Symptoms to systems: Want to change student behavior? Stop treating symptoms and start shifting systems

A few years ago, I was the behavior specialist called in to work with a child.  Kyle was 9, in third grade, and he was academically inclined - already reading books meant for fifth graders.  But he was totally disengaged from school.  He would wander around the classroom all day – picking up materials and looking them over, taping his fingers together, or poking classmates with rulers. While he certainly had some social challenges, he understood the complex social rules of interaction and was working to make friends. Kyle was never aggressive or angry, but his behavior negatively impacted his own learning and the learning of the other 20+ students in his classroom, causing considerable stress to his teacher who had tried several strategies before requesting my assistance.


Teachers, you may find this story familiar. As the district behavior specialist, I encountered dozens of children just like this. Schools called me into classrooms to do a behavioral assessment and write an individualized behavior plan for these students. In the context of any one teacher’s classroom, this student’s behavior was the problem, and it was my job to fix it.  What I knew to be true, from my broader vantage point, was that behavior like this was spread evenly throughout many classrooms - across every grade and every school.


In fact, students like Kyle were who I was most commonly called in to assess: a student cognitively capable of completing grade level work and displaying socially appropriate behavior – but who simply was not. Sometimes these students would engage in disruptive behavior, as with Kyle’s room-wandering, but sometimes they would just sit – completely disengaged from anything. As I interviewed their teachers I heard the same thing over and over, “I have more kids like this every year, I think it’s getting worse.”


When I was called in to help with one of these students, I would first try to identify changes to the child’s academic program that could engage and motivate them. For example, I might suggest that we incorporate a student’s interests; build in opportunities for the student to make choices throughout their day; or suggest less time spent sitting and more time spent moving. Notice that these interventions are all focused on the environment – as a behavior specialist, I knew that although individual students exhibit certain behavior, surroundings can significantly affect that behavior. I also knew that individual behavior plans were often less successful, more restrictive, harder to implement, and harder to fade out. Perhaps most importantly, such interventions can ignore the fact that behavior is a symptom – often of a core need that is not being met in that child’s environment: loving attention from adults, rewarding relationships with peers, or a sense of control over one’s life trajectory. In other words, behavior is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem.


Although my job was to treat the behavior of the child I was called in to assess,

the child was not the real problem – a schooling system that requires students to behave in ways that are developmentally inappropriate was the problem. 

A system that dehumanizes the process of learning and growing. When I tried to incorporate a child’s interests into his day I was told that it was unfair to the other students. When I suggested we provide opportunities for choice making I was told there was a standardized curriculum to follow. When I ventured that a 9-year-old child might not be able to sit at a desk and work for 90 minutes without a movement break I was told there wasn’t time for breaks. I heard these things from adults who love children, value curiosity, and appreciate individuality- but whose reactions were colored by a system that prioritizes narrow achievement metrics over empathy and compassion. This system was producing widespread patterns of effects – or symptoms – in the children who encountered it.


I was called in to treat the symptoms – disengagement, demotivation, restlessness – being reliably produced by the schooling system year after year.

Our focus on narrow success metrics and competition, starting as early as preschool, leads to disengagement and ultimately to disruptive student behavior.

Unfortunately, many attempts to modify student behavior are unsuccessful, and many of these disengaged, fidgety, and disruptive students are medicated, placed in restrictive environments, or expelled. It was clear to me that I couldn’t keep up by changing the behavior of individuals. For each behavior plan I wrote there were two more students who need treatment. I realized that the teachers were right – it was getting worse, there were more kids displaying symptoms every year.


I believe it’s important to provide individualized services for children, particularly to address some of the unmet needs I referred to earlier – like the need for attention and rewarding relationships. I also believe that, no matter how many individualized services we provide, the system will continue to produce symptoms of disengagement and demotivation because those are reliable by products of the way the schooling system is currently designed. I wrote a plan for Kyle, but it was hard to keep his symptoms at bay. The next year I found myself back in the same classroom, writing a plan for Matthew who didn’t wander but found every excuse to leave the room.


I am no longer working to change the behavior of individual children who are at constant interplay with a system that dehumanizes them.

Instead, I am working to rehumanize the system so that it re-engages and recognizes the children I worked with.

I believe in a schooling system that promotes individual flourishing, values creativity and curiosity, and builds skills like empathy that are necessary for fostering a thriving democratic society.


Changing the schooling system is a big job – but it’s not impossible. The first step is developing a shared understanding of the problem (i.e. the purpose of the system), followed by a positive shared vision for the future. REENVISIONED – a national movement to redefine the purpose of schooling – is working to do just that, with human conversation and connection at the center.


For more on January’s shift of the month, “symptoms to systems”, read Dr. Raab’s monthly thought piece here and watch our video of the month here. Want to become a lifer like me? Get in touch at, visit our website and sign up to become a catalyst, join our book club, and get to know the framework by reading the Stanford dissertation that sparked the movement here.

Tye RipmaComment