Helping Youth Internalize Positive Behavior

As a teacher and training facilitator, I have witnessed a countless numbers of youth go through high-school, employability programs and other career training successfully. After the successful completion of these educational and training programs some of these individuals returned home while some went on to obtain further training and others going off to college. The question I pose to anyone who is reading this article is, “Do these young people believe that they have experienced change?”

Society uses the word, “change” loosely. Many of us believe that we have gone through the process of change only to be rudely awakened to the truth that we have modified our behavior to fit our present environment. Some people feel as though they have changed due to achieving a certain level of social status, obtaining a high paying profession, receiving a degree of some sort or purchasing their first home.

We equate achievement, awards and acquisition to change.

We equate achievement, awards and acquisition to success.

From my perspective, the addition of a career, car, house, cash, etc. is not an accurate measure of change or success because we can acquire these items without transforming internally.

                                                                                                                                                       Addition is accomplishment. ~ Mr. Cage                 

Sometimes addition is not advancement, it is accomplishment. At times, we are more focused on what we do (accomplishment) rather on focusing on who we are and who we are becoming (identity). At times, accomplishments only confirm our identity. Accomplishment is not the origin of our identity. When we teach youth (through conversation and demonstration) to solely rely on incentive-based (external reward) accomplishments, we position them to become victims of external circumstances because humans have the tendency to modify their behavior to their environment to receive external recognition and affirmation. The end result is an externalizing of positive behavior to get (external rewards through accomplishment), not the internalizing of positive behavior to become (intrinsic reward through identity).

Why is helping youth internalize positive behavior important?

If positive behaviors are not internalized by our youth then the best we can hope for from them is behavior modification (BM). In this article we define (BM) as behavior patterns that conform to external stimuli (people, places and things). When we leave the external stimuli, our behavior returns back to its original state. We become actors and actresses that “act” or play the role instead of “becoming” the role.

Behavior modification without an intentional effort of addressing the root cause will lead youth into a path of building a life based on performance (playing the role) instead of building a life based upon the content of character (becoming the role).

Behavior modification leaves young people subject and at the mercy of their present environment.

For example, when a child is placed in an environment (at school) where high expectations, rules and discipline are consistently demonstrated and enforced the child adapts to this environment. Conversely, when a child is taken out of the environment (at school) where high expectations, rules and discipline are consistently demonstrated and enforced and placed in an environment where there is a lack of the three, the child conforms to this environment.

As a personal testimony, I’ve witnessed several of my former students from the city of Chicago become victims of violence, murder and living beneath their full potential because they left some of the most important lessons learned in the building where the lessons were taught. Oftentimes, behavior modification is the result of youth not internalizing positive behavior. When there is no application and reinforcement of the lessons learned, the confidence needed to demonstrate positive behaviors in various environments lie dormant.

How do we teach our youth how to internalize positive behavior?

Answer: Pull the weed and the tap root.

Please keep in mind that in this section of the article, I will be referring to the “conscious” as weeds (dysfunctional behaviors we see on the surface) and the “subconscious” as roots (the memory bank where the thoughts connected to the behaviors are located). I will be referring to the tap root as the central most-dominate subconscious thought that results in dysfunctional (surface) behavior.

One other thought to keep in mind is that all dysfunctional behaviors are not theatrical. Theatrical behavior is performance. Performances occur when a youth is putting on a show for attention. We can easily see this behavior on the surface. There are several dysfunctional behavior characteristics that fly under the radar of what we identify as unacceptable behavior because they are not theatrical. From my personal study and observation these behaviors are usually subtle and passive-aggressive in nature.


Remember that eliminating dysfunctional behaviors (weeds) and establishing positive behaviors is a process.

This process does not happen overnight.

First things first….

Here are three problems that we are faced with when attempting to help youth internalize positive behavior.

  1. New ideas conflict with old-existing ones. When a new idea cannot be defined by a youth (or any individual) or does not fit his/her present reality (in the conscious mind), his/her defense mechanism is initiated subconsciously. Defense mechanisms spring up from our subconscious (the memory bank where the thoughts connected to the behaviors are located) to protect us from a threat or a perceived threat. These weapons of warfare are also initiated when youth are unfamiliar with the person sharing the new idea.
  2. American culture has taught us that defeat (loss) is a bad thing. This ideology is a byproduct of self-preservation whereas the right to have our own opinions promote holding on to our lives (in terms of ideas, thoughts, experiences, cultures, acquisitions, achievements and awards) according to an ego-centric culture.We have been programmed to believe that holding on to our lives is the place of safety and security. The reality of this matter is that when we save (hold on to) our lives (opinions void of truth), we lose       preservation (safety). We preserve our lives by surrendering our former life (who will used to be or though we were). When we win according to our ego-centric culture (void of truth), we lose the opportunity to experience a new life. When we lose our former lives, we gain an opportunity to experience our new lives. This is freedom.
  1. Learned behavior from parents, teachers and relatives the youth spends the most time around. When the most influential people in a youth’s life are not demonstrating positive behavior on consistent basis confusion is the end result. Hypocrisy demonstrated by an adult can result in cognitive dissonance for a youth. In psychology, cognitive dissonance is defined as a state of tension or mental stress that occurs when an individual holds two cognitions (beliefs, thoughts or attitudes) that are inconsistent or a belief that is incongruent with a person’s behavior. We relieve this tension or mental stress by rejecting or changing the belief or behavior. We can also add new beliefs, rationalize or conform to what is popular. When internal confusion (or cognitive dissonance) occurs the path of least resistance is the ideal route the youth will take to bring temporary relief to his/her mind, will and emotions. Positive behavior must be demonstrated consistently for a youth to assimilate the behavior into his/her belief system. When there is a mistake made on behalf of the adult through the demonstration of  negative behavior the parent, teacher or relative the youth spends the most time must take ownership of the responsibility connected to the behavior and explain the mistake in addition how the situation can be rectified. This is a teaching moment. However, the explanation provided depends on the situation, age, maturity level and behavior displayed by the child. The parent, teacher or relative will determine if this explanation step is appropriate.

      To be continued…