The First Year Teaching: How do I handle misbehavior?

By Matthew Lynch

New teachers will find that one of the most frustrating parts of teaching is classroom misbehavior. This misbehavior is easy to identify, but finding the solution to effectively deal with it by finding the causes may be more difficult. As misbehavior will continue if not successfully dealt with the first few times, teachers need to get to the root of the problems that are the causes of students’ misbehavior as soon as possible (Moore, 2008). Teachers should take close looks into students’ behaviors to find the influential factors that are shaping students’ behavioral patterns.

Consider Background Factors

One notable place to start is by examining students’ home environments. Children model their behavior on that of their parents, and their parents are also likely to have a high degree of influence over their point of view.  Students with well-educated parents are more likely to have been instilled with respect for education and the institutions and authorities that accompany it. It follows that these children will be more likely to maintain a high level of personal discipline because they see the purpose of their presence at school and understand what they will achieve from adhering to prescribed behavior. On the other hand, it helps to be aware that there are also students whose parents expect perfect scores, forcing their children to take the most advanced courses offered, against the wishes of the child.

Rules and customs that are set by parents for children directly influence students’ behaviors. Students with extremely tolerant parents who let their children have things their way all the time will talk back to teachers and get into trouble with other students who disagree with them.   The student may struggle to understand why such behavior is not allowed at school but is allowed at home. Students who grow up under authoritarian-style also exhibit classroom misbehavior, although this may be manifested in a different way. These students may show overt fear and anxiety in response to authority figures, including teachers.  This may result in under-performance, lack of engagement in activities or an inability to focus appropriately. On the other hand, these students may feel that they are able to release their frustrations on other students, whom they see as their equals.

Poverty, among other socioeconomic factors, is cited as being a particularly important factor in understanding why students misbehave. This is not necessarily because there is a direct lack of discipline in homes affected by poverty. It is a reflection of the different values that are present at different socioeconomic levels of society. If children grow up in a home where they are unsure of where their next meal is coming from, or are unable to rely on parental support (parents who work multiple jobs, for example), their values will be fundamentally different than children who grow up in homes where they have the privilege of being able to take these things for granted. People living in poverty, particularly in extreme poverty, will value survival more highly than academic achievement. Other values will include interpersonal relationships and entertainment, the former likely to assist with survival and the latter because this will allow them to temporarily mentally escapes the confines of their situation.

Conversely, high-income families may come about as the result of parents allowing inadequate time for effective parenting. Parents may have demanding jobs, leaving their children unsupervised during this time, particularly once they are old enough to look after themselves. Parents who show over-involvement in their work for any reason may also play a less active role in their children’s lives. Increasingly, parents of high-income families are also providing their children with access to their credit cards. These children now have the ability to live and function as adults in every other aspect of their lives, other than at school. This may have an influence on their behavior at school.

Consider Classroom Factors

Various factors within the classroom may also affect whether or not students behave appropriately. Good air circulation in the classroom is essential and should never be compromised. Students should be made as comfortable as possible in their environment, as discomfort may prompt them to engage in undesirable behavior. Observe whether or not students are seated at desks and chairs that are suited to the size of their bodies. It will be impossible to accommodate every child, but various efforts can be made.

Mismatches between the abilities of the students and the learning material being presented will also tend to encourage misbehavior. Students who are being insufficiently challenged will display a lack of interest in various ways. This may take the form of abject disinterest in the teaching, or may result in them being disruptive to other students. It is important to adjust your teaching to make the lesson interesting to even the most gifted students in the class, while also taking into account the interests of all your students. Conversely, students who are unable to grasp the material being taught, or who are being presented with material that they are completely unfamiliar with, will also be more likely to misbehave. Bear existing levels of knowledge in mind when you plan lesson content,and conduct frequent informal assessments, to ensure that you understand what is appropriate for your students to be learning.

In some cases, misbehavior may be due to factors arising from the teachers themselves. In some cases, teachers are not aware that they are indirectly a cause of the poor classroom behavior, making it clear why you should conduct regular self-evaluations and self-reflective exercises. Continuing your professional development is important to enable you to remain in touch with effective teaching practices. There is always room for improvement to your personal teaching methods and your approach to teaching. In particular, ensure that you identify situations which you are unable to cope with early and seek assistance from other teachers, principals or school counselors — all of whom may offer creative and innovate ways of addressing classroom behavior problems.

Ensure that you strive to treat all your students with respect as individuals as well as in terms of their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. If you set a good example of behavior for your students, they are likely to pick up on this and treat you with respect. Avoid raising your voice or using a disparaging tone, and always ensure that you respond to students with appropriate validation where necessary.

Never humiliate or embarrass your students, as this is highly counterproductive, and is never in the best interest of your students. Students may try to provoke you during classroom time, which requires you to be able to identify these attempts without reacting to them and without losing self-control. You need to demonstrate adult methods of conflict management when dealing with your students at all times. This may be difficult when you are dealing with personal difficulties or frustrations, which is why it is important for you to remain aware of the boundary between your duties as an educator and your personal duties towards yourself. Leave your own personal frustrations outside the classroom as much as possible.

It is important to be clear with your students about what behavior will be tolerated and what will not, as consistency in your approach to them as students will encourage them to adhere to your requirements of them. Always aim to plan effectively and avoid frequent and unnecessary disruptions to your teaching plan, as this may contribute to misbehavior by allowing students idle time. Prepare class materials and be ready to deal with any unexpected disturbances, giving students minimal idle time and ensuring that there is something to keep them adequately occupied should anything unplanned arise.

Consider Physical and Psychological Factors

Although there are differences in behavior of students according to their age, many physical and psychological factors can have an influence at different stages of their school career. Children are unable to make adult-like choices in how they behave, but are often trying to communicate a need or desire. It is important to be able to determine whether or not this behavior is under their control to determine whether or not there is a need or desire that you can assist in addressing.

It would likely be unwise to determine that misbehavior is the result of a physical or psychological problem in a child who commits a single act of undesirable behavior, but it would be as unwise not to consider these factors in a repeat offender. Sometimes students will simply be acting on the desire to break any rules that have been imposed on them. Some students, however, are subject to various medical conditions or are exposed to environments that have severe effects on their ability to function normally. Enlisting the assistance of a school nurse or school counselor is crucial in ensuring that these students also receive the same standards of education as their peers.

A commonly encountered disorder is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD. Children who suffer ADHD will commonly have a reduced ability to control their impulses and have bouts of hyperactivity, which are disruptive to both themselves and their peers. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Autistic Spectrum Disorders, in which children have difficulty with social interaction and perform compulsive, repetitive behaviors which may equally be perceived as disruptive to themselves and their peers.

There are also mental health problems that are more commonly encountered in adults which may present during later childhood years, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, in which sufferers cause severe difficulties in interacting with them due to their excessive and sometimes unprovoked aggression. These students will often be a source of extreme frustration to teachers, but may also be so aggressive that they cause physical harm to teachers, and therefore there may be teachers who are simply afraid of them. Other mental health conditions include Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorders, all of which are much more difficult to diagnose in children than in adults. It is imperative that you consult with your school counselor or similar mental health professional in order to determine if your students is suffering from any of these disorders.

Behavior changes may also result from the intake of substances, whether narcotic or simply unfamiliar to the body. Students who are taking medication for any condition, including antibiotics or anti-epileptic medication, may show changes in their behavior. These will be more easily disclosed to a teacher than the taking of narcotic or illegal substances, and you will be required to maintain a certain degree of suspicion with regard to children whose behavior changes drastically during the course of a school day.

Medical conditions such as viral infections and meningitis may also cause changes in a student’s behavior. Some medical conditions are so subtle that children may not even realize that they are sick because they are not feeling any obvious symptoms. In many cases, however, they may be feeling quite marked symptoms, which have either not been addressed by their parents or caretakers or are ignoring these symptoms out of fear. Changes resulting from medical conditions have the advantage of being easier to detect as they are more likely to occur suddenly, giving a clue as to their cause. With experience, you will learn to identify different behavioral problems more effectively.

If you are a veteran teacher, how did you get a grip on behavioral issues in your classroom when you were first starting out?

photo credit: Lotus Carroll via photopin cc

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