A Sustainable Start : Rethinking Why Students Misbehave

Cause and Effects of Misbehavior
On the second day of school, I ask students to define the reasons why kids misbehave in class.  We then brainstorm the ways teachers and students can respond to these issues.  It's a twenty-minute excercise that makes a difference throughout the year:
  1. Students want to move around: Students can fix this by asking the teacher for a chance to get up and stretch.  Teachers can fix this by incorporating more movement into the class. 
  2. Students are afraid: It might be external - the system, the teacher, bullying from fellow students. Or it might be internal - laziness, fear of failure, restlessness, anxiety.  Students can be honest with teachers about fear and teachers can guide them with empathy and compassion.  There aren't any formulas for this, either.  It takes time to develop the relationship of trust required to handle fear.
  3. Students feel powerless: This might be the result of unreasonable teacher expectations or simply a student's lingering insecurities.  However, sometimes the strangest behavior occurs when a child feels powerless. I've noticed that students who feel powerless can engage in sabotage, a power struggle, apathy or agression toward others. The key here is finding a way to challenge students within a framework where they are free to make mistakes.  
  4. Students want to be talk: Students can deal with this by showing self-control during silent times (silent reading, for example) and remembering the need for silence.  Teachers can deal with this by ensuring that students are talking at least half the time. 
  5. Students feel relationally isolated: This could be peer-based and it could be between the teacher and the student.  However, sometimes students get the sense that they are outcasts, that they don't belong and that they are losers.  Sadly, I've been the one who has caused this through insensitive words.  If a teacher provides a safe place and builds a relationship, eventually this student might feel like he or she has a place.
  6. A failure of communication: Sometimes this is a lack of vocabulary or simply a lack of paying attention.  Sometimes teachers and students are speaking from a different interpretation of an idea, event or perspective.  Either way, failure to communicate can lead to some huge riffs in the relationships.  The best idea for both students and teachers is to trust the other person's intentions and to engage in meaningful conversation about the miscommunication.  If both sides are humble, true communication will often occur.
  7. Students don't feel free: Perhaps the rules are too restrictive.  Maybe the lessons don't allow for enough autonomy.  Students can respectfully ask for more freedom and teachers can respond with lessons that require more student autonomy. 
  8. Students are bored: Students sometimes need to ask the teacher why this particular subject is relevant or advocate for a different learning opportunity.  Teachers need to remember to craft lessons that are engaging, interesting and meaningful. 
  9. Students are confused: Students need to ask specific questions rather than saying, "I'm confused."  Teachers need to ensure that the lesson fits the needs of students and that directions have been clear and explicit. 
  10. Students are human: Sometimes they have rough days.  Sometimes they rebel for reasons they can't articulate.  We're all broken.  We all screw up.  Students can be open to teachers ahead of time about what's going on and teachers can keep that in mind as they interact with the class.   

Questions to Ask Students
  • Preventative:
    • What are some things that bother you?  What are some things that teachers do that will lead you toward anger or apathy? 
    • What are you interested in?  
    • What are some things that can tempt you away from learning?  (Note: here is a great chance for a teacher to be transparent about his or her own learning issues) 
  • In-the-Moment
    • Why are you being pulled away from the assignment?
    • How can you effectively communicate that you are bored or confused? (Note: this is a great chance to model self-directed behavior for students?
  • Afterward
    • Can you describe what happened? 
    • Can you describe what you would have done differently? 
    • In what ways did your actions either get in the way of your learning or the learning of others?
Questions to Ask Yourself
  • Preventative:
    • Are my lessons engaging?  Are they interesting? Are they meaningful?
    • Are my lessons developmentally appropriate?  For example, in middle school, is there a chance to be social and move around?
    • Are the lessons clear? Will students be confused and therefore act out of frustration?
    • Do my rituals make sense?  Have the students taken ownership of the way the class operates?
  • In-the-Moment:
    • Can I solve this with a look or a whisper? Or better yet, can this be solved with space proximity? 
    • Am I being polite?  Am I still using please and thank you?
    • What is my body language conveying?
    • Why is the student misbehaving?  What can I do to redirect him or her? (Oftentimes, it works best to redirect in the moment and have the conversation afterward) 
    • What part of this student's story might I be missing?
  • Afterward
    • What is the best way to approach the after-class conversation with this student?  How will I handle it if a student refuses to talk?  (Note: it doesn't work well to cajole a student or force an apology.) 
    • Was the issue whole-class or just a few students?  (If it's the entire class, the issue might deal
    • What could I have done to change the reaction of the student?  
    • What did I do well? 
Pretentious, Presumptuous and Perhaps Practical Advice
  • Ask students to fill out anonymous surveys on how you are doing at leading the classroom
  • Give yourself permission to screw up.  Leading a class can be a lot like learning to drive.  You'll over-correct in one way or another before you reach the middle zone. 
  • Take ownership for the moments when you make a mistake.  Don't justify it.  Don't blame the situation or the environment, the students or your lack of sleep.  


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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