issues.  These include, separation, learning, achievement, belonging, independence, physical development, etc.
  1. Psychological: The stress that results when someone is consciously or inadvertently depreciated, ridiculed, bullied, made fun of, etc…
  2. Reality: The stress that results from things that should not go wrong, but does go wrong each day, which makes negotiating life more difficult.
  3. Physical: The stress that results from deprivation of basic biological and physical issues.  These include poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, overstimulated, physical injuries, etc.
How does an event activate the student’s irrational beliefs (IB)?  When an event meets one of the aforementioned stressors, the student’s irrational belief system is more likely to create skewed behavior.  For example, the student is asked to make a corrections on a paper.  The IB that ‘teachers always picks on me’ is thereby activated.  Negative thoughts then trigger irrational feelings.  The irrational feelings inspire maladaptive reactions to the critique.

Cognitively, the troubled student is really a prisoner of his or her own mind.  Feelings are vital to life but feelings are not always an accurate assessment of the situations.  The human mind experiences emotional feelings before processing cognitive thought.  When feelings of anger, shame, frustration, etc… get activated, cognitive processing is adversely impacted under the best of circumstances. 

There are typically three ways feelings are managed by troubled students and adults that have not healed wounded emotions.
1. Acting the feelings out:

  • Indicates a clear relationship between feelings and behavior.
  • It is a healthy reaction when you have an itch you scratch it.
    • When troubled children feel angry, they hit, scratch, yell. When they feel depressed, they withdraw or detach. When they get scared, they run, hide, cry.
2. Defending and denying the feeling: 

  • Students with IB have difficulty acknowledging that feelings are a legitimate or reasonable part of life.

  • Some feelings make people feel vulnerable and weak.
    • For students with IB, defense mechanisms may reduce level of anxiety, but deny the real problem, use up energy and create a new problem in the environment that had nothing to do with the original problem.
3. Accepting the Feeling: 

  • It is healthy to feel things but not to act on them in inappropriate ways.
  • Students with IB exhibit the difference between having feelings and being had by their feelings.
    • When someone is ‘had’ by feelings fueled by IB, bad feelings flood the student and control his or her behavior. 
    • For the student ruled by an irrational belief system, when behaviors are dominated by raw emotions, the ensuing behavior and actions are usually not rational.

Whenever negative feelings drive inappropriate student behavior, it is important to understand the function of the behavior.  Behavior can be studied in three ways and four categories of difficulty:

  1. Automatic Reflex,
  2. Learned/Socialized Habit,
  3. Personal Choice.

  1. Difficulty with Staff,
  2. Difficulty with Peers,
  3. Difficulty with Learning,
  4. Difficulty with Rules.

When discussing problem behaviors, stakeholders should be in agreement that the student responds to feelings by acting out with behavior in maladaptive ways.  It is crucial for stakeholders to accept that the purpose of the student’s maladaptive behavior is to incite staff and activate staff’s feelings.  A child in stress will attempt to create in others his feelings.  So, whenever, staff is not appropriately trained and reacts in a way that seems natural, they can easily mirror that child’s behavior, independent of staff’s typical personality.

In this way, troubled children function like a producer of a play.  They can cast stakeholders into the role of a hostile adult, detached adult, etc…For the student ruled by an irrational belief system, for every (irrational) action there needs to be an equal or similar reaction.

When staff or other stakeholders pick up the student’s negative feelings and then mirrors the student’s (maladaptive) behavior, a double-struggle psychological state results.  Whenever staff is in a conflict with someone, a good deal of the staff member’s energy goes into controlling his or her own counter-aggressive feelings.  At the same time he or she must try to get the student’s behavior to de-escalate to a more rational and reasonable state.  However, as the staff member’s impulses become stronger and stronger, the struggle to help the student de-escalate waivers between whether he or she will give in to less professional impulses and mirror the student’s maladaptive behavior or control impulses and use professional strategies to help de-escalate the student’s maladaptive behavior.

Obviously, a double-struggle psychological state can be exhausting.  Giving into it is typically reactionary.  Following are reasons why otherwise good adults become counter-aggressive (Long, et al, 2007):

  1. As a reaction to being caught in the student’s conflict cycle.
  2. As a reaction to the violation of our personal and professional values and beliefs.
  3. As a reaction to being in a bad mood.
  4. As a reaction to not meeting professional expectations.
  5. As a reaction to feelings of rejection and helplessness.
  6. As a reaction to prejudging a problem student in a crisis.
  7. As a reaction to exposing our unfinished psychological business.

Given how often typically good adults become counter-aggressive begs the question: Are people programmed to act counter-aggressively?  When under conflict, most adults function similar to a thermometer: As things get hot, we show it.  For example, If the child is angry, we get angry.  If the adolescent withdraws, we withdraw.  Worse yet, we also become righteous and refuse to back down.  The power struggle is on!  Logic and understanding no longer plays a part.  While staff may not initiate the conflict, they usually fuel it and keep it going!  Often, they then blame the student rather than taking ownership of their own part in the escalation.

How can staff and other stakeholders efficiently know when they are fueling or escalating the conflict?  One classic indication is the use of “You” statements.  For example: “You better stop!” “Can’t you do anything right?” “You apologize immediately!” “You don’t dare use that language.” You better start acting your age.”  When utilized, these all reinforce the student’s irrational beliefs (IB).

How does staff behavior increase student stressors and escalates the conflict cycle?  Whenever staff are not well-trained, then the potential for counter-aggressive behaviors becomes another escalating stressor.  This perpetuates the cycle.  Left unmediated, the subsequent cycles of conflict become more intense and potentially dangerous.

Once the staff member or stakeholder responds in a counter-aggressive, hostile, withdrawing or rejecting way the student’s self-fulfilling prophesy ( SFP) is reinforced and strengthened.  The stage is thereby set for the next interaction.  As we discussed, the SFP is a troubled student’s way of validating his or her irrational beliefs and programming adults to behave in hostile or predictable ways.

It is essential for staff and stakeholders to understand thought processes and irrational beliefs may be quite distinct for a student with a history of being aggressive compared to a student with a history of personal abuse.  Thought processes that drive the aggressive student may include self-messages such as:  “If I don’t meet my needs, no one will.”  “All adults are hostile and will reject and punish me.”  Thus, conditioned to believe adults will reject him, the aggressive student’s IB force him to systematically go after your Achilles heal so you will overreact and behave in hostile ways. Therefore, the student does not have to change.  He or she remains comfortable in what he or she knows regardless of how dysfunctional or harmful.

For the abused child, the pattern of behavior that reinforce irrational beliefs may follow self-messages such as:  “I deserve to be abandoned and rejected.”  “If the adults get to know me they will learn what a terrible person I am and they will reject me.”  For abused students, allowing emotional or physical closeness means setting himself for rejection.  Thus, this student withdraws from closeness.  The untrained staff member or stakeholder mirrors by withdrawing from the abused student.  Therefore, the student’s SFP of rejection is fulfilled and the student does not need to change or evolve her irrational belief system.

How can a school break dysfunctional relationships fueled by irrational belief systems?  Following is a prescription for success: Leaders must recognize staff and stakeholders will always have counter-aggressive beliefs or feelings.  However, leaders, staff, and stakeholders cannot either act on counter-aggressive beliefs/feelings or learn to avoid doing what is instinctively comfortable.  The challenge for success is to turn the conflict cycle into a coping cycle!

The following four concepts and skills provide the tools for mitigating the impact of irrational belief systems rather than fueling the conflict cycle.

1. Understand the dynamics of the conflict cycle (Long, et al, 2007)

  • Name your feelings but handle your behavior in effective manners.  Any of the following three messages can become a mantra whenever faced with situations that can spur counter-aggressive beliefs/feelings:
    • I can own my feelings and say yes to their existence but no to aggressive behavior
    • I can act like a thermostat rather than a thermometer.
    • I can use my feelings to access what the student might be feeling and decode his behavior.

3. Avoid the power struggle.

  • This means eliminating “You” messages from communication.
    • Instead use “I” messages to calm down the situation. I feel…, when you… because…, and I would like…


To cite:

Anderson, C.J. (June 30, 2017) Troubled students: Recognizing irrational belief systems and mitigating the conflict cycle.
                   [Web log post] Retrieved from


Bendada, A. (2006) Paraprofessional Competencies and Professional Development Options. Paper prepared
                for Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Madison, WI. Retrieved from:
Long, N. J., Morse, W. C., Fecser, F. A., & Newman, R. G. (2007). Conflict in the classroom: Positive staff
                support for troubled students. Austin, Texas: ProEd.
Long, N. J., Wood, M. M., & Fecser, F. A. (2001). Life space crisis intervention: Talking with students in conflict. 
                Austin, TX: ProEd.
Martin, L. (2009) No Paraprofessional Left Behind (NPLB): The Changing Role of Paraprofessionals in an
                Inclusion Classroom. Paper prepared for Northcentral University. Ann Arbor, MI. Retrieved from: