Why Kids Misbehave

I firmly believe that understanding why a student misbehaves is the key to changing that behavior. Once understood, it is easy to realize how ridiculous many of the traditional consequences we currently use are.

Imagine you are a doctor and five patients come to you with a runny nose. You give them all tissue. The next day all come back. You give more tissue. Again they come back. This cycle goes on until you start asking some questions. You quickly learn the first person has allergies. The second refuses to wear a hat when it is cold out, and the third is a cocaine addict. The symptom (runny nose) is the same. The solution to the symptom is completely different for all. Without understanding why the runny nose exists, it is almost impossible to properly treat any of the patients. View detention, in-school suspension and suspension as tissue. They might wipe the problem away for a few minutes, but none fix the real underlying issue.

Difficult behaviors in a classroom should be viewed as nothing more than a symptom. For example, calling teachers names or throwing something are often symptoms of a frustrated, angry person. Really frustration and anger are the problems. Teaching the student how to handle these emotions and then practicing what to do are the true solutions.

There are five basic reasons why students misbehave. Meeting a person’s basic need for Power/Control, Competence, Belonging, and Attention will almost always change behavior quickly. Understanding “why” will immediately make you better than most of your colleagues.

Filling the need:


There are two types of “attention” kids. Type “A” is desperate for attention because he gets hardly any at home. Type “B” is often spoiled at home and gets so much attention he does not know how to live without it.

Type “A” General Characteristics:

  • Typically comes from a crowded home. Lots of brothers and sisters along with a single parent are common.
  • Might have two parents with one or both very disinterested.
  • This child is desperate for attention. Remember, bad attention is better than no attention. Specific behaviors: Calls out inappropriately, out of seat, argumentative, center of attention.

Type “A” Strategies:

  • Should be privately praised as often as possible even for little things. For example, “Great job getting here on time. I am so proud of you!” Or, “I notice you have not called out all class. Well done.” Remember, praise privately as often as possible. Be sure to praise with the same level of intensity as you correct.
  • Reassure her on a daily basis that she is doing a good job for basic tasks you would not normally compliment.
  • Private conversation explaining that it must be hard to not get a lot of attention at home can be helpful as well.
  • Do not be afraid to discuss personal issues with this student. This includes personal issues about your life as well.
  • Let her know it must be hard to live in an environment where she needs to fight for attention. It is important she knows that you know exactly what is going on with her.

Student “B” General Characteristics:

  • Gets complete undivided attention at home.
  • Often an only child, or has brothers and sisters spaced far apart, which allows 100% of adult attention to be focused on him.
  • Has not learned how to share, wait his turn, and follow rules. All of a sudden this student is dropped in an environment with 20 others. For him it can be hard to cope. The lack of attention when you are one of 20 then leads to disruptive behavior so the focus turns back to him.
  • Specific behaviors: Oppositional Defiant, Loves to argue everything, Always needs to be correct, Manipulative, Charming as long as everything is going his way.

Type “B” Strategies:

  • Provide clearly defined limits that allow for choice within those limits. For example, “you can be on the computer for 15 minutes. Would you prefer those minutes at the beginning, middle, or end of class?”
  • The choice takes the focus off the limit (15 minutes). He begins to learn he does not get whatever he wants for as long as he wants it.
  • He is then praised (privately) when after 15 minutes he gets off the computer without being told. This shifts the attention to him in a positive way.
  • Use challenge. Often times reverse psychology works wonders. For example, the teacher says, “I know for a fact you can’t sit still for 20 minutes. I guess we will see won’t we?” Because the student is oppositional they often succeed just to prove you wrong. The major thing to remember about challenge is that it only works when the thing you are challenging them to do they can actually do.