How to teach children responsibility for their own behaviours

“She made me do it!”

Many children don’t understand that although they can’t choose their feelings in the immediacy of conflict, they can learn to choose their behaviour. They may also not fully recognise that each behaviour choice they make has a consequence. Some consequences are organic and inherent to the nature of the behaviour, while some are imposed by adults.


When adults are fair and consistent with consequences, children can learn self-discipline. But when adults are reactive and inconsistent, children may learn to reject and rebel against authority. Oftentimes the culture that a child experiences in the home differs from the social norms of schooling, and this can cause confusion and angst for youngsters who are unsure of what comprises welcoming, approachable language and actions, and unfriendly conduct that alienates their peers.


Let’s take an example of a situation where a young child could make a conflict-causing choice or a friendly, co- operative choice. Let’s say that another child pushes into line in front of your son or daughter. (Trust me, as a teacher, this is one of the most common causes of conflict in primary schools that regularly escalates into pushing and shoving which teachers then have to manage.) Your child has a tough yet significant choice to make.


  1. An example of a conflict choice could be to physically push the queue-jumper out of the line. It is incredibly likely that the child who is pushed will retaliate, and next thing you know the nearest adult has a full-blown riot on their hands. In this scenario, both of the involved parties are likely to be reprimanded and the resulting disruption to learning time and to other students makes it outright annoying.
  2. Another conflict choice may be to get up in the child’s face and scream at them to move, while pleading to the teacher to deal with the culprit. This will frustrate the teacher who wants to get on with teaching, and probably end in two (or more) irritated and unsatisfied kids who will probably go home and share this aggravation with their families. Not to mention the precedent it sets up that allows children to think that yelling is the way to solve their problems.


So let’s return to when the child pushes into the line. A friendly choice in this context could be any of the following

  1. Ignore it- that child will get to wherever the class is going one second faster than you. Is it that big a deal?
  2. Move- if you can no longer stand with your friend in the line because the interceptor is now between you, move with your friend to the back of the line and resume your conversation.
  3. Use humour to diffuse- say to the pusher-inner: “Did I forget to take off my invisibility cloak this morning? {pat self-down} Can you see me here in line? {directed at friend} Can you? {to other nearby student} {smile, laugh} Man, the end is back there {point}.” (NB: Be careful not to confuse sarcasm with humour and antagonise or patronise others, which may cause conflict.)
  4. Choose kindness- let them keep the place and strike up a welcoming conversation. Maybe the child pushed in because they don’t have any friends to stand with anywhere else or they really want to be your friend. This last option is great because this way you may even make a new friend!

Do you want to know the best thing about all of these options? Your child can do them without the need for adult intervention.


These friendly choices empower children to solve problems ON THEIR OWN. They may also begin to empathise with the other child and see the reasoning behind the child’s actions which, more often than not, comes from a place of pain or is due to unmet needs. I bet if you brainstormed other friendly choices young people can

make in different situations, they could come up with better ideas that allow them to be both self-sufficient and compassionate. Educators and caregivers will be much more successful in teaching children about conflict resolution and taking responsibility for their actions if they have a common goal.


All of this training we do with children about choices is intended to shift their locus of control from external to internal. Essentially this means that rather than doing things from an EXTERNAL locus of control, ie because they don’t want to get into trouble, for some sort of external reward, to please an adult, or simply because they are following the “rules”, they instead act out of an INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL. That is, out of consideration for other people, and using their own inner compass to guide them. We all want to create thinking, caring citizens who make friendly choices. Imagine a world where everybody was taught at a young age how to devise, and then follow, their own personal code of behaviour. This code would safeguard them from negative peer pressure and bullying, and steer them towards friendly, collaborative choices that create healthy and harmonious human co-existence. Now there’s a world I’d like to live in.

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