It has become axiomatic in our field to say that “all behaviour serves a purpose”. Where this saying came from originally is probably long lost to our collective memory. The best guess is that it probably came from some writings in systems theory. But what does it mean?
Imagine a young person who runs away from a group care facility. And ask yourself, “why did she run away”? Did she run away to be with her friends? Did she run away because others in the program were threatening her? Did she run away to make staff chase after her? Did she run away to be with her boy friend? Lets look at those reasons, and what purpose might be served by the behaviour of running away.
The first question we might have is “what need is being met by the behaviour?” Look at the following list:
"To be with her friends". We all have a need to belong. This is especially true of young people who are developing their sense of identify. Maybe when she runs away to be with her friends, she finds a place where she feels she belongs, is cared for, is wanted.
"Others in the program were threatening her". We all have a need to feel safe – psychologically, emotionally, physically. If a person is feeling threatened, she may run away because when she is away, she feels more safe, more secure.
"To make staff chase after her." We all have a need to feel some sense of control in our lives. Maybe by making us behave in a certain way (chasing her), she gains some sense of control. She is, in essence, taking charge over some aspect of her life, determining the outcome.
"To be with her boyfriend". Some people say we all have a need to feel loved, or to feel cared for by someone. Maybe when she runs to her boyfriend, she finds a place where she feels loved, and can give love.
Notice, if you will, that there is a purpose to the behaviour. It meets a need. Now, I am not saying that these are the only reasons why young people run away. But for some youth, these might be the reasons. For another youth the reasons might be different. It depends on what unmet needs the youth may be experiencing. Our job is to discover the reason for the behaviour and one way to discover that reason is to ask 'What need might be met by this behaviour?”
Another way to wonder about the purpose of the behaviour, is to look at what happens as a result of the behaviour. And in doing so, we have to look at what we do in response to it. For example, if she runs away, what is our response, both when she does the behaviour, and when the behaviour is over. So, for example, what do we do when she returns? Do we spend time with her, explaining why it was wrong, giving her a lecture, telling her we were worried, drawing her closer to us by making her stay in the program with us? In these cases, look at what happened – she ran away and we spent more time with her, we became engaged with her. We might wonder if this was, after all, the purpose of her behaviour – to get us connected with her.
Imagine the following: A young man is told by his father to be home at ten o'clock. He comes home late. His father talks to him about why it is important to be home on time. The next night he comes home late again. His father gives him a “real talking to”. The next night he comes home late again. He and his father have a fight. This continues no matter what the father does. In the end, we have to wonder why the youth continues to be late, even though the father does everything he can. And we wonder whether the purpose of the behaviour isn’t simply to engage the father, to spend time with him.
Needs change with time and circumstances, of course. As a young person grows, more complex needs emerge and as a family changes needs may become more intense or more subtle. Competing needs also arise at times, for example when a young person experiences the need for belonging which she may meet through being with her peers, yet still experiences the need for safety which might be threatened by some aspect of her friend's behaviour.
It isn't simple to determine which need is being met by any particular behaviour. Often the hardest work of the child and youth care worker is to build a hypothesis about the purpose of a particular behaviour, and then to test out the hypothesis through investigating other aspects of a young person's life and through intervening to meet the need we suspect is currently unmet. And as always, we have to consider the context within which a behaviour takes place.
All behaviour does serve a purpose, and that purpose is usually to meet an unmet need. When we understand the purpose of a behaviour, we find ways to respond to it in a manner which meets the expressed need. And when we find ways to meet the unmet need, the original behaviour of concern often becomes unnecessary and disappears. Thus, meeting the unmet need is an alternative to simply trying to control or directly change a behaviour.
It is an approach based on care, not control.