Dreikurs (1947, 1948) classifies the goals of the child who has lost confidence in himself into four groups — attracting attention, seeking power, revenge, and declaring inferiority or defeat. Dreikurs is talking about immediate rather than long-term goals. They represent the targets of a child’s «misbehavior», not the behavior of all children (Mosak & Mosak, 1975).

Four psychological goals underlie misbehavior. They can be classified as follows: attracting attention, gaining power, revenge, and feigning incapacity. These goals are immediate and apply to the current situation. Initially, Dreikurs (1968) defined them as deviant or inadequate goals. In the literature, these four goals are also described as misbehavior goals, or misbehavior goals. Often they are referred to as goal number one, goal number two, goal number three, and goal number four.

When children feel that they have not received appropriate recognition or have not found their place in the family, although they behaved in accordance with generally accepted rules, then they begin to develop other ways to achieve their goals. Often they divert all their energy into negative behavior, mistakenly believing that in the end it will help them gain the approval of the group and take their rightful place there. Often children strive for erroneous goals even when opportunities for positive application of their efforts are plentiful at their disposal. Such an attitude is due to a lack of self-confidence, an underestimation of one’s ability to succeed, or an unfavorable set of circumstances that did not allow one to realize oneself in the field of socially useful deeds.

Based on the theory that all behavior is purposeful (i.e., has a definite purpose), Dreikurs (1968) developed a comprehensive classification according to which any deviant behavior in children can be assigned to one of four different categories of purpose. The Dreikurs schema, based on the four goals of misbehavior, is shown in Tables 1 and 2.

For the Adler family counselor, who is deciding how to help the client understand the goals of his behavior, this method of classifying the goals that guide the activities of children can be of the greatest benefit. Before applying this method, the counselor should be thoroughly familiar with all aspects of these four goals of misbehavior. He should memorize the tables on the next page so that he can quickly classify each specific behavior according to its target level as described in the counseling session.

Dreikurs (1968) pointed out that any behavior can be characterized as «useful» or «useless». Beneficial behavior satisfies group norms, expectations, and demands, and thereby brings something positive to the group. Using the diagram above, the counselor’s first step is to determine whether the client’s behavior is useless or helpful. Next, the counselor must determine whether a particular behavior is «active» or «passive.» According to Dreikurs, any behavior can be classified into these two categories as well.

When working with this chart (Table 4.1), counselors will notice that the level of difficulty of a child’s problem changes as social utility increases or decreases, the dimension shown at the top of the chart. This can be indicated by fluctuations in the child’s behavior in the range between useful and useless activities. Such changes in behavior indicate a child’s greater or lesser interest in contributing to the functioning of the group or in meeting group expectations.

Tables 1, 2, and 3. Diagrams illustrating Dreikurs’ view of purposeful behavior1

Having figured out which category a behavior fits into (helpful or unhelpful, active or passive), the counselor can move on to fine-tune the target level for a particular behavior. There are four main guidelines that the counselor should follow in order to uncover the psychological purpose of individual behavior. Try to understand:

  • What do parents or other adults do when faced with this kind of behavior (right or wrong).
  • What emotions does it accompany?
  • What is the reaction of the child in response to a series of confrontational questions, does he have a recognition reflex.
  • What is the reaction of the child to the corrective measures taken.

The information in Table 4 will help parents become more familiar with the four goals of misbehavior. The counselor must teach parents to identify and recognize these goals. Thus, the consultant teaches parents to avoid the traps set by the child.

Tables 4, 5, 6 and 7. Response to correction and proposed corrective actions2

The counselor should also make it clear to the children that everyone understands the «game» they are playing. To this end, the technique of confrontation is used. After that, the child is helped to choose other, alternative forms of behavior. And the consultant must also be sure to inform the children that he will inform their parents about their children’s “games”.

child seeking attention

Behavior aimed at attracting attention belongs to the useful side of life. The child acts on a belief (usually unconscious) that he or she has some value in the eyes of others. only when it gets their attention. A success-oriented child believes that he is accepted and respected only when he achieves something. Usually parents and teachers praise the child for high achievements and this convinces him that «success» always guarantees high status. However, the social usefulness and social approval of the child will only increase if his successful activity is aimed not at attracting attention or gaining power, but at the realization of a group interest. It is often difficult for consultants and researchers to draw a precise line between these two attention-grabbing goals. However, this is very important because the attention-seeking, success-oriented child usually stops working if he cannot get adequate recognition.

If the attention-seeking child moves to the useless side of life, then he can provoke adults by arguing with them, showing deliberate awkwardness and refusing to obey (the same behavior occurs in children who are fighting for power). Passive children may seek attention through laziness, slovenliness, forgetfulness, oversensitivity, or fearfulness.

Child fighting for power

If attention-seeking behavior does not lead to the desired result and does not provide the opportunity to take the desired place in the group, then this can discourage the child. After that, he may decide that a struggle for power can guarantee him a place in the group and a proper status. There is nothing surprising in the fact that children are often power-hungry. They usually view their parents, teachers, other adults, and older siblings as having full power, doing as they please. Children want to follow some pattern of behavior that they imagine will give them authority and approval. «If I were in charge and managed things like my parents, then I would have authority and support.» These are the often erroneous ideas of the inexperienced child. Trying to subdue the child in this struggle for power will inevitably lead to the victory of the child. As Dreikurs (1968) stated:

According to Dreikurs, there is no ultimate «victory» for parents or teachers. In most cases, the child will «win» only because he is not limited in his methods of struggle by any sense of responsibility and any moral obligations. The child will not fight fair. He, not being burdened with a large burden of responsibility that is assigned to an adult, can spend much more time building and implementing his struggle strategy.

vengeful child

A child who fails to achieve a satisfying place in the group through attention seeking or power struggles may feel unloved and rejected and therefore become vindictive. This is a gloomy, impudent, vicious child, taking revenge on everyone in order to feel his own significance. In dysfunctional families, parents often slide into reciprocal revenge and, thus, everything repeats itself anew. The actions through which vengeful designs are realized can be physical or verbal, overtly goofy or sophisticated. But their goal is always the same — to take revenge on other people.

The child who wants to be seen as incapable

Children who fail to find a place in the group, despite their socially useful contribution, attention-grabbing behavior, power struggles, or attempts at revenge, eventually give up, become passive and stop their attempts to integrate into the group. Dreikurs argued (Dreikurs, 1968): «He (the child) hides behind a display of real or imagined inferiority» (p. 14). If such a child can convince parents and teachers that he is really incapable of doing such and such, less demands will be placed on him, and many possible humiliations and failures will be avoided. Nowadays, the school is full of such children.


1. Quoted. by: Dreikurs, R. (1968) Psychology in the classroom (adapted)

2. Cit. by: Dreikurs, R., Grunwald, B., Pepper, F. (1998) Sanity in the Classroom (adapted).

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