Why do students misbehave and how to respond.

There are many theories and schools of thought as to why students misbehave.  In education, I find the four goals of behaviour interesting and helpful when thinking about my response to misbehaviour as a teacher.  This is the work of Rudolf Dreikurs and Alfred Adler. Students enter the ‘society’ of a school and a classroom, and their primary social need is ‘to belong’.  Most children have developed the ability ‘to belong’ and can function in classrooms without the need to disrupt. But some have not, so why do students misbehave?

The students who have not developed the ability to belong misbehave to compensate. Such behaviours are highly distracting and not productive to the teaching and learning in traditional classrooms.  These behaviours are seen as a way for students to create a sense of ‘belonging’ within their peer group. The four goals of behaviour are attention, power, revenge and display of inadequacy. 

What do these goal-seeking behaviours look like?

Over the years, I have clearly seen all of these goal-seeking behaviours, some behaviours have more than one goal, and some are hard to put your finger on.

Attention seeking behaviour.

Attention seekers are the students who are the classroom clown – look at me!  They might continuously shout out and want the class’s attention, trying to get others to laugh at them.  They might hide behind their raised hand but still shout out some silly comment or inappropriate question to get a laugh. Attention seeking behaviours can be very annoying for teachers and cause much frustration. It can be exasperating when there is a class with many students who display attention-seeking behaviours.  

How to respond to attention-seeking behaviour?

How we respond to such behaviours depends on the level of disruption, the type of behaviour and of course the consistency of the behaviour.  If it is a daily occurrence and we are at our wit’s end, then our response may be different compared to a student who has had a bad day or too much caffeine.  Reminders are useful; minimal verbal of course.  We certainly do not want to engage in conversation and feed attention-seeking behaviour.  

We might use the ‘planned ignore’ and call upon the student with their hand up and say, “Yes, Jane, thank you for putting your hand up and not calling out”. Then, just ensure you follow up with the student in a private dialogue regarding the silly or inappropriate comments after the teacher instruction. For example, a private conversation reminding the student of the classroom rules and maybe a choice of not to call out silly things, or you are choosing to stay after class for a conversation about how that’s inappropriate. 

How to respond to allies.

The biggie with attention seekers is to ensure that the peers are not feeding the fire and make sure they don’t blow on the flames.  If students do not have an audience, they act very differently.  So, when a student does something that makes the other students laugh, try the planned ignore for the attention seeker and the reprimands for the laughers.  Using our low-key skills here, ‘the look’ of disappointment towards the laughers, then the minimal verbal “I don’t think so”, with a pause.

This works well because the attention seeker feels bad for getting his friends in trouble and will think about that next time.  We may follow up with “We do not encourage silly behaviour. If I see anyone laughing or encouraging others to make bad choices, I will be disappointed”. 

On a side note. Early on in my career, by many mentors, I was told to replace please with thank you when giving instructions to students.  The reason behind this is when you are asking a student to do something; it is not normally a request or a choice. They need to participate in the activities within the classroom and follow the classroom rules when given reminders. Never use please when giving reprimands and use a confident tone.  For example, “Please don’t laugh at James while he is rolling around the floor” will have less impact than “No laughing, thank you”.   To find out more on how to improve your credible voice click here.

Power behaviours.

Another goal of misbehaviour is power. Students whose goal is power can be argumentative, responding to a request with “Why should I”? They can be defiant, for example, responding when asked to hand over the mobile phone with “No, you can’t make me”. The power battle between student and teacher can be very stressful and intimidating for newly qualified teachers and sometimes seasoned pros.

How to respond to attention-seeking behaviour?

When I am presented with a power battle, my first go-to is. Defuse the situation. To defuse a situation we can use humour or distraction. We need to speak to the student in a calm tone and ensure the tone remains monotone. Importantly we need to use the language of choice. Keeping the dialogue to a minimum will keep the situation from escalating. If the student enters into an argument or tries to rationalise, just repeat your choices.

Engaging in conversation will only increase the, why should I’s? Why do I need to wear a school uniform, it’s ugly? Why do I need to hand you my phone? I was only calling my mum? Why do I have to sit in a seating plan? You know, you have heard them all.

What is the language of choice?

The language of choice is important. For example, after asking a student to hand over their phone for using it in class and they responded with. No. Ask the student for a quiet word away from peers and use the language of choice. “You can choose to keep your phone, and I will have to report it to student services, or you can choose to hand it over, and I will give it back to you at the end of the lesson. What is your choice?”. It is important that the choice can be followed through, and they are not seen as an ultimatum.

Again remove any allies. If there is an audience, ask the student for a conversation away from others. Peers looking on will only make the situation worse. With onlookers seeing who will lose face first and, in most cases, it is the teacher.

So in summary.

  1. Defuse the situation through humour or distraction.
  2. Speak in a calm and monotone voice.
  3. Use the language of choice.
  4. Using minimal verbal.
  5. Move away from allies.

Read more here on dealing with students with more extreme behaviours.


To learn more on revenge and display of inadequacy

See the online course on CMS here.

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