Why do kids misbehave and what to do about it

Why do students misbehave in the classroom? Why do kids challenge adults and how should teachers deal with these situations when they occur? Knowing what to do when challenged can change your life as a teacher.

The key question for new teachers

Why do kids misbehave in the classroom? While studying education, this was a question we, as students, wanted to know from our lecturers. We suspected that such knowledge would one day help us react correctly when faced with misbehavior in the classroom.

We soon learned that professors, senior lecturers, and educational researchers seemed to be vague on how to effectively deal with misbehaving students. Instead, they quoted cliches and gave unreliable advice. They said that we would figure it out once we have gained enough teaching experience.

Speaking from my own experience and that of other teachers, the following theory on why kids act out and how we as educators should deal with it has emerged.

Looking for a leader

So, why do kids misbehave? Children naturally act out to protect themselves. Kids want to feel safe, so they have developed this instinct to test leaders to make sure they are powerful, discerning, and wise enough to lead the group to a prosperous future. In ancient times, poor decisions by an incompetent leader threatened the survivability of a tribe against external threats. It’s for this reason that we instinctively test leadership; to make sure that they are competent and reliable.

On the one hand, you may have some well-disciplined, gorgeous students that are just a treasure in class; the whole nurture versus nature argument. The needs of someone coming from a good home have already been met. They’ve learned that their leaders, their parents, take good care of them and have been disciplined to listen to authority figures, whereas if someone is from a bad neighborhood, their leaders have failed them and it’s more difficult to earn their trust because they come from a difficult place. That’s why a lot of your most difficult students will come from bad neighborhoods. They have lost faith in their leaders and it’s going to be extra difficult for you to regain their trust, but these are extremes. There are many variables in children’s behavior, and this is only a basic explanation of why students challenge authority.

So you might think, why do some teachers struggle with this? Why aren’t we more prepared, especially when we first enter the occupation? Most teachers aren’t ready for this. We’ve been conditioned of all lives to be followers and unless your natural leader, which most of us aren’t, we have a tough time dealing with attacks on the social hierarchy.

When school starts, learners are nice at first, but over the course of the next few weeks and months, they will continually test their teacher. If your leadership fails, the attacks will escalate until it becomes very difficult to teach.

You’ll definitely start feeling a negative atmosphere in the classroom. They’ll start asking unnecessary questions; they’ll rebel against the rules you’ve created and you’ll get a lot more backchat. These acts of defiance are to check the reaction of the teacher. Every time the teacher fails, they’ll fall lower in the pecking order and the student will take a more dominant role.

The Loveable Teacher Theory

The question is how to deal with the fact that students challenge teachers. Most advice columns and teaching blogs suggest building close relationships with your students to earn their trust. Make them like you and let them understand that you are in this together. How sweet!

Yes, you must build relationships, but no, you cannot like someone you don’t respect. Building a personal relationship with students is a fundamental part of being a good teacher, but it has to come from the right place, from you as the leader making wise decisions for your class. They have to invest in you and trust you to lead them into a prosperous future.

The problem is that it’s a very nuanced point to say create a good relationship with your students, because most teachers believe, “I will do nice things for them. I will be kind, I will give them candy, I will give them attention, my classroom will be filled with love.”

Loveable Barney

But if you offer that to them without leadership, then it will last only a short time, because your value isn’t that of a strong, powerful leader showing them the way, it is that of a follower doing nice things for them. You cannot be a great leader without gaining the respect of your students first and then showing them love second.

Another example to cement this idea, let’s imagine a man goes to a girl and asks her what her idea of the ideal man is. She might say something along the lines of, “I want someone that takes care of me that sweet and kind and that listens to me.”

Most guys will think, “All I need to do is to tell this girl she’s beautiful, buy her flowers, take care of her every need and then she will love me the same way.” We know that in most cases, the girl may love the things she gets and might let him hang around, but if he does not bring more value to the table, she’ll be apathetic or even despise him. It’s the same with students. If you don’t bring first value and then care, they will see you as a follower and not a leader in the classroom.

So, understand this behaviorist concept. Children will challenge you to make sure you are a good leader and they will continue to do that as long as you are in education.

Positively view every challenge

Now here’s the essential tip, the magic pill for when you get tested by a student. Don’t take it personally, don’t think the students are trying to push you down. See it as an opportunity. See every time a student rebels, or gives you an unsatisfactory answer, or disrespects you, as another chance to show the class that you’re the one in control.

Be positive every time a student does something bad because that’s an opportunity to demonstrate your leadership in the eyes of the students. Make that mind shift every time something bad happens. Be happy, face the challenge. Don’t be angry, but firmly apply the class rules.

The students will see that this is a teacher with boundaries and every time they attack these boundaries, you just enforce it with a smile and become stronger. Get it into your head not to be weak, don’t pity yourself but be positive and fair.

I wish I was taught this as a new teacher. I wish people told me, “Eric, kids are going to test you but instead of getting angry, embrace it and become a better teacher.” You will feel yourself become more powerful every time you do this. Remember, don’t attach personal feelings to their attacks, they are just testing you to make sure you are a good leader.

Now I know this is a generalization; there are many aspects of behavior that we also have to consider, but if you take this mindset, you will improve as a teacher two, three, or four-fold. Know that you are not alone; there are millions of teachers out there going through the same things as you. If you share your ideas and your feelings, you’ll gain that experience and become a better leader for your students.

You need to inspire confidence, not only in your students and your colleagues, but also in yourself. Lead your students like the general. There will be obstacles along the way, but embrace the challenge and your students will look up to you and learn from you.  

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