21 January, 2009

Dealing with Students’ Misbehaviour

By C. Radhakrishnan

Of course, all teachers no matter how excellent will need to deal with students’ misbehaviour from time to time. Being able to deal with such behaviour is extremely important in complementing their ability to create and maintain effective learning experiences. Effective techniques and skills needed to combat misbehaviour should be accompanied by excellent and interesting learning experiences otherwise we cannot expect the right kind of attitudinal or behavioural change in the child. Experienced teachers understand that the key to success is not how you deal with misbehaviour but rather how you prevent misbehaviour happening to start with. The most significant advice in this context is to try and think why the problem arose in the first place.

Any behaviour by a student that undermines the teacher’s ability to establish and retain effective learning experiences in the classroom can be considered as student misbehaviour. However, as teachers, we must accept that student misbehaviour originates from some psychological need. Robertson in his book ‘Effective Classroom Control’ has argued that when considering the cause of misbehaviour it is useful to identify what the motive of the student might be. He has identified four such common motives - attention seeking, causing excitement, malicious teasing and avoiding work.

The proverb ‘prevention is better than cure’ applies very well to dealing with student misbehaviour. The greatness and effectiveness of the teacher lies entirely with how the teacher prevents recurrence of misbehaviour among the students. Chris Kyriacou (Effective Teaching in Schools – Theory and Practice) says “the key skill of pre-empting misbehaviour resides in vigilance plus action.” ‘Vigilance’ involves the teacher monitoring the students’ behaviour (their attentiveness and receptiveness) and the appropriateness of the learning activities. ‘Action’ is what the teacher does to sustain students’ academic engagement in the learning experience whenever it appears to be slipping. Besides this, it is very important from the part of the teacher to establish clear rules and expectations with regard to classroom behaviour. Above all teachers should have the ability to anticipate problems and need to take necessary steps to prevent students’ misbehaviour.

Another important aspect in dealing with students’ misbehaviour is reprimands and punishments. Before we turn into that aspect I want to emphasise that reprimands and punishments must be accompanied by encouragement and support of desirable behaviour (praise, awards, positive remarks, etc.). Over emphasis on reprimands and punishments would certainly undermine the quality of the working relationship between teacher and students.

In essence a reprimand embodies a warning aimed to stop the misbehaviour and prevents its future recurrence while a punishment embodies a statement that the misbehaviour is so serious that formal action is required which is intended to be unpleasant in order to emphasise the severity of the situation. Such a formal action should have:

1. Retribution: Justice requires that bad acts are followed by morally deserved punishment.

2. Deterrence: The punishment is aimed to put off the student or other students from similar misbehaviour in the future through fear of consequences.

3. Rehabilitation: The punishment is aimed to assist the student in understanding the moral wrongdoing of the misbehaviour and desiring not to repeat it again.

Finally, let us look into some actions that help to make reprimands and punishments effective in dealing with student misbehaviour.


• Target Correctly: Correctly identify the student instigating or engaged in the misbehaviour.

• Be Firm: A verbal reprimand should be clear and firm and the tone should be authoritative and induce compliance.

• Build on Mutual Rapport and Mutual Respect: Understand the children and they should feel that teacher is not targeting the individual but the misbehaviour. Avoid mockery and ridicule.

• Emphasise the Positive: Emphasise what student should be doing rather than complain about what they are doing. ‘Pay attention’ is better than ‘stop looking out of the window’.

• Follow through Psychologically: Reprimand should be accompanied by a momentary prolonging of eye contact together with a slight pause before continuing the lesson increases the force of the exchange.

• Avoid Confrontations: Do not force the student into a situation where an emotional or heated exchange results, in such a case postpone the exchange by asking the student to stay behind and resume the lesson.

• Use Private rather than Public Reprimands: A quiet word, eye contact, physical proximity and asking a question.

• Avoid Making Hostile Remarks: Once a student personally disliked, disaffection and alienation may quickly follow.

• Avoid Unfair Comparisons: Stereotyping, labelling or comparisons with other students.

• Avoid Idle Threats: Threats of consequences which can not be carried out must not be made.

• Avoid Reprimanding the Whole Class: Reprimanding the whole class means we are unable to find and stop the individual act of misbehaviour.


• Judicious Use: Punishment should be used sparingly, only after other ways of dealing (such as changing teaching strategies, counselling and reprimands).

• Timing: Immediately after the offence if there is a long delay the link should be re-established at the time of punishment.

• Tone: Punishment should not be given as a result of a teacher losing his or her temper rather it should be an expression of just and severe disapproval of the misbehaviour and given because it is in the interest of the student and the class as a whole.

• Fitting the Crime: The type and severity of the punishment must fit the offence.

• Due Process: Fair warning and consistency must be applied; in addition, students should be given an opportunity to defend their behaviour, and encouraged to understand and accept why the punishment is just, deserved and appropriate.

• Relating to School Policy: The punishment must relate to the overall policy of the school towards discipline. (All the points mentioned under reprimands and also apply to punishments.)

Print References:

1. Fontana, D. - Managing Classroom Behaviour

2. Robertson, J. – Effective Classroom Control

3. Kyriacou, Chris – Effective Teaching in Schools – Theory and Practice