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

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. It is very important for teachers to reflect on their practices and identify ways to improve. Often we think of methodology, but this obviously emphasizes the same need to reflect/improve our relationships with our students.

  2. These are some great questions to ask. As you know I live at the lower end of the age group scale. Questions I tell colleagues to ask: Does the child have unmet needs? Do I have unrealistic expectations? Am I teaching in the ways the child learns best (his individual learning style as well as generally good teaching practices for the age group)? I see how my questions related to yours. Thanks for helping me see things with a different lens.

  3. Sometimes kids have spent years in their "role" as class clown and don't know other ways to get attention. We need to be sure that we create class communities where students can go beyond labels that peers, parents, and teachers have cast on them. Great discussion on our contributions to both the problems and solutions. As Scott mentions, sometimes students have unmet needs. I have had many kids report that they are hungry or just tired. We have to look at the bigger picture for the multitude of possibilities.

  4. This is a great series--thanks for your insights:-)

  5. I had a pithy "Well, you know some students are just shitheads" comment at the ready but I read and reread this and found it pretty valuable. I think that you're missing one thing.

    Students are creatures of habit, and very often those are bad habits. Why are they talking out of turn? Yelling at each other? Harassing each other? Because it's what they've always done to one another. They might not even know why they do things ... it's just that they do them.

    There are students at my school who are regulars in ISS so often I joke that they must be getting a free sub or something with every 10th visit. And some of them are nice enough kids and even pretty smart. However, they have horrible, horrible habits that range from being unable to step inside a classroom before the bell to not being able to walk away from "drama."

    Another thing that would be nice to acknowledge, which you kind of do here is that when it comes to confrontations with students, we deal with different students in different ways. I know what you're talking about is in the vein of an entire class, but I do get annoyed about the general (not you) push for "treating everyone equally" throughout the year.

    I had it out with a parent because they were upset that I didn't go off on a student who was mistreating their child in my class, even though the situation was handled. Why didn't I yell? Well, I knew the offending student and yelling wouldn't have gotten me anywhere. They, however, saw this as my "playing favorites." This, of course, ties into assessing the situation as a teacher.

    STILL ... wow, this was long (I seem to comment on others' blogs more than I write on my own lately) ... I enjoyed this post. Very interesting.

  6. This is an awesome list and very nicely described. I can take a lesson in that alone. The question you mentioned are very valuable indeed. I have always loved student surveys that incorporates student interests as well as addressing learning styles and behaviors and update it every year. What also helps is sending a parent survey too.

    Just having the parent and student surveys and sitting down with a great cup of joe on a Sunday morning and learning about your kids helps a teacher blend his or her style into the new school year.

    So many teachers send the surveys home and never read them when they are returned. What is the point in that? Those surveys carry much needed information for more successful outcomes, and once the students know they have a teacher that is actually taking the time to read this stuff, you will be surprised the effort they put into their work.

    It's those little things.

  7. I have to agree that don't blame the situation or the environment, the students or your lack of sleep. You need to be responsible with your actions.


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