Why Kids Misbehave in Classrooms

We've all met Johnny. He's the kid who simply won't behave in class. He can't seem to sit still and pay attention. While there are certainly many factors that contribute to student disruption and there is one core classroom management axiom that we would all be well served to remember.
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"If you have the end in view of ... children learning certain set lessons, to be recited to a teacher, your discipline must be devoted to securing that result. But if the end in view is the development of a spirit of social cooperation and community life, discipline must grow out of and be relative to this." ~ John Dewey

We've all met Johnny. He's the kid who simply won't behave in class. He can't seem to sit still and pay attention. He doesn't want to follow our rules or conform to our expectations. He won't keep his hands to himself and respect others' things. It almost seems like he comes to school each day with a willful intent to disrupt and make our lives miserable.

As soon as we met Johnny, we began the mental process of trying to get rid of him, or at least to figure out how we would survive the next ten months with him in our classroom. Many of us first responded to Johnny with a series of predetermined consequences. When that failed, we reached out to his parents and/or the school administration for reinforcement and support. In that conversation, we may have hoped to learn about a behavioral or physiological diagnosis, about some chemical imbalance or other factor that was at the root of this intolerable conduct. We figured that if we could only identify the "it" that was to blame we would be able to get a handle on things.

But then we realized that it wasn't so simple; most interventions can only address a portion of the problem. If we were fortunate, we began to understand that we had much more control over the situation than we may have first assumed, and may not have even needed external stimulants to achieve a desirable outcome, for Johnny and for ourselves.

While there are certainly many factors that contribute to student disruption and disrespect, there is one core classroom management axiom that we would all be well served to remember: the overwhelming majority of children do not actively seek to misbehave or under-perform, at least not initially. Children very much want to earn praise and acceptance, and will go to great lengths to be positively recognized. They also want to feel fulfilled, something that often comes with meaningful learning and achievement.

So why do we have so many children with behavior problems, to the point that so many teachers consider quitting as a result?

The following factors can play a significant role.

Lack of engagement and stimulation
Nothing encourages misbehavior more than a class that fails to excite kids' minds. Students are intrinsically curious; they constantly search for meaning and stimulation. (Any parent knows that one of the first things that kids will say upon returning from school or when on vacation is, "I am SO BORED!") Classes that are too one-dimensional, that fail to involve students sufficiently, are too challenging (we would all rather be viewed as bad than as academically weak), or are very much information heavy, leaving little room for discussion and consideration, will not satisfy students' curiosities or needs for authentic intellectual stimulation.

A rigid definition of acceptable behaviors
Most students, particularly older ones, are asked to sit at their desks for many minutes at a time and listen, read, and/or take notes. We limit how much they can speak, eat and engage in other "normal" behaviors. (If you're not sure how constricting that is I suggest you attend a full day Professional Development session with limited movement.) Teachers who fail to offer opportunities for movement and interpersonal engagement are likelier to have to use strictness and rules to maintain law and order. The bigger the "do-not-do" list is, the likelier that there will be behavioral infractions.

Lack of attention and love
I attended a school dinner recently. The honoree was recognized as the school's educator of the year from amongst a very large and distinguished faculty. What is the secret of her success? Apparently, it's not the incentives and prizes that she offers, as she does not give her students many. Instead, it is the love and attention that her students receive that motivate them to achieve and follows her rules. When students fail to receive the attention that they crave, they are likelier to find other ways to get it, even if it means drawing negative attention to themselves and even consequences. This is not only true for children. In his introduction to Strengths Finder 2.0 (page iv), author Tom Rath shared that 40 percent of employees who are ignored by their managers are actively disengaged from their work. In contrast, workers whose boss focuses largely on their weaknesses are almost half as likely (22 percent) to be disengaged at work. The more that we can do to let our students know how much we care about them and value their work, the likelier they are to respect our requests and conform to our expectations.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog at impactfulcoaching.com/blog.

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