This Child is Not a problem!

Do you ever feel like the pressure is on to be a perfect parent? Whether it’s all the “expert advice” in the headlines, one-upmanship on the soccer sidelines, or dire warnings about autism and attention–deficit disorder, it’s easy to assume the worst when children misbehave. Instead, try using the Cognitive Processes to reframe behavior problems.

What are the Cognitive Processes? Check out this simple chart [pdf on next page] explaining the needs of each, from my book Doable Differentiation [link to website page for this book]. If you’re a parent, check out Elizabeth Murphy’s wonderful and practical guide The Developing Child [].

You see, the Cognitive Processes describe normal differences among normal people—in how we are energized and the information we need to learn. Chances are, children you struggle with have a different Cognitive process than you do. If that’s the case, what’s normal for them may be frustrating, infuriating, or even exhausting to you.

Let’s take a look at just one dimension of these differences––how we’re energized. About half of all children are energized by external sources. They need action and interaction. The other half are energized by internal sources. They need time alone and activities that allow them to reflect. This has nothing to do with shyness or the number of friends that they have. Instead, it’s about what engages them up and what wears them out.

How can you tell a child’s source of energy? Watch them. I have one of each. My son is “Internal” while my daughter is “External” (note that this goes against gender stereotypes––using the Cognitive Processes will give you far greater insights into your children’s motivations than gender alone). Do they reach out or pull in?

  • My son’s first word was “hi” while my daughter’s first word was “bye”. 
  • When I would pick them up from preschool, my daughter would ask, “Where are we going next?” My son would ask, “When we getting home?” 
  • If it was a day for play dates, my son would happily play alone if his two or three best friends weren’t available. In contrast, my daughter would contact every girl in her class to find someone to play with––anyone was better than no one. 
  • My son was content with one or two after–school programs a week. My daughter wanted something to do every day.

Now think about how a child you struggle with compares with you. Picture an “External” child after a long day in a quiet school classroom. Now picture an adult with an “Internal” style after a long, busy day. Adult wants quiet, child wants action. It’s a setup for disaster. It’s easy to think, ADHD, or to demand, “Sit and work quietly. Now!” when the child truly can’t sit still anymore! And of course, the needs can be reversed. An “External” adult might assume the child will be interested in more group activities. True for some, but a path to misbehavior or even tantrums for others.

An amazing number of misunderstandings––and problems––can result from misunderstanding ourselves and the children in our lives on this difference alone. Think about it: Is your classroom—or afternoon/evening schedule—adaptable for those External and Internal children? If not, what’s the simplest thing you can do to create space for each way of being energized? 

Bottom line: When a child can’t sit still, or is crabby after a long day at school, or asks for recess, or begs to not go to an activity, or doesn’t seem to be able to read silently for more than 5 minutes at a time, assume the best instead of the worst. You two may just be wired differently.


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Jane Kise

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.