Home School Management Causes as well as consequences: why do kids ‘misbehave’ in school classrooms?

Causes as well as consequences: why do kids ‘misbehave’ in school classrooms?


Causes as well as consequences: why do kids ‘misbehave’ in school classrooms?

Imagine trying to learn in the classroom in which some students regularly and noisily interrupted or abused the teacher, ignored instructions, were physically or verbally violent, or threatened the teacher or peers. Learning progress would be limited for all – the disruptive students, their nondisruptive peers and the teacher.

Unfortunately, this is the norm in many classrooms throughout Australia.

Last week, a Senate Committee handed down its final report into the issue of increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms, calling for a major inquiry into declining academic standards.

The report detailed how disruptive classrooms are leading to lower student achievement, pointing to the PISA 2022 results which found that Australia ranks below-average in classroom orderliness when compared to fellow OECD countries.

Professor Munro is Head of Studies in Gifted Education and Exceptional Learning at The University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.   

He says one way of dealing with this problem is to respond to the inappropriate behaviour when it happens.

“Teachers need to do this, to try to contain, control for extinguish the behaviour, particularly if it is likely to endanger others or damage property,” Professor Munro, who is also a trained secondary and primary school teacher and psychologist, told The Educator.

“Frequent teacher responses are reprimands such as ‘stop it’, ‘sit down’, ‘go back to your seat’, ‘you know what to do’, gestures or other actions such as pointing,  or nonverbal expressions such as frowning.”

Professor Munro says these responses often work immediately. 

“What they don’t do is to reduce the possibility of the inappropriate behaviours recurring in the future. They don’t, for example, teach more appropriate ways of behaving,” he said.

“Feedback that is punishing is both ineffective and can have adverse outcomes’ They can also increase the frequency of bad behaviours.”

A second, more long-term way of dealing with the issue, says Professor Munro, is to target the cause of the inappropriate behaviour as well. 

“This is important when a teacher wants to reduce the likelihood of the behaviours in the future.  Students’ inappropriate behaviours are not random,” he said.

“They have underlying causes, and the student has a reason or goal for doing them. A teacher’s goal may be to teach fractions while a student’s goal may be to disrupt that teaching.”

Professor Munro says the disruptive behaviour is underpinned in the student’s brain by a network of past experiences, thinking, attitudes and emotions. 

“Their earlier experiences may tell them that they can’t cope either with the demands of the teaching or with peer relationships,” he said.

“They learn the inappropriate behaviours first as ways of coping in particular situations. They gradually shift to using the behaviours more habitually or automatically.” 

Professor Munro said the students also form negative attitudes to particular topics such as fractions and then often generalize this to not valuing academic knowledge more generally.   

“Sometimes their family or friendship culture also may not value it and believe it is irrelevant. Contexts trigger the behaviours,” he said.

“The fractions lesson sparks the student’s attitudes and negative feelings about fractions, and their earlier maths experiences. The negative behaviours ensue.”

Practical tips for educators

Professor Munro says there is a range of ways in which educators, parents and families can work on changing the causes of inappropriate behaviours and replace them with more functional ones: 

  • Try to discover why the student behaved inappropriately.  Invite them to say why they behaved in that way and how they feel in the classroom or the home. 

You can note the situations in which the behaviours occur. This can point to what is triggering them.   You may then be able to change the situation.   Guide the student to think about what their inappropriate behaviour affects others and what others might think of them because of it.

  • Help the student see they can have alternative ways of behaving in these situations.  Ask them how they could have acted differently, and how this might help them achieve more positive outcomes.   You can have them visualise acting differently, practise telling themselves what they could do and practise doing the alternative actions.

You can give the student the opportunity to replace the inappropriate behaviour with a more acceptable behaviour.  You tell them:  I’m going to stop the world for 20 seconds and we’ll replay what just happened.  You can take back or delete what you just did and act differently.  What will you do?”  This helps them plan how they will act in the future.

  • Modify the teaching so that these students learn more successfully.  Help them see all that they have learnt, that their brains did the learning and that they can use what they’ve learnt.  Teaching them explicitly how to learn and how to work through tasks in areas that distress them can help.

  • Value explicitly what students know about topics they are learning.   Let them see that what they know is useful and provides a starting point for learning. 

  • Also, help them value the knowledge they are taught at school and have a positive attitude to it. Help them see how they can use it to solve problems.  This teaches explicitly positive attitudes to school knowledge, to learning and themselves as learners.  Krathwohl’s taxonomy of attitudes provides a framework for unpacking a student’s current attitude to school knowledge and for teaching more positive attitudes.

A long-term solution

Professor Munro said these teaching recommendations provide a long-term solution.

“They allow you to deal with the cause of the inappropriate behaviours and so reduce their frequency,” he said.

“Dealing with the cause is a win-win for everyone. The student is respected and given the opportunity to learn more appropriate ways of responding. The teacher has a set of strategies that can be part of teaching to deal explicitly with the behaviours.”

Professor Munro noted that last week’s Senate education committee Report makes no reference to the need to examine the causes of the disruptive behaviour. 

“As well, it is ignored in recent articles about the Report. And yet, if the cause is ignored and not resolved, bad behaviours are likely to recur. Disruption in classrooms will not be reduced.”

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