Imagine teaching a class of second graders. Although most of the students do what you ask them to do, there’s often one student who has a hard time behaving appropriately. Whether the individual is launching spitballs at classmates or hiding your whiteboard erasers, this student’s seemingly unrelenting passion to find newer, more innovative ways to cause chaos has you at your wits’ end. Instead of sticking to your lesson plan, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to get everyone back on track. It’s exhausting, and it puts the learning environment at risk.
A number of factors can lead to poor student behavior. Students who have problems at home or whose parents are going through a divorce, for example, may be experiencing depression or stress. Childhood stress can lead to mood swings, declines in attentiveness, and impulsive behavior, all of which can be disruptive to the classroom.
Students who lack self-esteem may misbehave in an effort to resist participating in an activity that could lead to failure. For instance, if students think they’ll perform poorly on a test, they may go out of their way to avoid the test altogether.
Physiological factors, including being hungry, tired, or sick, may also lead to disruptive classroom behavior. In this case, children may be inattentive, cranky, or otherwise difficult, which may cause problems with their teachers or classmates.
Students with mental health challenges, such as anxiety disorder, may also act out in the classroom. They may throw tantrums, avoid certain activities, or melt down in response to the slightest criticism. Educators need to be mindful of this because students’ behavior in school may not be consistent with their behavior at home. This is especially important in the event a teacher finds it necessary to schedule a call with a student’s parent or guardian.
Disruptive student behavior isn’t limited to the physical classroom setting. Those who teach in an online environment may find that students who consider the subject matter too difficult become unmotivated, which can lead them to turn in assignments late or incomplete. Furthermore, students who aren’t emotionally invested in the course because they’re uninterested in the subject matter may fail to complete their coursework altogether.
Disruptive behavior in the classroom can stem from a variety of causes, but teachers have several potential solutions and tactics for managing student behavior.
Set the Expectations for Student Behavior
One key tactic for managing student behavior is setting behavior standards for the classroom. EducationWorld guest contributor Linda Dusenbury, PhD, an expert in evidence-based strategies designed to promote student motivation, suggests that establishing ground rules for classroom behavior can help maintain a positive environment. The best way to achieve this is to involve students in the rule-setting process, without allowing them to control it, as this clarifies that the teacher is in charge.
“Because students help develop the rules, they own them,” Dusenbury explains. “When students understand that the rules are their statements about what they expect of each other—not just what their teacher expects of them—they become more courteous, and they are more ready to participate in learning together.” Thus, teachers who invite students to participate in the rule-setting process may find they spend less time correcting disruptive behavior.
Stay Sensitive to Mental Health Challenges
Another important part of addressing disruptive classroom behavior is understanding the role of students’ mental health. Educators need to be aware that symptoms of depression and undiagnosed anxiety disorders can often manifest in the classroom. According to the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH), “Children’s mental health can affect young people in a variety of ways to varying degrees in the school environment. One child’s symptoms may be really hard to manage at school, while another child with the same condition may not have much difficulty.” For example, some students with undiagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) exhibit a range of symptoms, including hyperactivity, difficulty paying attention, and impulsivity. Consequently, educators need to remember that different behaviors can be symptoms of broader mental health challenges. Typically, schools offer guidelines and professional development opportunities to keep this issue in the forefront, but students with such problems can be overlooked.
Educators who are informed by their school administrators or suspect that a student is suffering from a mental health issue are encouraged to be proactive in working with both the student’s parents and the school to ensure the student’s challenges are addressed. A teacher’s responsibility is not to diagnose or treat a possible disorder but to speak out if a student is exhibiting troubling behaviors.
Praise and Reinforce Positive Behavior
Another way teachers can be effective in managing student behavior is rewarding positive acts, such as completing homework, listening attentively, and being respectful toward others. Children respond to positive reinforcement and learn to model their behavior accordingly. The success of this methodology is well documented in the field. Consider the following account in an ACSD blog post written by former K-12 educator Kasie Longoria. “When I was a classroom teacher, I always had a system where students could earn ‘paychecks’ each week for positive behaviors—and it worked amazingly well. I never once had classroom management issues or discipline problems, and I never sent students to the office, because they were so excited about earning rewards.” Other teachers have experienced similar success. In an interview with the Child Mind Institute, veteran educator Meirelys Ruiz says using positive reinforcement with her students had a tremendous effect. In addition to improving individual students’ behavior, positive reinforcement methods improved classroom behavior as a whole. “After a month or two months of using it consistently, you really see a huge change,” she explains. Although behavior incentives may not correct all negative student behavior, teachers who learn to recognize and reward positive acts may find themselves spending less time reprimanding negative ones.
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One of the best ways to become a more effective teacher is to attain an advanced degree, such as the Online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership (MEd) from American University (AU). Upon earning an online master’s degree from the AU School of Education, graduates often find they’ve gained a broader understanding of how to manage student behavior.
The coursework is designed to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge they need to provide in-class and online students with the high-quality education they deserve. Learn how the Online Master of Arts in Teaching or Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership at American University can help you grow in your career.
ACSD, “A More Compassionate Philosophy on Student Behavior”
Association for Children’s Mental Health, Problems at School
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Children’s Mental Health
Child Mind Institute, “Breaking the Behavior Code”
Child Mind Institute, “Improving Behavior in the Classroom”
Education World, “Set Positive Behavior Expectations”
Project IDEAL, “Developing Classroom Expectations”
Scholastic, “25 Sure-Fire Strategies for Handling Difficult Students”
Turnaround for Children, “Practice Shift: Rewarding Positive Behavior”