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Sometimes Misbehavior Is Not What It Seems

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Boy sitting in class, eyes closed, nose wrinkled, sticking his tongue out

When Sigmund Freud reportedly said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," the key word was "sometimes," because sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar. So it is with understanding misbehavior. Sometimes the reason for misbehavior is very different than the obvious and requires a totally different intervention than the usual consequences. It is never easy to determine why children do the things they do.

The following are examples of seeing misbehavior from a new perspective. In each of these cases, diagnosis is very difficult -- as are the remedies. For chronic misbehaving students, pay close attention to their home situations, the type of misbehavior, when it occurs, and whether they behave differently with other adults. Be advised that the best responses to these situations sound easier than they are to put into practice.

1. Sometimes students misbehave because they like you too much.

Some students have experienced so much pain that they build a wall between themselves and everyone else. For those familiar with the Simon and Garfunkel song, it's the "I Am A Rock" syndrome:

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries.

The closer to you get to children like this, the greater their fear of getting hurt. As this fear intensifies, the more they try to push you away. The more the child pushes you away, the more you think that he either dislikes or disrespects you. When feeling disrespected or disliked, many teachers try to develop a closer relationship. While this strategy works for most students, it only frightens students like these into more dramatic methods of pushing you away.

2. Sometimes students want you to prove yourself.

Some students have been promised that things would be better only to have things get worse. Children shuffled through the foster care system are likely to feel this way. The same is true for students who have had teachers that overly encouraged success and rewarded them for minor behavioral achievements, only to give up on them later. Sometimes children of divorced parents feel cheated and abandoned by one parent or the other. Before they can trust you, they continue pushing you, harder and harder, to see if you will give up on them, too.

The best approach for both of these two situations is the same. No matter what they do, believe in them, even if their behavior is serious or severe. Say things like, "What you just did is unacceptable in our classroom, but no matter what you do, I'm still on your side. I will never give up or stop believing in you." There are two big dangers in this approach:

  1. You must really mean it. As Neil Postman once said, "Kids have built-in crap detectors." You can't fake believing in them. You really must feel that way.
  2. If you do give up, you will be added to their list of adults who abandoned them. That will make it even harder for someone else to reach them. If you make a commitment, you must keep it. Do not give up.

3. Sometimes students are physically attracted to you.

Many teachers, especially those who look to be about the same age as their students, have trouble when students develop crushes on them. When students are attracted to their teacher, their goal becomes interaction. Obviously, they can't engage on a more romantic level (although some occasionally try), so they connect through the only other way that's open to them.

Younger children are sometimes attracted to their teachers in a different way, although with the same result. They see their teachers as mommies or daddies. I guess many of you who teach very young children have been called "Mommy" by mistake.

The solution, which many younger teachers have told me they object to, is to dress as professionally and unprovocatively as possible -- no jeans or anything that makes them seem as equals to students. Use a modest amount of makeup. Men do better with students who develop crushes by wearing a tie or at least a sport coat. Be friendly, but not as friends. Draw strong professional limits. Do not feed their fantasies.

4. Sometimes students need to be noticed.

Rollo May, in Love and Will, made a simple but profound statement when he said that attention for something bad is better than no attention at all. This theory explains, at least partially, some of the school violence by students in recent years. No one wants to feel anonymous or unseen. For these students, misbehavior is like raising a flag that says, "Notice me, I matter." Students like these often feel unnoticed at home, among other students, and by most of their teachers.

These students can be helped by greeting them at the door before class, calling on them more frequently, asking them to help perform academic tasks, like solving a problem on the whiteboard, or generally making sure they feel appreciated. Learn their names, say hello in the corridors, and occasionally seek them out on the playground or in the lunchroom for a brief conversation.

In all four of the situations above, certain sensitivities can be very helpful. Whether you're making positive or negative comments about behavior and academic performance, make those comments in private. Never publicly draw attention with comments such as, "I like the way that Allen is sitting." Never write their names on the whiteboard for any reason. Never discuss their situations with any other students or other parents. When talking with these students' parents, never blame either the children or parents. Be more stubborn than these chronically misbehaving students and never give up on them.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Bradley Barnhart's picture

Thank you for the insight. I'm an elementary custodian & green team coordinator for 4th & 5th graders. I encountered a situation with a 1st grade boy who fell into #4 'Need to be noticed' category. It seemed whenever you heard his name it was for correction. One morning he was caught flicking apple sauce during breakfast & I was directed to assist him in clean-up. He appeared to enjoy the task & working with me, as I thought he would given his age. To keep from having him create more 'clean-up' tasks, I turned the situation into an incentive for positive behavior to be able to work with me in the future. In a short time, other children wanted in on the action with opportunities to work with Mr. Barnhart during lunch. This resulted in a 'Lunch Helpers' program where students could sign-up on a clipboard for their grade in the Cafeteria.

I could share more examples of positive encouragement, developing character & citizenship .

msartsytech's picture

Dr. Curwin,
I'm currently a substitute teacher K-12. I go to a different classroom everyday dealing with different students with different behaviors and backgrounds. The biggest issue are behaviors. I have noticed all of the following behaviors in students 1 through 4. Being a young teacher I'm still learning from other teachers' rules and altering them at times to fit my own to get through the day. I didn't think I could develop relationships or be respected for one day but I've noticed that children with misbehaviors can do one or the other in that day; start over and demonstrate that they are a "good student", by being a good example and even be a helper or establish that they are a "trouble student" that pushes the students and teachers. I would like to have my open classroom and seek the correct ways to deal with behaviors. I notice like you mentioned to acknowledge them in privately is the way to go. I've noticed with experience though that by praising those who have good behavior the rest step it up. I pick "scouts" to pick students who have good behavior in the lower grades and write their names on the board. The "trouble" students I give a chance to put their names and if they don't do well they must erase. I sometimes feel bad when certain names are not on the board but it's a way for me to keep track and for them to see where they are. I also rate on a star system, where they need to try and earn as a class 5 stars and the teacher will see this. I will sometimes not do this and the students themselves including the troubled ones want it back. I was wondering what do you think of this approach as a substitute teacher. I've also noticed that the misbehaved kids often like me, maybe not the first time around but once they see I that I can see reasons why they do it, either they're bored, annoyed, feel ignored or just plain enjoy it to avoid learning. I realize there's no real solution but to try and establish a relationship of trust and understanding. Letting them know how you feel and asking them the same, about their learning and environment. I like how you say to let them know that no matter what you are rooting for them to succeed, not to embarrass or shame them. I always try to reflect on the day with every child. Whether I acted accordingly or if I focused more on the academic learning and ignored their needs and feelings. I know that these students may forget academically the lesson at times, but even at the end I'll ask students what did they learn in the day and the younger ones will mention " how to be a good friend". Especially when somewhere in the day I sneak in a "be respectful" mini speech. I think every teacher can write books on their thoughts and experience teaching. I respect all, the strict and non-strict teachers. They all create different dynamics and relationship environments with students. I would like however to be able to know what strategies are best to aknowledge students while still holding a good academic learning pace with not so many disruptions, especially students that can be very rowdy and are also getting other students annoyed or also loud. I've gone to classrooms where students even want to leave, take a test somewhere like a study room or move tables or start causing more misbehavior by lashing at those students. Every substitute has that moment where you tell the student please behave or you will need to go to another room or principal's office. I feel like I fail at that moment for not knowing how to properly handle the situation and they see me as an enemy the next time I go back. I sometimes have moments in middle or high schools that I'll worry if they'll try to get back at me after school for disciplinary issues. As a result, I'll just try not to be too sensitive about matters and ignore some behaviors which I find it hard but as a survival tactic in substituting. I'll choose my battles or I easily get drained. Can you suggest strategies that are specific, with real scenerios that are practical in the classroom? Thank you.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

msartsytech, I predict you will soon be a classroom teacher. Why? I have never, ever seen a substitute so focused on serving students well - not just completing the work the teacher has left to do. Kudos to you - and I suspect you already have quite a ready supply of 'specific strategies that are practical in the classroom.' Your post is proof...

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi msartsytech, You ask so many questions, it would take me a book to answer. I have already written that book DISCIPLINE WITH DIGNITY, available through ASCD and I strongly suggest you read it. Most of your questions will be answered. In the meantime here are a number of thoughts:
1. You suffer from the most common problem that new teachers have: lack of confidence. Students feel it instantly and exploit it. The best solution is experience. Until you have it think of as many situations as you can before they happen, plan a response, and have enough confidence to execute it.
2. stop seeing the classroom as a battle, your on the same side as the students, not their enemy. see power struggles before they occur and tone things down.If you are insulted, for example, then just say something like, "what a clever observation. We can talk about it more after class if you have more to say. let's get back to the lesson."repeat as often as necessary.
3. Every time you send a student to the administration, you tell everyone that you are too weak to handle it and become more of a target. Solve your own problems unless you have an emergency.
4. Punishments and especially rewards make things worse, not better.Stop using them. There are too many reasons why to mention here, but I have discussed them in previous posts and in depth in the book.
5. Don't give up. It takes at least three years to function fully in the classroom. My first year I cried more than I taught. We need great teachers. You sound like you might become one. Just try to resist forming bad habits, like yelling, removing children, punishing and rewarding, because once they become a part of you, it's very hard to change.

JanicaB.'s picture

I'm still a student, and most probably I'm the only commentor here who has no experience on dealing with the behavior of students. But I have friends who really are possessing such misbehavior. That's why I somehow believe on your second misbehavior perspective Dr. Curwin. Students like them really wants you to prove yourself unto them. Because this friend I'm referring to is longing for his mother's care, he lost her when he was still young then came next is his two closest sisters. He told me that they all have promised something to him. After his sister's death, he changed. he has been a crackpot in the school, a rebel, and always a visitor of the guidance office. After reading this article, I came to realize that probably this is the reason why. He really seeks for attention. And that maybe he wants his teachers to comfort him.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

JanicaB, thank you for sharing your friend's story. I brought to mind a quote--one of my favorites--which goes: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." - John Watson

In your friend's case, it's obvious the battle he's fighting, but I've found everyone has something; some kind of tragedy in their life. That's why compassion for everyone is so important. Mind you, that doesn't mean you don't have good boundaries. Unacceptable behavior needs to be called out and stopped, but we can do it from a loving place.

T Besnah's picture

Bill, I am a Masters student in Teaching and I want to do my Capstone project on this subject. I am going to be in a diverse school next week and I would love any input, advice, or direction on the subject. My goal with my project is to provide teachers with strategies that they could use in the classroom to aide these types of students in their education. I will be interviewing the teacher to get an idea of the challenges she faces with misbehavior. If you have any suggestions on questions I could ask, that would be wonderful.

Susan Kraus Jones's picture

Mr. Jenkins, during a training in South Dakota, Reclaiming youth international, I learned about the ACE study. Explained so much about students who have experienced trauma. From that I began to understand more about brain development in kids who have experienced trauma. Understanding behavior as a skill deficit, something that needs to be taught by compassionate, understanding and empathic adults is going to be critical for many students and families. I agree, in time, as adults begin to gain more insight into trauma informed education, only then will we begin to see a shift. When it comes to educating our future generations, it takes all of us, not just the teachers, social workers, doctors... the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can start helping all students. Thanks for your words.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof Music

WOW. This is all. So. Thank you for giving me something great to share! It's all there :-)

Violeta Val's picture

I wish more school principals were aware of these psychological issues underlying misbehaviour. I particularly feel identified with the ones you describe in #1 and 3. I teach to 16-18 year old students in a public high school and I look younger than my real age and there are two or three male students in one of the classes I teach who constantly compliment me on my looks to the point that it is making me really uncomfortable. I told them not to go on with that and I explained to them that it was improper but then they constantly try to disrupt my lessons by doing things to call my attention, and the other day one of these boys really took things too far and there was a situation where he completely defied my authority in the class. I went to look for help from the vice-principal but I feel she didn't help because she tried to mediate instead of telling the student that he was being completely disrespectful. After he calmed down I continued with my lesson and forty minutes after that the student asks me once more (he has already asked me this in countless occasions) how old I was. I told him it is improper to ask an adult this but he is obsessed with wanting to get to know my age. In the past he has leaned his arm around my shoulders and I told him not to do that and I really didn't want to be rude, 'cause he did that like trying to show affection. I really don't know how to handle the situation as I think that the school principal will not really understand what is going on (maybe she has never been in a situation like this one).

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