5 Reasons Your Students Might Be Misbehaving and What You Can Do About It

We all have those classes… Those classes where it seems as if the students are out to get you because they refuse to learn and they constantly misbehave. We teachers face them like weathered soldiers on a battlefield: we do it out of duty, but we hate (almost) every second of it.

I know I have my “challenge” classes, but one thing that has managed to keep me sane and, surprisingly, has cut down on some misbehavior, is understanding some possible reasons why my students are misbehaving (there’s actually a great article on that here; I would encourage you to read it to get further ideas on classroom management and why students act the way they do.). Knowing the why of the equation allows me to come up with simple solutions that, when implemented properly, can lower instances of misbehavior.

So, without further ado, here are 5 reasons (and possible solutions) your students might be acting out:

Number 1: They’re bored

Yeah, I know: not all classes can be fun all of the time, or else we’d never get any teaching done. But sometimes, what we teachers need to do is take a step back and ask ourselves: “Is this super boring? Am boring right now?” If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to change our delivery of the subject matter. Incorporating games, getting the kids to take brain breaks (or even just stretch), and approaching every new topic as if it was the coolest thing since sliced bread!!!! can help smooth out this issue. As one of my professors in university once told me: “If you’re bored teaching, then I guarantee you your students were bored and stopped listening 5 minutes ago.”

Number 2: They’re utterly and completely lost

I can’t tell you how many behavior problems start with students not understanding what’s happening in class! When students don’t know what they’re doing, they will often use misbehavior to cover it up. In their minds, if they act out and misbehave, the teacher’s attention will be redirected and they won’t have to answer the dreaded question that they just aren’t getting. So how do we combat this? We need to take a look around the class and try to read students’ body language. Are they slouching and looking down at their hands? Do they have gaping mouths and that glazed “I don’t get it” look in their eyes? If they do, let’s try spending more time on our topic. We can re-explain it or use different examples. If our students can read, we can even write some sentence patterns on the board so they can more easily follow. Let’s give them the tools they need to get it, and they will.

Number 3: They aren’t challenged enough

Just like students who are lost can cause problems, students who are advanced and feeling unchallenged can stir the pot. They already know what we’re teaching them and they want to learn more,  but we aren’t providing them with the enrichment they need. So they get bored and disturb others or cause a commotion. This issue’s a little harder to deal with than the previous two. After all, we don’t want to leave the kids who learn at a slower rate behind by matching the pace of the excelling student. But we don’t want to bore the excelling student either. So what can we do? I don’t have an exact solution, but I’ve found that bringing extra materials for gifted students can help keep them out of trouble. Also, I try to challenge them in subtle ways. For example, if we’re working on: “What fruit do you like?” –> “I like____.” sentence patterns, when it gets to my speedier student’s turn, I ask them a harder variation of the question, like: “What’s your favorite fruit?” or “What vegetable do you like?” Try it and you may just see the light go on in their eyes as they really focus to answer.

Number 4: They’re pushing us to see how far we’ll go

Students push back at adults sometimes. It’s a fact. And let’s not kid ourselves, this happens A LOT in the classroom. Sometimes, students just want to poke at us teachers to see how we’ll react. We’re like some sort of pavlovian science experiment to them. So how do we deal with this? Keep our composure, that’s how. We should never EVER let a student bait us into yelling or losing our cool!!! We should also be sure to implement classroom procedures and stick to them. For example, if the rule is: “put your hand up to speak,” we have to ensure that we don’t recognize students without their hands up, regardless of how good their answer is. Doing so would send the message that we teachers don’t stick to our rules, so breaking them is OK. Another way to deal with this is to give more attention to positive behaviors that we want to see, rather than negative ones we don’t want to see. So, to use the earlier rule as an example, if a student has their hand up, praise them. Ignore the ones without their hands up or gently remind them, by saying: “hand please.” Obviously, if a behavior puts others in danger (punching or bullying), then immediate action is warranted. Try removing the student from the situation. I find time-out chairs do the trick.

Number 5: They just want attention

Sometimes kids just want to be seen and heard. Maybe they feel like they don’t get enough attention at home or maybe they just enjoy being little superstars. This is normal. But giving attention to misbehaving students who want it risks reinforcing misbehavior. After all, acting out got them the attention they wanted, so why stop? Dealing with this involves a fine line of sticking to your rules, ignoring attention-seeking behavior, and rewarding those students who ARE following the rules (rather than punishing those who aren’t). When students see that the kids who behave get treats and more attention than them, they’ll want to imitate the “good” kids (for an idea on how to do this, see my earlier post on the star system).

OK… But what if it’s not any of those 5 reasons?

Let’s be real for a second: obviously, these 5 reasons aren’t always the case. Maybe the misbehaving student had an incident at home that makes it hard for him/her to focus. Or perhaps he/she has some sort of learning/behavioral disorder. At its simplest, maybe the student in question is just bone-tired and his/her brain is incapable of capting new information because of it.

But these are all factors we just can’t control or change. And it’s true: sometimes, very rarely, there just isn’t anything we can do. But that’s not the case the vast majority of the time. There’s almost always some sort of change we can make to help smooth over difficult situations. That’s why I like to focus on what I can do, rather than what I can’t do. That means I ask myself 3 simple questions: What was the student doing that he/she shouldn’t have been doing?; Why were they doing it (or why do I think they were doing it)?; and How will I try to discourage/avoid this behavior in the future?

It sounds corny. Believe me, I had my doubts at first too. But it really does work! So try it next time you have one of those classes during which “no one listens” or “the kids are wild.” You’ll be surprised at how this can change your outlook on misbehavior and help you avoid it in the long run.


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