Asking “Why” Questions Does Not Improve Behavior

Many teachers and parents fall into the trap of asking children “why” they did something. “Why did you hit your brother?” “Why did you throw your book on the floor?” “Why are you not listening to the instructions?” They mistakenly think that it is necessary to understand the “why” of a behavioral problem in order to fix it.

By focusing on the “why,” they are treating social-behavioral skills the same way as academic skills. However, academic skills deal with the cognitive domain, whereas behavior has to do with the affective domain—those factors that pertain to feelings and emotions. This is why knowing “why a building collapsed” is important to fixing the problem, but knowing “why you hit your brother” is irrelevant to changing behavior. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to articulate with certainty the underlying reasons for behavior.

My personal life attests to this little acknowledged fact. I attended speech therapy all the way through elementary, junior high, and high school. When I graduated high school, I still had a severe stutter. Although much research and study gave me great insight into the cause of my behavior, it had absolutely nothing to do with “fixing my problem.” In order to change my behavior, it was necessary for my brain to establish new neural patterns. Although at the time I did not know how the brain operates, I did know that in order to change behavior, it would be necessary to participate in and experience new behavior patterns in order to replace my current pattern. In college, therefore, I decided to participate in new experiences such as impromptu and
extemporaneous speaking, debating, and radio broadcasting.

The major point here is that when you focus on attempting to understand the reason that prompted the behavior, you are focusing on the past and simply revisiting memories. The more you stay in the past, the more you avoid working in the present. The past cannot be changed. It is useless to water last year’s crops. Dr. William Glasser put it succinctly: “We do not need to find the pothole that ambushed the car in order to align the front end.”