I’ve always been partial to the Disney villains in animated movies.  I’ve also always been partial to the “naughty” children in my classrooms.  Coincidence?

Animated Disney villains have been traditionally shown as pretty flat, one-sided characters that essentially share the same trait of being evil.  My favorite Disney villain, Lady Tremaine (Cinderella’s wicked stepmother), always attracted me because she was closer to a normal person but just had evil tendencies and was plain ol’ mean.

Over the past six years, I’ve been obsessed with Disney’s Once Upon a Time, a clever look at and remix of favorite fairy tales.  The series has examined the complexities of heroes and villains, who are traditionally thought of as good and evil, respectively.  However, for one of the first times, Disney digs deeper into the background of each character, as well as their ongoing choices, showing that they are really just humans with layers of both good and evil.  Their outward behavior may be labeled as evil but come from good intentions, and both heroes and villains alike engage in “evil” behaviors.

My favorite Once Upon a Time character, Regina/Evil Queen, grows the most throughout the series as we see her battle with her power-seeking nasty behaviors as she works to act more like a hero and allow the good within in her to shine.  Disney did a similar look at another famous villain in the live-action film, Maleficent.  We see how the villain became the way she was, and how the behaviors of others impacted her choices.  We also see how her behaviors were borne from the choices she made with good intentions.  Both Regina and Maleficent typically act from the best of intentions, with the resources they have in the moment.  And, for Regina, with the support of her friends she makes better choices and learns from her mistakes.

In the classroom, we often deal with children who have challenging behaviors.  Sometimes we slip into the labeling of “good” and “bad” children, rather than focusing on the behaviors we would like to see change.  I think I’ve been partial to children with challenging behaviors because they represent an opportunity to make a difference.

Just like Regina and Maleficent, these children are often doing the best they can with the knowledge and skills they have at the time.  That child who acts out to get more power and a sense of control is just telling us she feels out of control and maybe needs some extra attention.  The child who runs into or hits other children is letting us know he is struggling with entering into groups or that his body is growing faster than he can integrate.

Our children are people first, with all the layers of experiences, skills, feelings, reactions, knowledge, etc.  They may engage in behaviors that are undesirable, and it is our job to teach them how to use new skills to get what they need.  We have a wonderful opportunity to help children grow and learn as they manage their behavior and learn self-regulation, just as Regina had to practice controlling her learned impulses to use dark magic to get what she wanted and instead operate as part of a family.  When we get caught up in labeling children as one thing or another, we miss out on the complexities of them as individual, precious human beings.

How can you help children practice new skills rather than relying on old negative behaviors that have worked for them in the past?  How do you honor children as complex humans?