Causes of Abnormal Behavior

Anke Langner

Abnormal behavior - behavioral disorder

Definition of terms: In behavioral biology, behavior is defined as an active change in a person or animal that is perceptible and therefore also detectable with technical aids, and which serves in some form of communication (cf. Zimbardo 1995, 115ff). This adaptation of an organism to its environment can be influenced on the one hand by genes and on the other by learning. From a sociological perspective, behavior is examined as a phenomenon of social coexistence. Within pedagogy, behavior in turn characterizes the ability of an individual to react with language and / or actions to the reaction of others or to their expectations. An inadequate, expected reaction or behavior that appears strange and not very meaningful and expedient is accordingly interpreted by pedagogy as a behavioral problem or a behavioral disorder. This interpretation requires a yardstick that determines which behavior makes sense for the observer or which is appropriate for the environment. The basis for this standard are ideas about human behavior that are shaped by societal, social and cultural norms. Behavioral abnormalities or behavioral disorders therefore depend on the perspective and the basic theoretical assumptions of the observer. For the conceptual definition of so-called deviant behavior, three different terms are used: behavioral problems - behavioral disorder - educational difficulties. They are often used synonymously, although they have to be differentiated. The educational difficulty ascribes a problem to the respective individual from the pedagogical perspective. The behavioral problem focuses on a strongly normative view of the behavior that is determined to be deviant. Therefore, there is currently a tendency to speak of behavioral disorder, although this also requires a subjective assessment.


classification: Behavioral disorders are classified by the ICD - 10 (International Classification of Diseases). The classification of behavioral disorders includes a) externalizing disorders such as hyperactivity, aggression, attention disorder, negativism, tyranny; b) internalizing behavior disorders such as over-anxiety, inhibition, depression, social withdrawal, inferiority, psychosomatic disorders; c) Developmental delays such as poor concentration, behavior inappropriate to age, passivity, learning difficulties, daydreaming and d) socialized delinquency such as violence, irritability, irresponsibility, low inhibition threshold, relationship disorders, easy excitability and frustration (see also Myschker 1996, 43ff).


Explanatory models of behavioral disorders

The models for explaining behavioral disorders or behavioral abnormalities differ in terms of their location and the definition of behavior. Depending on the type of definition of behavior, a different, necessary, educational action is derived from these models.

Medical-neurobiological perspective: The medical gaze (see Foucault) establishes a deviation from normal human behavior. From the medical point of view, it is a disorder if the observed behavior has pathological features or is pathological. The causes of behavioral problems are located in organic or functional disorders of the central nervous system. Accordingly, from the medical point of view, a behavioral problem is often inherent and less susceptible to being influenced by the environment. As a result, conduct disorder is an individual problem; the disturbance is in the individual alone. The individual only becomes aware of the change in behavior as a disorder through attribution by others. This means that the individual himself does not have to perceive the behavior that is determined to be not meaningful as such. The treatment of this "disorder" is primarily drug-oriented.

behaviorism: In the sense of behaviorism, behavior is expressly a result of conditioning, the result of which depends on the investment conditions and on the cognitive processes taking place in the individual. Conditioning is referred to in behaviorism as the central process for the adoption of norms and behaviors. Through conditioning, the child acquires the behavior of his caregivers from an early age. Pathological behaviors are also learned in this way. For example, fear experiences can be transferred to other situations and, as a result, anxiety disorders can develop. The diagnostic tool of behaviorism for the determination of behavioral abnormalities is behavior observation, whereby the perspective of the observer is decisive for this. The behavioral problems diagnosed in this way are normalized again via behavior training or behavioral therapeutic measures. This is also followed by educational measures such as token-based reward systems (see Brack 1999).

Psychological perspective: Differentiated according to the different psychological models of knowledge, there are different explanations for the development of behavioral disorders. It is common to all psychological theories that the causes of the behavioral abnormalities are seen in deviating psychological processes - that is, processes that take place within the individual. Freud's psychoanalytic theory understands behavioral disorders as a result of inappropriate psychological processes. Accordingly, it explains behavioral disorders as deviations in one or more functions of psychological processes. These lead to an inadequate development of the ego, which is expressed in a weakness to react optimally to the demands of the environment. Developmental disorders can include early childhood trauma, psycho-sexual development problems, or relationship disorders. According to the assumption of the cause, there are various diagnostic instruments such as depth psychological play therapy, psychodrama and many more. With this perspective on behavioral disorders, work is primarily therapeutic, but not pedagogical (see, among others, Erikson 1973, p. 11ff.).

Constructivism: According to constructivism, there is no objective reality; rather, each subject constructs itself as a self-referential autopoetic system. Therefore, from the constructivist perspective, it is impossible to define behavior as a “behavioral disorder”. Behavior is guided by the respective subject and cannot be objectively recorded and described by external observers. The behavior perceived by the observer represents only a construction of the same person. Every subject, including everyone who is ascribed a “behavioral disorder”, deals with his / her reality in a self-organized way according to constructivism. This interaction can be incomprehensible for the outside observer, because he / she cannot derive any familiar meaning from the behavior of the other, which appears unusual and observed. With this understanding, pedagogical action that follows the constructivist approach cannot relate to diagnostic criteria based on external observations. Because these degrade the child to an object to which the observer ascribes meaningful / nonsensical, normal / abnormal or desirable / undesirable behavior. Applying the constructivist idea to pedagogy means not making any behavioral attributions based on one's own values ​​and norms. There is an absolute need for self-reflection on the part of the pedagogue and the central element of pedagogy must be the establishment of the relationship level and successful communication. Only in this way can a common meaning be established, which is the basis for the necessary exchange between self-referential systems (see Maturana & Varela 1987, p. 44ff .; Watzlawick).

Cultural-historical school: In the sense of the culture-historical school, behavior is a construction between two people (see Developmental Psychology Vygotskij 1987, Volume II, pp. 53ff.) And thus similar to the constructivist understanding of behavior. Accordingly, a behavioral disorder is a social construct. Understanding a disorder or a disability as a social construct is possible, among other things, with Vygotskij's defectological model. With this model he shows that a "defect" represents the "core of the retardation" (the disorder or the handicap), the causes of which can be genetic or biological changes or malformations. The large number of impairments that are visible, however, are not an expression of the defect, but the consequence of the necessary primary and secondary compensation services. These compensations are necessary for the individual due to the social isolation or experiences of violence associated with the defect (e.g. in the case of trisomy 21). This social isolation or the effects of violence on the individual change the social exchange with others, which is fundamental for human development. Each individual is the active designer of his development, but he needs a social partner or "co-designer". If access to such partners is difficult or not available at all, development is hindered. The more extensive the compensatory work required, the stronger the secondary consequences for the individual: they can fundamentally change social interactions and create new formations that may take on pathological traits.

Even in the case of experienced social deprivation, violence or the attribution of a behavioral disorder, the individual is forced to compensate for the existing change in social exchange. As a result, social exchange is hindered or massively disrupted. These changes in the entire development process often lead to a pathologization of a seemingly nonsensical action. The “behavior disorder” is therefore a disorder of social interaction as a result of experiences of violence (this includes neglect, loss of trust in caregivers or isolation) or the failure of social exchange with others and not a phenomenon that can be ascribed to the individual as “nonfunction” .


Pedagogical challenge: meaningfulness of behavior

For a pedagogical understanding of behavioral disorders, two categories should therefore be of central importance: meaning and understanding. Both require a dialogue between educators and students or, as determined by constructivist-led pedagogy, the creation of a common space of meaning. Understanding the other and the behavior that makes sense for them can only be achieved through dialogue.

Such an understanding can be assumed, since there is a meaningfulness of his behavior for every individual. Lurija (1992, p. 122ff.) Shows in his development theory that every human being has a biological sense from birth. In the course of development and through dealing with the environment, a social sense emerges. This as well as the developing personal sense are motives for the individual actions. The genesis of meaning thus states that there is no “nonsensical behavior”. Every behavior is meaningful for the individual in the respective situation, even if the educator does not seem to make sense. The challenge for pedagogy is to understand the meaningfulness of the behavior and not to prevent the observed behavior. Because, as already determined above, changes in behavior stand for necessary compensatory achievements of the individual. Simply turning this off again implies hindering social exchange by exercising violence and not investigating the causes of the observed behavior. This will be explained briefly using an example. In people with the most severe impairments, behavior typical of hospitalism can often be observed; these could be attributed to the respective individual or his or her disability. However, people do not develop behavior with hospitalistic features due to a genetic defect, for example, but as a result of a severely disabled social exchange process in which it is not possible to establish a dialogue. People who live in such a form of isolation lack communication with others and the shared activity. This situation alone is already characterized by violence (no communication - isolation, etc.) and often leads to even more violence (no experience of recognition, determination by others, etc.).

Not only people with the most severe disabilities develop “behavioral problems” due to a lack of dialogue, even in the case of learning difficulties, such development processes can occur as a result of inadequate learning opportunities for the pupil with learning difficulties.


Integration and inclusion

If one follows the idea that every behavior is meaningful action for the respective individual, it seems questionable to speak of behavioral disorders, especially in the context of inclusion and integration. The category “behavioral problems” along with the separation and isolation of people with “behavioral problems” or the need for “emotional development” does not make sense for the idea of ​​integration and inclusion. It does not aim at the recognition of diversity and difference, but at the distinction, the standard of which is normal behavior. In terms of Gaussian normal distribution, there is a social understanding of normal behavior with regard to social skills in dealing with others and with oneself. These skills are set normatively and absolutely. With this normativity, the idea of ​​the homogeneity of people is maintained, because with their help exclusion, isolation and selection are secured and can be manifested.

For the idea of ​​integration and inclusion, normality cannot be used as a normative term, but must be set relationally (cf. Jantzen 2001, p. 228). Only then can one ask about the basic idea of ​​inclusion - the coexistence of diversity and difference.

From the inclusive perspective, “behavioral disorders” have to be deconstructed in an appreciative dialogue with one another. This implies that the pedagogical procedure has to change fundamentally, as Jantzen shows using the ADS as an example. Pedagogy must ask about the core of the “syndrome” and develop pedagogical measures and above all an understanding from it and not rely on medical sedatives (cf. Jantzen 2001) or social exclusion.





Brack, Udo (ed.) (1999): Early diagnosis and early therapy. Beltz.

Jantzen, Wolfgang (2001): About the social construction of behavioral disorders - The example of ADS. Journal for Curative Education 52 (7), 222-231.

Erikson, Erik. (1973). Identity and Life Cycle. Frankfurt / M. : Suhrkamp.

Foucault, Michel. (1999). The birth of the clinic. (5th edition). Munich: Fischer.

Lurija, Alexander. (1992). The brain in action. Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Maturana, HHumberto & Varela FFrancisco (1987): The Tree of Knowledge. Bern et al.

Myschker, Norbert (1996): Behavioral disorders in children and adolescents. 2nd Edition. Stuttgart / Berlin: Kohlhammer.

Watzlawick, Paul (1991): The possibility of being different. On the technique of therapeutic communication. Bern et al.

Vygotsky, Lev. (1987). Selected Writings (Volumes I + II). Berlin: people and knowledge.

Zimbardo, Philip. (1995). Psychology (6th revised and expanded edition). Berlin / Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.




Dr. Anke Langner

[email protected]

June 2009





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