The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Attitude, Inclusion, Behavioral abnormality, Behavioral disorder, Challenging behaviour, Interaction, Crossing boundaries, Understanding, Appreciation, Disturbed circumstances, Normopathy, Internalizing disorders, Anthroposophical human understanding, Symptomatology, Diagnosis and therapy, Sympathy, Anthipathy, Authority through relationship, Trust, New authority
By: Dr. Andreas Fischer, March 2019, First publication in Seelenpflege Issue 3, 2018, shortened by Katharina Stemann

"Attitude Is a Small Thing That Makes a Big Difference". Approaches to understanding and dealing with challenging behaviour

The quote from Sir Winston Churchill mentioned in the title is an important benchmark for dealing with children and young people with challenging behaviour. A look at practice shows that employees in schools and boarding schools are increasingly confronted with children and adolescents who not only challenge their behaviour, but often overtax all those involved, including parents. The excessive demands can lead to stress reactions among employees, which can culminate in a burnout or termination of employment. Often the final consequence is the exclusion of the child or adolescent from school or boarding school, an unsatisfactory solution for all, often coupled with a bad conscience. Because "not only teachers and educators are led by these children to their own limits, the children themselves suffer from this onesidedness with which they evoke so much negative resonance in their environment". (1)

In the following, an attempt will be made to explore the question of how to deal with challenging behaviour from different perspectives. The first step is to clarify the concept of behaviour conspicuousness, and then to address the question of attitude. Subsequently, I briefly outline explanatory approaches from the anthroposophical understanding of man. Finally, the central questions of authority and trust are presented, two fundamental questions in relation to the topic. 


A term that raises questions and requires several perspectives. 

The commonly used term behavioural disorder is not entirely undisputed. It implies a secret value, a devaluation of the child. The power of definition always lies with the adults, the object area is highly unclear and the term always assumes a norm in its definition (2). Depending on the social, statistical or an ideal or minimal norm, the assignment of the term takes place in relation to the behaviour of the child or adolescent. 


In our society it is expected that a child in the first grade can sit quietly in his desk in school, if he does not because he wants to live out his age-specific urge to move he is regarded as conspicuous, because he does not correspond to our expectations.


It is precisely because conspicuous behaviour is not an isolated event, but always involves the environment, that we can distinguish four different perspectives from explanatory approaches. However, each of these four perspectives represents a onesidedness in itself.


The person-oriented perspective focuses on the child or the young person: "If one takes a person-oriented perspective, one assumes a "sick" personality. The cause of the conspicuous behaviour is seen in a conspicuous personality structure, in deviating personality characteristics as outlasting characteristics and typical reaction patterns of the person. 

The child "is just like that". (3).


A second perspective focusses on the situation: "From such a situationist perspective, only the current situation and the conditions for the occurrence of a behavioural disorder are decisive. Person variables take a back seat. It is assumed that, irrespective of the individual characteristics of the person, the specific characteristics of the situation cause the person to react in a conspicuous way" (3).


The interaction can also be central: "The focus is on the interaction between certain person variables and certain qualities of the current situation. Neither exclusively the peculiarities of a person nor exclusively certain peculiarities of the situation are regarded as the cause, but the current conspicuity is seen as the result of a disturbed person-environment interaction" (3). 


One very important aspect is emphasized by the observer perspective. It focuses on the adult, who claims the power of definition for himself, because he or she "labels a certain behaviour as conspicuous: he or she lends this behaviour and experience the label "conspicuous" (3). Labelling in itself is questionable, but it also poses a further danger, because "moderate or radical labelling can also lead to the attributed "disturbed" behaviour actually occurring (clustered)" (3). 


From these remarks it becomes clear that we must be very careful with the terms so that they do not lead to labelling a "conspicuous" pupil cannot get rid of his conspicuousness throughout his school days, because all teachers recognize a confirmation of the attribution in his perhaps harmless and age-appropriate behaviour - and to pigeonholing. "The child carries the label "the one who always disturbs" and the parents are "the ones with the disturbing child who don't get it right at all". (4) 


It must not be the case that we only determine all difficulties with the child or also the parents but the behaviour of the child is always also a reaction to an impaired or problematic relationship to itself, to the environment or to the world around it, it always requires all four of the perspectives listed above. 


In the following I will use the term "challenging behaviour" because it gives more weight to the contextual reference, but also does not gloss over or trivialise the behaviour - behavioural original - and thus emphasises the seriousness of the question for everyone.


The attitude - small thing and big difference

The confrontation with children and young people with challenging behaviour places enormous demands on employees and can lead to helplessness and feelings of helplessness. Such children and adolescents very often cross a border and can hurt employees not only mentally but also physically. The attitude with which adults encounter these border crossings is of the utmost importance. A moral condemnation of the child or adolescent usually followed by a sentence can provide short-term relief, but hardly leads to a change in behaviour on the part of the child or adolescent. It is important to understand the child's behaviour and to ask the question about the meaningfulness of the behaviour even if we experience it as challenging and conspicuous.


What does the child or adolescent want to express with his or her behaviour, what weakness or one-sidedness is overlooked, what is the reason behind it? "To meet a person with the attitude that his behaviour has a meaning that we do not understand enables a completely different approach to him than if we simply label him as "confused", "crazy" or "unadapted" ... Just trying to understand changes the quality of the 

relationship" (5). 


What is important from our point of view is that we distinguish between the child (or young person) as a human being on the one hand and challenging behaviour on the other. 

Two reactions are possible:

-I judge the child and its behaviour morally; the child feels devalued and not accepted. 

-I differentiate and signal to the child that I value him as a person but cannot accept his behaviour.


This small but significant difference in attitude takes into account that any kind of behaviour makes sense to the person showing it. A hypersensitive child may scream loudly or destroy objects in an overburdened situation. For us as viewers this is challenging and conspicuous, for the child it is a strategy to deal with the overstrain. "Every child's behaviour makes sense on the basis of previous social learning experiences there is a "good reason" for every bizarre behaviour" (6). 


The Swiss curative teacher Emil E. Kobi has consistently condensed this approach, with the result that a behavioural disorder can be an expression of normality. "A child can normally be disturbed by disturbed conditions and thus his behaviour is disturbed in a disturbing way. (Behaviour disturbed) Behaviour disturbed is thus an expression of normality (7).


To regard a behavioural disorder as an adequate and healthy reaction to disturbed conditions is challenging, but in my opinion it provides fruitful explanatory approaches and possibilities for action. The logical reverse conclusion, "a child whose behaviour is not (no longer) disturbed by disturbed conditions appears abnormal, and conformity to behaviour is thus an expression of normopathy (7), encourages reflection. This makes it clear that many irritations or disturbances do not have to be directed outwards, but rather unfold their effect inwards and the child - despite serious difficulties - behaves correctly and shows socially and socially adapted behaviour. This would mean that employees would have to pay special attention to those children who show adapted behaviour, because internalising disorders are not conspicuous externally, but they are very serious.


Approaches to understanding from the anthroposophical understanding of human experience

The anthroposophical understanding of human experience offers many starting points for understanding challenging behaviour and, against this background, for finding accompanying and supporting approaches. The starting point is the assumption that challenging behaviour is the child's or adolescent's strategy for dealing with weakness or one-sidedness.


The three-step symptomatology, diagnosis and therapy - as perception, understanding and action - is also presented in the curative education course. Only perceiving the phenomena and trying to understand them beyond sympathy and empathy is a huge challenge in everyday life! But only when the appearance - for example the challenging behaviour - becomes an objective picture, when one has inwardly connected oneself with it with calmness, "then there is the state of mind in the astral body, which correctly places the educator next to the child. And then he will more or less get everything else right" (8). Overcoming sympathy and antipathy is an inner work that can show its effects in a change of posture.


The central point of reference is Rudolf Steiner's reference to the demands made upon adults in encounters with children: "It is never finished, for him every child is a new problem, a new riddle. But he only comes upon it when he is now guided through the being in the child, as he has to do in the individual case. It is an uncomfortable work, but it is the only real one" (8). In my opinion, there are many important aspects hidden in this short section which are extremely important for dealing with children with challenging behaviour. 


We are confronted by a child, a young person with challenging behaviour, which is primarily a problem that poses riddles. The adult must now engage with the riddle of man, a long and challenging process. 

"Whenever it is important to get involved in processes, it is a matter of including one's own personality. The process also changes the one who gets involved with it" (9). That is why this path is uncomfortable, because I also have to change myself, because perhaps the child or young person shows a behaviour that hits me in my sore spot and reveals my weaknesses, which it is not always easy to stand by. I have to do this work on myself if I want to be able to be guided by the being of the child. 


"The word diagnosis literally means "to recognize apart" or "to recognize through and through". What may at first sound like a contradiction, gets a connection through the connection with the process of curative education diagnostics. The approach to the individuality of the other is, on the one hand, about looking at many different aspects that belong to the expressions of the individual. This would describe the process of recognizing apart. But that is not enough to understand an individuality. What is still needed is the ability to pursue what is expressed through the phenomena. This requires a completely different approach than the analytical consideration of the various aspects" (9). 


At this point, it is worth recalling once again the basic rules of curative education, as formulated by Paul Moor almost sixty years ago; in our opinion they cannot be surpassed in their brevity, topicality, expressiveness and practical relevance:


• First understand, then educate 

• Not against the mistake, but for what is missing

• Not only the child, but also its environment must be educated (10).


These three statements contain the essentials that can help us in our everyday lives. 


The attempt to understand is a diagnostic process, on which I can get involved and where I can rely on the human aspects worked out beforehand. The action is not directed against the mistake - `I will break with your behaviour` - but makes offers to the child or adolescent - `what do you need“ - so that the conspicuous behaviour no longer has to be shown as a reaction to a life of want. 


With the third rule it becomes clear that the efforts must not only concentrate on the child. The inclusion of the environment, to which I naturally also belong, is essential. "For you have no idea how unimportant is all that the teacher says or does not say on the surface, and how important what he himself is, as teacher" (8), because in this way " we will be able to rediscover the old truth, which is often disguised by the methodical refinement that the educator works less by what he does than by what he is“ (11).


Of authority and trust

It cannot be denied that challenging behaviour on the part of children and young people is on the increase and has become a major problem in education and schooling. As a result, there are many voices suggesting that this increase in challenging behaviors is related to the increasing questioning of the legitimacy of the authority of caregivers. 


The shaking of the traditional understanding of authority, the failure of the anti-authoritarian and partnership-based style of education (12) raises a central question: "How can the vacuum created by the disappearance of traditional authority be filled again, so that children can have developmental experiences of setting limits, of demands and of struggles with difficulties - in a morally and socially acceptable way" (13)?


Thus, it is not a question of relapsing into old forms of authority marked by distance, fear, unconditional obedience, control, the incontestability of the role of the educator and physical punishment, but of forming a new attitude towards authority on the basis of proximity, presence, relationship, non-violence and allowing a culture of error (13). 


The approach "authority through relationship" was originally developed by the Israeli psychologist Haim Omer. In my opinion, it is very fruitful in dealing with the challenging behaviour of children and adolescents, because it relieves the burden on the persons they relate to and enables them to take new action. "New authority is based on the realization that absolute control is not only undesirable, but not possible. This allows a gradual change in the emotional reaction and actions of the authority person, their statements, their sense of identity and their physical reactions. These changes begin with the following insight: "I cannot control the feelings, thoughts and reactions of the child, only my own" (13)! 


The focus here is not primarily on changing the child's behaviour, but on maintaining the relationship. 


Uncommented, I will mention three principles of the new authority below; they speak for themselves, a reflection on them is fruitful.

• "One must not win, but persevere".

• "You have to forge iron when it's cold"

• "One may be mistaken, since affairs are also to be made good" (13).


It is central that the child's trust in himself and his environment is not shaken, for "trust is not the key to solving the life problems of children and adolescents with behavioural problems, but in most cases the basis for meeting them at all" (14). 


"It is not the pedagogical intention that is pedagogically fruitful, but the pedagogical encounter" (14). It is precisely when the encounter and the formation of relationships is made more difficult by challenging behaviour patterns that they are all the more important for the child or young person who confronts us as a problem, as a riddle. "A soul suffering from the contradictions in the world, in human society, in its own physical existence, confronts me with a question, by trying to answer it to the best of my knowledge and conscience, I help to become a character who overcomes the contradictions by acting" (14). 


It is not easy for children and young people to live up to obedience as a guideline and a demand on the part of adults and to meet expectations. For "the concept of traditional authority equates the prestige of the person in authority with the degree of obedience to it. But the fact that someone is given a certain authority does not mean that the persons subordinated to him must be obedient (13). 


Where obedience is to develop, trust must be cultivated. Trust cannot be demanded, it is not simply there. Giving trust to a person has to do with an opening gesture, it makes one vulnerable, therefore it is also bound to prerequisites for children and young people with challenging behaviour. For this reason it is important that children and adolescents with challenging behaviour do not experience relationship breakdowns again and again, this not only weakens the self-esteem of the child, but can also lead to the fact that after many disappointments they are no longer prepared to trust another person. "The educator himself cannot presume this kind of trust and cannot create it in any way; it can only be given to him by the child's trust. And let us add immediately: it is given to him much more often than he deserves it. But because he so often does not notice this and then disappoints the trust, he loses it" (14).



In summary, it can be said that dealing with challenging behaviour in children and adolescents increasingly determines everyday life in institutions and schools. 


The following key statements seem to me to be important as an attitude and prerequisite for overcoming this challenge:


• Children and young people who cause us problems with their behaviour have a problem of their own.

• We cannot change our behaviour, but try to understand the problem.

• The relationship of the child or adolescent to itself, to the environment and the world around it becomes the focus of attention.

• If we succeed in understanding the problem of the impaired relationship and offer adequate support, the challenging behaviour can be reduced by the child.

• Often children and adolescents need exactly what they vehemently reject, e.g. relationship offers and closeness.

• The basis of all support is trust and an authority based on relationship and closeness.

• Accompanying children and young people with challenging behaviour is a tightrope walk with abysses, an individual is overwhelmed by it.

• Employees need guidance, support and a safe place to talk about their injuries and feelings.


I am very aware that there is a great discrepancy between theoretical explanations and practice in this field. "I have lived my professional activity forwards and understood it backwards" (15); the reflection of my own practice, however, has led me to the conviction that an honest examination of the aspects listed can be meaningful and helpful in everyday life with these children and young people. Because attitude is a small thing that makes the big difference!



Andreas Fischer, Dr. phil., married, four children, training as curative teacher, primary teacher and supervisor. 1980 - 2001 Headmaster and teacher in a small special school home in eastern Switzerland, 1995 - 2006 Head of the Coordination Office of the Association for Anthroposophical Curative Education and Social Therapy of Switzerland (vahs). From 2006 - 2017 Director of the Höhere Fachschule für anthroposophische Heilpädagogik (HFHS) in Dornach.



(1) Schulz, Dieter (1994): The troublemaker - Why does Frieder disturb? To the understanding of the developmentally abnormal child. Merkblätter für eine bewusste Lebensführung in Gesundheit und Krankheit, No. 147. Association for an extended healing system, Bad Liebenzell.

(2) Hillenbrand, Clemens (2006): Introduction to pedagogy for behavioural disorders. 3rd edition, Reinhardt Verlag, UTB, Munich, Basel.

(3) Stein, Roland (2017): Basic knowledge of behavioural disorders. 5. newly revised edition, Schneider Verlag, Hohengehren GmbH.

(4) Schulz, Dieter / Zimmermann, Karel (2011): AD(H)S - Illness or time problem? Therapeutic approaches from anthroposophical curative education. Gesundheit aktiv anthroposophische Heilkunst e. v., Bad 


(5) Pörtner, Marlis (2004): Taking Confidence Understanding seriously. Klett Cotta, Stuttgart.

(6) Schmid, Marc /Lang, Birgit (2012): What is innovative and new about trauma education? In: Schmid et al: Handbuch psychiatriebezogene Sozialpädagogik. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen. S. 337-351.

(7) Kobi, Emil E. (1994): Zur heimlichen Unheimlichkeit von Heimen - 

Heilpädagogische Reflexionen zum System Subsidiärer Residenzen, Edition SZH, Lucerne.

(8) Steiner, Rudolf (1985): Heilpädagogischer Kurs GA 317. Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach.

(9) Schöffmann, Erika / Schulz, Dieter (2015): Ways to the Other. Facets of curative education diagnostics on an anthroposophical basis. Mayer Info3 Verlagsgemeinschaft, Frankfurt.

(10) Moor, Paul (1994): curative education. An educational textbook. Study Edition, HPS Series Volume 7, Edition SZH, Lucerne.

(11) Kobi, Emil E. (1993): Basic questions of curative education and curative education. 5th edition, Haupt Verlag, Stuttgart, Zurich.

(12) Winterhoff, Michael (2008): Why our children become tyrants. Or: The abolition of childhood. Gütersloh publishing house, Gütersloh.

(13) Omer, Haim / von Schlippe, Arist (2016): Strength instead of power. New authority in family, school and community. 3rd edition, Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, Göttingen.

(14) Müller, Thomas (2017): "I can no longer trust anyone". Concepts of trust and their relevance for thpedagogy of behavioural disorders. Julius Klinkhart publishing house, Bad Heilbronn.

(15) Wigger, Annegret (2005): What do social pedagogues do and what do they think they do? Professionalisation in everyday home life. Publisher Barbara Budrich, Opladen.


Further literature

Bijloo, Marijke (2011): Bonding and bonding problems. In: Niemeijer Martin / Gastkemper Michael / Kamps Frans (Hg): Developmental disorders in children and adolescents. Medical-pedagogical support and treatment. Publisher at the Goetheanum, Dornach, pp. 189-205.

Brisch, Karl Heinz (2017). Binding disorders. From Binding Theory to Therapy. 14th edition, Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart

Fischer, Andreas (2013): The curative education course in the context of current research. The connection between "mental soreness" and vulnerability. In: Seelenpflege in Heilpädagogik und Sozialtherapie, Issue 3, Dornach. p. 21- 32 

Köhler, Henning (1994): Of anxious, sad and restless children the basics of a spiritual educational practice. Publisher Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart

König, Karl (1995): Sensory development and physical experience. 4th edition, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart

Lievegoed, Bernhard (1984): Curative considerations. Help for the treatment of developmental disorders. Publlsher Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart

Lievegoed, Bernhard (2012): Man on the Threshold. Biographical crises and development opportunities. Freises Geistesleben Publishing House, Stuttgart

Niemeijer, Martin / Gastkemper, Michael / Kamps, Frans (Hg) (2011): Developmental disorders in children and adolescents. Medical pedagogical accompaniment and treatment. Publisher at the Goetheanum, Dornach

Pichler, Annette (2016): The dynamics of point and circle as the basis for bond security. In Seelenpflege in Heilpädagogik und Sozialtherapie, Issue 3, Dornach. p. 175180

Schulz, Dieter (1991): Early intervention in curative education. Publisher Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart




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