Mistaken Goals - a way to understand why students behave in unacceptable, unhealthy, and self-defeating ways


I taught health education for 33 years. It basically involves dispensing helpful information and advice. We do that very well, but there’s a catch. People simply don’t always do what they know is best for them. People often do things that are unhealthy, even when they know better. They often continue to even after suffering because of it, or seeing others do so.


People often wonder why friends and loved ones behave in ways that jeopardize their health. Parents and teachers often wonder why their children and students do some of the things they do. The answer is always the same. Behavior starts and continues because it serves a purpose. It’s always goal-orientated. People have to be getting something out of what they do, or they wouldn’t do it, or would stop. So what could people be getting out of behaving in unhealthy ways? What could students get out of misbehaving?  


I always knew that what gave many unhealthy behaviors purpose is that people tend to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to, or about their life events. E-motion can be helpful energy to move, to help us get what we want and need, to make our lives better, and ultimately survive threats to our lives. By dysfunctional, I mean

1)      more emotion than is helpful or necessary

2)      more than they want to have

3)      more than is healthy for them to have

4)      more than they know what to do with

5)      a type and amount that works against them instead of for them.

Anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt more often than not fit these definitions. So many of the unhealthy behaviors I was tasked to prevent in health education give people temporary relief from such feelings. But it is only temporary, and that’s why people keep repeating them, and become addicted to such behaviors because of it. It’s why such behaviors are usually unresponsive to information and advice - they serve a purpose in peoples’ lives. As long as they do, people will continue to engage in them, even when they know better, even after suffering because they do.


It’s why the War on Drugs has largely failed. I don’t mean that in any way that discounts the heroic efforts of thousands of people who’ve risked their lives trying to stop drug traffic. There have been many major successes with regard to interdiction. However, there has always been and continues to be a demand for drugs in our country. That demand is there because drugs continue to serve a purpose in too many peoples’ lives. Drugs and alcohol always have, and continue to provide temporary relief to tens of millions of people who generate more emotion than they want to have, or know what to do with. As long as drugs continue to serve this purpose, and that creates a demand, there will be people willing to risk their own lives and the lives of others to meet that demand, either in themselves, or others. This is part of why I’ve always believe it is so important that we teach all our young people how to better manage what goes on inside their own heads, starting early in their lives. It’s why I never did the usual drug education with students, and instead spent my class time teaching them how to feel better.


I took a graduate class entitled “Cooperative Discipline”. It was based on a text for teachers by the same name written by Linda Albert. It was in that class that I first learned about Rudolph Dreikurs’ “mistaken” goals model.  Dreikurs spent many hours observing misbehaving students in classrooms and concluded that when they misbehave, they typically have one or more of four mistaken goals. He called them Attention, Power and Control, Revenge and Avoidance of Failure. He suggested that they move through this sequence largely in that order, ultimately ending up at Avoidance of Failure, and perhaps dropping out.


Dreikurs suggested that students would often start out trying to get an inordinate amount of attention from other students and teachers, in unacceptable ways. They get punished for their behavior, get frustrated and angry, and move on to Power and Control, and even trying to get even. After years of “locking horns” with teachers, being told and believing they don’t live up to expectations, and feeling ashamed, anxious and threatened by school work, they finally stop working, start missing classes or school, and may drop out - if they don’t get kicked out for a power struggle or act of vengeance first. Some get a head start and have already adopted the “mistaken” goals of Power and Control, Revenge or Avoidance of Failure by the time they get to school. Unfortunately, too often teachers not only don’t help short circuit their movement through this sequence, but unknowingly or inadvertently actually facilitate it.  


My first thought when I was taught Rudolph Dreikurs “mistaken” goals model was that it wasn’t just students who had mistaken goals, and it wasn’t just in the classroom that people had them. I knew it was a simple way to help my health education students understand why people behave in unhealthy, self-defeating ways outside school, at any age, even when they know better, and even after suffering in some way. Kids can start using tobacco, alcohol and drugs, have unprotected sex, or even attempt suicide for attention as well. They can do these things to prove to adults that they have power and are in control of their lives instead of adults, or to get even with them. People of all ages will sometimes hesitate to do things they might want to do, or that would be good for them, just to avoid the possibility of failing. Those in relationships will often fight about who’s in control, and to have power and control over one another, or even to get even with each other. They sometimes do it to the point that the relationship deteriorates, or even ends.


The word “mistaken” is perfect because these short term goals get people off course from getting what they really want in life. We all want the same basic things. To live as long as possible instead of die early, to be healthy instead of sick, happy instead of unhappy, successful instead of failing, and to have good relations with others, as much freedom to do as we please as possible, and as much control over our own destiny as possible. Behaving in unhealthy, self-defeating and unacceptable ways gives people some immediate gratification or reward. However, in achieving their “mistaken” goal, they make getting what they really want in the long run less likely. For example, a couple really wanted to spend their lives together, but got so caught up in getting back at each other that they break up. A student doesn’t want to get into trouble, but gets into power struggles routinely with teachers and does. Or a student really would like to graduate, but stops working to avoid failing, and doesn’t get credit for his classes.


The many unhealthy behaviors I was tasked to prevent all help people to withdraw from or to avoid unpleasantness in their lives, and get relief from the feelings that go with it. It’s why I added the “mistaken” goal of Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief to Dreikurs’ list when I taught health education. People are able to achieve this “mistaken” goal and to withdraw from and avoid unpleasantness, and get relief by smoking, drinking or using drugs (and other ways as well), but they can end up addicted, with health problems, suffer needlessly, destroy relationships they want and value, and even die prematurely. That is why having such a goal is also “mistaken”.


I’ve always believed that every child or teen really wants to get along with and please adults. I’ve always believed it’s built into their DNA. It would make sense that it would be in terms of evolution and survival. Human children are so dependent on adults for survival for so long.  I’ve always believed that our best hope in dealing with troubled and troublesome students will always be to seek out that part of them that just wants to get along with others, wants to please adults, and that just wants the same kind of life they see so many others around them having – a life that they have never been able to figure out how to get for themselves. By having “mistaken” goals like Attention, Power and Control, Revenge and Avoidance of failure, and behaving in ways teachers don’t like, they are less likely to ever get that kind of life. If they start smoking, drinking or using drugs to withdraw from or avoid unpleasantness, and get relief, that won’t help either.


A sixth “mistaken” goal I’ve added to the list is “Who’s right or wrong?” So many arguments seem to have this “mistaken” goal. That’s true in relationships, classrooms, families or even politics. The goal becomes so much about proving we’re right, and that the other person is wrong that it makes it impossible to find common ground and compromise. Emotion builds with each new exchange, and conflicts escalate. We end up in a constant state of conflict, and no one gets what they really want. Those in relationships might even start to not want to be around each other anymore, and may even part ways.


Regardless of whom it is, or what the “mistaken” goals are, it’s easy for people to lose sight of what they’ve always wanted in the first place. Parents start wondering why they ever wanted to have kids. Spouses start questioning what they ever saw in someone. Teachers start wondering why they ever wanted to be a teacher. If you ask kids what they really want, they typically won’t be able to say. They often just say something like “Just leave me alone".                                                                                              


Mistaken goals are really just thoughts. Those thoughts are often a person’s automatic response to life events. They’re automatic because “ruts” have been created in peoples’ brains from past practice and rehearsal. These thoughts simultaneously give rise to “mistaken” goals and a dysfunctional amount of emotion. That emotion then becomes the energy to move that drives the behavior intended to satisfy the mistaken goal. The more emotion someone generates, the more driven they’ll be to satisfy their mistaken goal and behave in the way they do.


Mistaken goals tend to be associated with certain feelings. For example, the lonelier or more estranged from others a child or teen feels, the more driven they might be to seek attention from others, perhaps in some unacceptable, self-defeating way. The more anger a student generates, the more driven he/she will be to prove he/she has power, and is in control, or to get even with someone else. Unfortunately, teachers often adopt these same three mistaken goals with students when teachers make themselves angry about what students do. Students and teachers alike are also more likely to try to prove that they are right and the other wrong when they make themselves angry. Anger gives people a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. That makes it hard for them to see, let alone admit that they’re wrong. Ever met an angry person who thought they were wrong? The more shame and anxiety a student generates, the more driven they will be to avoid failure at all costs. Finally, the more anxiety, depression, shame, guilt and loneliness a person generates, the more driven someone will be to seek relief, perhaps through alcohol, drugs or even suicide; and the more purpose doing such things will serve in their lives. The chart below summarizes these connections.

Mistaken Goal...................................Feeling(s)

Attention............................................Loneliness, Estrangement

Power and Control............................Anger


Avoidance of Failure.........................Shame, Anxiety

Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief...........Anxiety, Depression, Shame, Guilt, Loneliness

Who’s right, who’s wrong.................Anger

Learning to recognize “mistaken” goals in ourselves and others is Tool #8 in what I call The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life. You can read more about “mistaken goals” at:



I always urge teachers to see behavior as the mere tip of the iceberg. I also urge them to see behavior as a symptom rather than a problem. It’s a symptom of dysfunctional thoughts and a dysfunctional amount of emotion that those thoughts give rise to, both of which a student needs help with. I also urge them to be more like doctors; to take a student’s history into account, and to consider symptoms before being too quick to prescribe any type of treatment. If a student’s behavior could talk, what would it say? What doesn’t come out in words will often come out in behavior. Their behavior is often the only way they tell us something about what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. Too often teachers do the equivalent of a doctor being quick to prescribe the same treatment for every patient that comes to him/her without ever taking a history, or considering symptoms - and then prescribing even more of the same treatment when it doesn’t work.

The ultimate goal of teachers should be to identify those dysfunctional thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that cause students to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion, to have “mistaken” goals, and to behave in unacceptable, unhealthy and self-defeating ways. There are three simple statements that explain why this is important:

1)      Thoughts cause feelings, not events

2)      A person’s behavior always follows a person’s emotions toward his/her emotions toward their life events

3)      Attitude is always the father of behavior

What these 3 statements tell us is that as long as a student’s thoughts, attitudes and beliefs remain the same, he/she will continue to disturb themselves, have mistaken goals, and behave in ways we might not like and that aren’t good for him/her. If we’re not careful, what we say and do can even make matter worse because of how what we do interfaces with what they think.  

I’ve always seen identifying the “mistaken” goal a student has as a first step in working toward identifying a student’s dysfunctional thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. In terms of the iceberg metaphor, “mistaken” goals are like a glass bottom boat that gives us a window into what is going on beneath the surface – what those thoughts, attitudes and beliefs might be. That’s also true for the feelings that go with the “mistaken” goals.  They can also be helpful in working backwards to a student’s thoughts, attitudes and beliefs.


I like to use Dr. Albert Ellis’ model of irrational thinking in conjunction with feelings and mistaken goals to speculate what students might be thinking. Ellis said that people engage in four basic types of irrational thinking. He called them: Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Labeling and Damning.


Demandiness means that people start to:

1)       think they NEED things they simply want

2)      treat their simple preferences as NECESSITIES

3)      DEMAND what they simply desire

The reason this is important is that the bigger the difference between our expectations and reality, the more emotion we’ll generate. For example, if we simply want, prefer or desire something and don’t get it, we’ll be frustrated, irritated and annoyed. But if we think we NEED it (perhaps even like air, water and food), that it’s a NECESSITY (like those things are) and DEMAND it instead, we’ll be angry if or when we don’t get it. Or, we’ll end up ANXIOUS instead of just concerned, DEPRESSED instead of just sad, and feel ASHAMED or GUILTY instead of just having regret or remorse.


We can make DEMANDS of others, ourselves or life. Which we make demands of will determine what feeling we get. ANGER comes from making demands of others that don’t get met. ANXIETY comes from making demands of ourselves or life BEFORE life events occur, i.e. a test, interview, or teaching a class. SHAME and GUILT come from making demands of ourselves AFTER such life events occur, and things did not go as well as expected, or we demanded they go before. Finally, DEPRESSION comes from making demands of life. These demands often involve what we jokingly call SHOULDING on others, ourselves or life. For example, “They SHOULD show me more respect” (anger), “I SHOULD have done better” (shame) or “This SHOULDN’T be happening to me” (depression). By identifying the feeling a student is generating, it can help a teacher work backwards to the thoughts, attitudes and beliefs he/she might have.

The chart below can be helpful in brainstorming demands a student might be making. You need simply with the feeling they have. That tells you who or what they are making demands of. That determines what pronouns they are probably combining with the verbs or verb phrases of demands. Sorry, but I can't seem to figure out how to get the cclumns to line up perfectly. Hopefully you can still make sense of the chart.

Feeling they have              Anger               Anxiety (Before)            Anxiety (Before)

                                                                    Shame, Guilt (after)      Depression (After)


Demand of                       Others                           Self                              Life


Pronouns used                He, She                                     

                                         You, They                          I                              This, It


How dare…..?                        +

How could….?                       +                                 +                                 +

Need (to)                                +                                 +                                 +

Have to                                   +                                 +                                 +

Should (be, have)                  +                                 +                                 +

Can’t                                        +                                 +                                 +

Shouldn’t (be, have)              +                                 +                                 +


For example, if a student is angry, he might be thinking (or even say out loud)

How dare they do that to me

How could they do that to me

They can’t do that to me

They shouldn’t have done that to me

They need to apologize for that

They have to apologize for that

They should apologize for that


AWFULIZING simply means that someone tells themselves that what has, or might happen to him/her would be AWFUL instead of just unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable in some way, or to some degree. CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS involves someone telling themselves they CAN’T STAND something they simply don’t like. Finally, people LABEL AND DAMN themselves or others as persons instead of just disliking what they or others did. They condemn the doer instead of the deed. They over generalize about themselves and others. It’s like calling an apple bad simply because it has a bruise. They call themselves or others stupid simply because they or others did a stupid thing. Smart people do stupid things all the time. In fact, when people start to think they NEED things they simply want, and start to DEMAND what they simply desire, it can make otherwise smart people do stupid things.

You can read more about these four types of irrational thoughts at:



Using “mistaken” goals and this connection between DEMANDS and feelings, we can speculate and brainstorm what a student’s thoughts, attitudes and beliefs might be. Ellis called this speculative hypothesizing. In other words, guessing or theorizing what students might be thinking. That will always be the key to their behavior and the feelings that drive it. As noted earlier, thoughts cause feelings, not events; and attitude is always the father of behavior


Dr. Ellis created a five step process for helping people get into a better mental and emotional place that would allow them to make better choices, and behave in ways that make life better instead of worse.

A  =  Activating Event

B  =  Beliefs

C  =  Consequences (Feel, Do)

D  =  Dispute

E  =  Effective Coping Statements

Identifying a student’s irrational beliefs, and helping him/her become more aware of them is Step B in his five step process. Step A is identifying the Activating Event, or what others said or did, or that happened that someone is generating thoughts and feelings about. Events can be real or simply imagined (or remembered). Step B is identifying the Beliefs that a person has about the Activating Event, or others, him/herself or life. Step C is for Consequences, or what someone feels and says or does as a consequence of what they believe about the Activating Event, him/herself, others or life. Step D is for Disputing, or questioning and challenging the irrational beliefs someone has. Finally, Step E stands for Effective Coping Statements, or thoughts a person could have instead that would help them generate a more functional amount of emotion, and behave in more rational ways.

I’ve always believed taking this five step approach to any classroom or school discipline problem would be much more constructive than simply handing out detentions or suspensions of some kind. The beauty of it is that you don’t have to be a counselor, social worker, psychologist or therapist to do it.

You can read more about these steps at: www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool6.html


I’ve always believed that the further into discipline we get, the more positive it should be. Actually, I like to start out positive as well. One way to do that is to quickly ask oneself “What is this kid’s mistaken goal?”  I sometimes even ask students, “So what’s your mistaken goal right now?” instead of just blurting out “You have a detention” I might even follow up with “I’ll give you ten extra credit points if you can tell me what it is”. From there I can quickly start to speculate or hypothesize what their thoughts might be, and perhaps even get them to do so. For example, “What would you have to tell yourself to make yourself so angry, and cause you to do that, something you know would probably get you into trouble?” I might active listen some possibilities for the student. For example, “Are you telling yourself ‘He can’t do that to me’?”  However, discipline should always be private whenever possible. Of course, when handled this way, it can also be a “teachable moment” for all students in a class.


I’ve heard this process called “Brief Therapy” or “Brief Counseling”. It doesn’t have to take long. You can just identify and challenge one or a couple of thoughts. How effective it will be, and how well a student might tolerate it will depend on a teacher’s demeanor, and the atmosphere a teacher has established in the classroom before any incident arises. If it always seems to be one of just trying to resolve conflicts amicably, students are more likely to tolerate “brief therapy”. It can also help to let them know from day one that you have Unconditional Other Acceptance (UOA) for them and all other human beings, and encourage them to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA), and UOA for each other.


Unconditional Other Acceptance (UOA) means that I let the students know that I believe that whatever any of us thinks, feels, says or does is understandable, given that we’re human beings, fallible, and what we each have been through so far in our lives. I always encourage them to look at themselves and their classmates in this way from the very first day. I also suggest that we’ll never be the first or last person in human history to think, feel, say or do something. Therefore, what we think, feel, say or do is just part of being human, and nothing to be ashamed of, or to beat up on ourselves or others for. That doesn’t mean we have to like, agree with, or even tolerate what others say and do. It just help temper our emotional responses to other, and ourselves, by choosing to look at things this way.

You can read more about USA and UOA at: www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool2.html


Instead of saying something critical or judgmental, as adults often do with young people who misbehave, I simply ask them, and encourage them to ask themselves 3 simple questions. First, “What do you really want?” For example, "Do you want to pass this class and get credit for it?" or "Do you want to just sit in here like everyone else and then be free to leave at the end of the period?" Second, “How’s the way you’re thinking or looking at things (and the way you’re making yourself feel and behave because of that) working for you?” In other words, “Is it helping you get what you really want, or making it harder? Does it help you feel the way you’d like to, or worse than you want to, or than is helpful or necessary?” I often follow up with a third question, “If you keep thinking and looking at things the way you do now (and feeling and behaving the way you are because of that), will it be easier or harder to get what you really want in the future?”


There are simple but effective ways to correct irrational thinking in ourselves, and challenge it in students. It need only involve asking some simple questions. When you challenge someone else’s thinking, it always helps to “affirm their preference” first. In the following example, B = Belief, ATF = Affirm the Preference, D = Dispute, and A = Answer.

B: “They can’t say that about me!”

ATP: “Look, I can understand why you don’t like when they say that. I wouldn’t either. You have every right to not like it. I can also understand why you don’t want them saying that. I wouldn’t want them to say that to me either. You have every right to want them not to.”

D: “But why can’t they say that about you? They can’t, or you just don’t want them to? They can’t, or you just don’t like when they do?”

People of all ages will typically respond to the first question by starting what they say with “Because….” They go on to list all manner of reasons, none of which are really the correct answers to such questions. Sometimes, you have to tell them what the only correct answers are.

A: “They can say that about you. They can, you just don’t want them to. They can, you just don’t like when they do”

I often follow with “And it’s your right as a human being to not want them to, and to not like when they do” This last part refers to two of five rules I teach students:

Rule #1: You have a right to want whatever you want

Rule #5: You have a right to like or dislike whatever you want to

To learn more about how to correct irrational thinking in yourself, and tactfully challenge it in students, go to:



Unfortunately, teachers can and sometimes do have "mistaken" goals with students. For example, they can have the "mistaken" goals of Power and Control, or Revenge. That's especially likely if teachers make themselves angry about what students do, and wrongly blame students for getting angry. Ultimately, it's a teacher thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that cause how they feel, and father their behavior as well. Having an authoritarian mindset and demanding obedience from students sets a teacher up to find more to get upset about, and to get more upset than is helpful or necessary. This makes them more likely to adopt the "mistaken" goals of Power and Control, and Revenge. 

Put an angry teacher and angry student in the same room, with both having the "mistaken" goals of Power and Control, and Revenge, and you've got the recipe for WWIII. Unfortunately, this happens much too often in schools all around our country. Everyone loses when it does, but especially the students involved. It’s why we end up with so many suspensions and expulsions. It's part of why we have a school to prison pipeline.

If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting more of what we’ve always gotten. We need to do something different. Asking ourselves “So what’s this kid’s mistaken goal?” would be the first step in a different, and much more constructive direction.