Understanding the Iceberg Model of Childhood Behavior

An adult speaking to a teenage boy in a calming wayBehaviors are the result of the interactions of two things: the characteristics we possess as people and the characteristics of the situation we face. The theory behind the iceberg model of childhood behavior is that there are many things that influence the way that children act and react: skills, knowledge, experience, social role or values, self-image, traits, and motives. Some (the most conscious) of these characteristics can be seen outright – “above the water,” if you will. The more subconscious or unconscious characteristics are the ones working behind the scenes — “underwater.” It is a mixture of all of these characteristics that will shape a child’s behavior—meaning that the cause of the behavior won’t always be apparent.

The tip of the iceberg—the conscious characteristics that children have in their toolbox—are skills, knowledge, and experiences. Skills represent what children can do innately or things they have learned to do over time. Knowledge is what they know or have come to understand as they’ve grown. This knowledge is shaped by their experiences, which help build both the knowledge and skills available to them in their personal toolboxes.

Under the water, however, are the unseen forces that can shape their behaviors. This portion consists of four large components: their social role and values, self-image, traits, and motives.

A chart of an iceberg, with the above-water portion labeled "conscious aspects" and the below-water part labeled "subconscious and unconscious aspects". Skills, knowledge, and experience are above-water, and social roles, values, self-image, traits, and motives are underwater.A child’s social role is built on how they see themselves in society and this image paints how they might react to certain things or help shape what they consider to be important. This role and their reactions are formed and refined by their assumptions about the expectations of others—namely what they think their parents, friends, and family expect of them.

Self-image is a child’s own sense of self, who they are in every sense they can conceive. This includes elements of positive and negative regard. Many of these elements are formed as they grow, obtained through messages they’ve received from their parents, teachers, friends, peers, and other important influences. As this basis is absorbed continuously as they grow, it’s one of the things hardly recognized alone. Their positive self is driven by what they think will be respected by those around them. Their negative self is the side they wish to hide from the world. They are both influenced by how they interpret their social roles and by the expectations they think important people have for them in those roles. Their self-images are also framed in the values and morals their parents teach them.

Traits are the habits or patterns of behavior that children develop throughout their daily lives. They are their attempts to behave in ways they think will gain the recognition or attention they crave from others and to satisfy the basic motivations that drive them. As emotion comes into the equation, cognition drops. When emotions run high, few people think or communicate clearly. Children are no exceptions. Their driving behaviors can fail them and lead them to fall into these basic patterns of behaviors, even if they counteract what they know to be right/wrong, lead to more challenging behaviors.

Motives are the mostly unconscious characteristics that shape who we are as people. They influence almost everything we do, but unless we’re getting feedback in this regard, we may not even recognize it. A motive is a concern that we have for something—a recurring concern or passion that has some goal or incentive placed on it. The achievement of that goal is innately satisfying to us and that drives our thoughts and behaviors further.

All of these characteristics, seen or unseen, shape the way children behave. But these ideas aren’t limited only to children. We are affected to some extent by the same factors, but our toolbox of coping mechanisms is considerably more robust as adults. As adults with more robust emotional toolboxes, it’s our job to uncover these hidden factors that can influence children’s emotions and behavior, and help kids build more coping skills.

Iceberg graphic courtesy of Anthony Nguyen.

Want to learn more?

As part of our ongoing Pathways to Inclusion program, PYD is offering a webinar to help participants understand the root causes of behavior and provide a framework for how youth programs can support and promote positive behavior in youth of all abilities or disabilities. You’ll leave with a greater understanding of what behavior means, how to address it, and ways programs can proactively bring out the best in their participants.

This webinar will be presented on March 29 at 2PM by Emily Elliott, the residential life coordinator at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a nonprofit organization in Connecticut dedicated to providing “a different kind of healing” to seriously ill children and their families throughout the Northeast, free of charge. It’s a community that celebrates the fun, friendship, and spirit of childhood, where every kid can “raise a little hell.” As the residential life coordinator, Emily works with other camp staff to ensure that the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all campers are being met in a safe and supportive way.

Register for free today!