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A student misbehaving during class
For Teachers

How to Break the Cycle of Student Misbehavior

By Kathryn Picano Morton, EdS, NCSP December 5, 2018

Getting a child to behave when expected can be quite a challenging task. When a student engages in misbehavior, that child is often attempting to get a response from the adult. Reacting to challenging behaviors negatively – yelling, using corporal punishment, removing the child from the setting, enforcing “timeouts,”– tends to exacerbate the issue. It can also create a negative cycle of adult-child interactions until, ultimately, the adult “wins” simply by being louder or more forceful. The more the cycle is replicated, the more entrenched misbehavior becomes, resulting in an even more damaged adult-child relationship.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends healthy forms of discipline such as reinforcing appropriate behaviors in positive ways, setting future expectations and boundaries, and redirecting. Here are seven strategies to help break the cycle of student misbehavior.

1. Ask what function the behavior serves

Children have the same basic needs as adults; however, they’re often not able to express them. Directing a child to stop or to calm down tends to be mildly effective, if effective at all. Kids quickly learn what will and won’t elicit a reaction, and that’s what they’re looking for: whatever response they can get. From this perspective, the misbehavior is serving a function. So as educators, we must problem-solve around why a student is engaging in challenging behaviors.

When these challenging situations arise, here’s what you should ask yourself:

  • Have all of their basic needs been met?
  • Have they experienced trauma?
  • Have they been given consistent, positive attention, as opposed to continuous, corrective feedback?

2. Try to stay calm

Children are stimulated by arguing, so as a child gets louder, parents and educators should get softer. Yelling or using corporal (physical) punishment only serves to model that the loudest and biggest “tantrum” wins. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns about the use of corporal punishment and its link to aggressive behavior in children. To help stay calm, take a deep breath, or even step away for a brief moment to allow yourself time to regulate so that you respond with less frustration.

3. Respond with compassion

A child exhibiting severe misbehavior is a child in need of de-escalation support. Removing a child and putting them in “timeout” is not an effective way to improve the child’s self-control. Rather, respond with compassion and focus on helping the child calm down before quietly discussing what happened.

4. Ask “What happened?” not “Why?”

Asking a child about what happened is solid advice from Pete Wright, an attorney who represents students with special needs and provides resources on his website WrightsLaw. When a child messes up, try to avoid asking, “Why did you…?” When parents or teachers ask this, the child learns to create good excuses, shift blame onto others, and/or reinforce a negative self-perception.

Children often don’t know “why,” especially students with ADHD.  They say they acted out because they “felt like doing it.” Instead ask, “What did you do?” Have the child explain what they did and review the incident until it is very clear. Then, ask these questions:

  • “What are you going to do about it?”  
  • “How can we be sure this behavior will not happen again?”
  • “What should we do if this happens again?”

5. Aim for 5:1 positive to negative interactions

Praise and acknowledge when a child is behaving well. Regularly commenting on what is right is a far more powerful method of instruction than punishing what a child does wrong. Research shows that when children are shown that they are loved by regular, positive attention, they have little need to engage in misbehavior. If children can have “five positive interactions to every one negative interaction” then a “constructive student-teacher relationship” can be maintained. Students also tend to be more engaged because they have a stronger sense of belonging and are connected to a positive classroom climate. 

6. Change the way you say no

Denying a child something they desire by saying no can trigger challenging behaviors. Use empathetic statements, said positively, to explain why they cannot have the item. Children, especially young children, do not have the language skills necessary to communicate their wants/needs, so they require our help. Try rephrasing your requests in a positive way: Instead of saying “No running,” say, “Please use walking feet.” Instead of directing a student not to yell, try saying, “Remember to use your inside voice.” Talk with the student in a respectful, positive way, explaining the reasons for your request, offering choices, and modeling the behavior that you want to see exhibited.

7. Provide controlled choices

Avoid an unnecessary power struggle with this strategy. Children love to be in control, so provide only choices that you are okay with the child selecting. This is an effective technique because rather than meeting a child with force, which will elicit resistance, you are affirming their right to some control, which increases compliance and cooperation.

Kathryn Picano Morton, EdS, NCSP, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist. She works in private practice and is an adjunct professor for Concordia University-Portland’s Trauma & Resilience in Educational Settings MEd program. Morton resides in Florida with her husband and two children.

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