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Disobedient or Disoriented?

An extract from The Soul of Discipline by Kim John Payne M.ED (Penguin Random House)

How many times have we heard the expression “He’s a lost soul”? We can sense when this is the case in someone close to us, such as a relative or friend, or even in a public figure in the wider community who causes us concern. To be lost and have no one to help us find our way is the stuff of nightmares.

No one likes to be disoriented, and few things in life are more unsettling. But children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to feeling lost and unsafe. We know there is too much coming at them all the time in today’s frenetic world. Few adults among us have had to cope with the incessant stream of images, impressions, ideas, attitudes, and conflicting messages modern kids must navigate. We are, quite frankly, living in the midst of an undeclared war on childhood. Kids are exposed to too much and forced to grow up too quickly. As a result, disorientation and heightened anxiety have become the new normal.

So it’s no wonder that troubling behavior surfaces more and more often at home and at school. As parents and educators, we want to shield our children as much as possible, to provide a safe haven for them from the unrelenting buzzing and booming, the fever-pitched pace of modern life.

In this climate, disciplining a “disobedient” child can be quite challenging. We often feel like we are fumbling in the dark. We try so hard to say and do the right thing with the appropriate amount of energy and emphasis. We want to guide our children—to teach them how to behave and how not to behave. Our ultimate goal is to prepare them to handle themselves well as they set sail into modern society’s often difficult waters.

Setting the Foundation—Understanding Disorientation

The way we perceive and approach misbehavior is the key to diffusing our children’s difficult and even explosive conduct. A critical shift in our approach to parenting takes place when we begin to understand that there is no such thing as a disobedient child, only a disoriented one.

In this essay, we will examine our misconceptions about disobedience. If we can see our kids’ challenging behavior as an attempt to orient themselves within the frenetic, confusing world they struggle to navigate, our role will shift from Disciplinarian in Chief or Crisis Management Specialist to Governor – in early childhood, Gardener – in middle childhood, and Guide – in late childhood/teens (as laid out in The Soul of Discipline book).

The Pinging Principle

Children, tweens, and teens orient themselves in a number of ways. They may read, play creatively, listen to a story, spend time in nature, delve into a hobby, or simply decompress while hanging out with family. These types of activities form a protective sheath between them and the hardness of the “real” world. They become the membrane through which kids process and digest all the good, the bad, and the busy things that happen in their lives. Engaging in these kinds of activities is not just a form of coping. It’s how kids build resiliency and a burgeoning sense of self-esteem. When they can find a more centered and peaceful place within, they can let go and regroup their inner resources. What they are building is a sense of knowing who and where they are in their lives. When they can do this, they feel safe and well oriented.

But when there is too much going on in their lives, children lose their bearings and become disoriented. This can trigger a reaction that often manifests as challenging behavior. They push back against the world outside themselves. Unfortunately, the “outside” world they push against tends to be those nearest and dearest to them. It is so important to understand that their naughtiness or disrespect is not simply misbehavior but an attempt to come to some sort of balance in which they feel oriented and comfortable.

I call this the “Pinging Principle.” Just as a submarine navigator gets his or her bearings by sending out sonic pings that bounce off underwater objects and orient the ship to rocks or reefs, our children send out “pings” in the form of challenging behavior. They nag, disrupt, or cry—seeking a reaction from us that will help orient them. This is their way of figuring out where they stand and what we want from them. In other words, the interplay between our kids’ behavior and our adult reaction serves as a navigational system for them.

Understanding this concept is a real game changer. “When I recognized that this child was not just being naughty but actually feeling lost and pinging me, it changed everything,” one parent of a young child told me. “Instead of just reacting to his behavior, I could now look for its source and understand it better.” Another person, said, “I tested this pinging idea. I watched each time the kids got antsy and fresh. Amazingly, just about every time it was because life in general had gotten a bit whacko.”


Join us online July 17-20, 2023 to learn more!

  • How to connect and reach your students who may be feeling disoriented.

  • Gain new skills to guide students through difficult transitions between classes.

  • Learn how to use a sensory lens to help children with self-regulation.

  • Keynote speakers Kim John Payne and Kevin Avison

Special pricing for school teams! Open to all special subject teachers.

Click the link below for full details!

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