How Does Instinct Affect a Child’s Behavior and Learning

Newly hatched sea turtles crawl up through the sand, and run lickety-split straight to the ocean. Their mother is gone; no one taught them to do that; it’s instinct.shutterstock_119721871_PRESS

Newborn baby kangaroos instinctively climb into their mother’s pouch, different species of birds display amazingly diverse nest building habits, and the fighting and courtship behaviors of every living creature is happening all over the planet…by instinct.

An instinct is an un-learned behavior, a fixed action pattern (FAP).

Someone asked me this month, “How does instinct affect my child’s learning?”

Beautiful question! This is at the heart of my doctoral studies (EdS, Educational Specialist). After being a teacher, a tutor, a principal at each level and a college professor, I’m coming closer. No one knows it all, but we’re working on discovering the building blocks of successful learning.

With confidence I can say this: kids do not instinctively go to school to learn.

The closest answer to the title question is found in research identifying the Big Five Personality Traits.

These five common traits are inter-related, working together in combination. Many studies tell us if all five are strong, a child has a greater chance of stable behavior and academic success. Let’s quickly take a look at each one.



The first, most important aspect is providing social warmth and love. Children are deeply affected by affection, kindness, trust and forgiveness. The researchers call it agreeableness. How awesome to note that Jesus considered love as the first and greatest commandment.



The second aspect is feeling safe. This is most important when the child tests boundaries and rules. Do we love them enough to insist on discipline for their protection and good while displaying our love and acceptance? Our behavior contributes to their feeling non-threatened and safe. The child will not be anxious, worry, tense and touchy. The researchers call this neuroticism or emotional stability. James tells us wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, and gentle (3:17).



The third aspect to encourage is curiosity. All children explore…and eventually break things. They often like to take things apart and put them back together again. Curiosity is a mental hunger that must be satisfied, so they need things like puzzles and learning games to feed their curiosity. It’s amazing how technology affects this craving. The researchers call this aspect intellect, imagination, insightfulness and being artistic.



The fourth aspect of the Big Five Personality Traits is conscientiousness. We relate this directly to self-image. The degree to which a child defines who they are, affects their self-control. Are they organized, reliable, trustworthy and able to delay instant gratification? Parents may say something like, “We are Robersons! Robersons rise early and work hard to be good at what we do!” This kind of affirmation helps children define themselves and become more conscientious.



The last aspect to help children develop is level of action. The researchers call this extraversion, which is a child engaging with their world. Are they willing to be more assertive and outgoing, or more like a meek, shy, shrinking wallflower?


The Research

Important larger studies over a longer period of time have found that measures of the Big Five Personality Traits strongly predict behavior and academic achievement in adolescence. Oliver John and his team studied nearly 500 fourth grade boys in the Pittsburgh public school system. Their conclusions validated the Big Five Personality Traits as being strongly connected to school success and behavior. Particularly, boys who scored lower levels of agreeableness (love) and conscientiousness (weaker self-image) were more delinquent and academically less successful. Other studies have verified the impact of these traits across cultures.


An example

At our school, one elementary child was often pulled roughly into school by his mother, late. She loudly exclaimed, “I can’t believe you made me late again! You! When are you ever going to listen? It’s so embarrassing you are my child! Ohhh! Help me Lord!”

Yes, she needed help and so did the child. Predictably, within 30 minutes the child was in the principal’s office for misbehaving. I made sure the child knew (and admitted) what he did wrong but focused on something else.

“Johnny. Do you know that I am so, so very glad that you are a student in this school? We love you!” He looked at me in shock!  “I think you are a sharp boy, and I want you to know that I am working hard to make sure you are safe here so you can learn a lot of good. …I think you want to be a good student don’t you?” He nodded, still in disbelief. He thought he was a bad, bad boy.  “Yes! You are going to do really good today…and every day.  I am praying for you…and if you ever need me, you can ask anytime and I will be glad to help you if I can. Are you ok now?”  “One more thing… Your mommy gets upset sometimes doesn’t she! She’s a good mommy, and brings you here to school to help you. Sometimes she doesn’t sleep very good, and has a hard time at work, so she get’s grumpy. But, we can forgive her and love her anyways, right?!”

That boy went back to class, never was sent to my office again for misbehavior, and was a successful student through the years I served as principal. His need for love, forgiveness, self-image and action support was strongly fed.

One more thing: None of this is meant to minimize the amazing impact of prayer and faith in a loving very present God. God gave wisdom; the boy and I prayed together, and God answered.


Steve Davis, Ed.S is an adjunct professor (adult development, research & writing) at Trinity International University. Now retired, he has also served as the registrar, advisor to the Master of Arts in Theological Studies and International Student Representative at Trinity International University, Davie. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Share this article