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How a teacher understands the reasons why young people misbehave determines the learning

environment they shape. It is essential for teachers to understand both the perceptions and

perspectives of student misbehaviour as well as contemporary research from the field. The

following paper compares and contrasts a selection of current theoretical perspectives about

student misbehaviour. Following this review, the paper includes results of qualitative

research I conducted with six interview participants in response to the question: “In your

opinion, why do young people misbehave in school?” I identify and discuss the themes that

emerge from the interviews before interpreting the responses in light of the literature review.

Finally, I consider the implications for praxis, asking how my own developing understanding

of student misbehaviour will affect the way that I teach.

Literature Review

Theme 1: Misbehaviour occurs when students lack skills

There are various contemporary frameworks through which to view misbehaviour in youth.

Greene (2014) argues that misbehaviour includes the challenging behaviour/s of individual

students who lack important skills to handle life’s challenges adaptively (Greene 2014). He

suggests that challenging behaviours occur when teachers haven’t understood why the

behaviour is occurring (recognizing the lagging skill), and when they have not pinpointed the

instance the challenging behaviour occurs (in what situation: the unsolved problem) (Greene

2014). Framing challenging behaviours in terms of lagging skills casts misbehaviour as an

unsolved problem, and Greene’s framework is a teacher-orientated approach requiring

training in the skills of negotiation and relationship-building (De Nobile, Lyons & Arthur-

Kelly, 2017). The Pain Model advocated by McDonald (2013), shares a key assumption with

Greene that students misbehave because they lack specific skills. McDonald, however, takes

on a student-centred approach, focusing on strategies that students can use to make better

choices with regard to their behaviour. According to McDonald (2013), students ‘in pain’

will act on how they feel; they will ‘communicate pain’ through misbehaviour; they will not

respond well to punishment; they lack social, relational and problem solving skills; and they

may ‘seek’ formal discipline. Both frameworks acknowledge that students who misbehave

lack specific skills.

Theme 2: Misbehaviour is student-centred

In terms of student-centred frameworks, Glasser (1990) argued that the problem of

misbehaviour is not located in the student but in the learning environment and/or the

student’s interaction with that environment (De Nobile, Lyons & Arthur-Kelly, 2017).

Building on Glasser’s choice theory (1990), which argues that all behaviours are an

individual’s best attempt to satisfy present and future needs, several later studies reflect on

student behaviours. Marzano and Marzano argue that when a student’s needs are not being

met they can behave passively, aggressively, or in socially inept ways (Marzano & Marzano,

2003). They consider the student’s matrix of needs, rather than their set of lagging skills. In

his study of students’ relationships to their environment, Grinder argues that misbehaviour is

a complex combination of a need for challenge, high ambition, willingness to take risks, and

a higher tolerance of tension (Grinder, 2015). He writes that challenging students have a low

degree of accommodation: ‘they are independent, self-selecting kids who are in trouble more

often than their accommodating, eager-to-please peers’ (Grinder, 2015). Marshall also

considers the student’s relationship to their environment:

When teachers take on the role of disciplining students, they deprive young people of

the opportunity to become more responsible. A person is responsible for his or her

behavior (Marshall, 2005).

These writers agree that the student and their relationship to their environment must be

understood in their construction of positive learning environments.

Theme 3: Misbehaviour occurs when teachers aren’t researching, reflecting and using

evidence-based practice.

Misbehaving students present a personal challenge to teachers, especially when teachers act

from their automatic behaviours rather than considering the event as an ‘overtly, explicitly,

and laboriously thought about, investigated, and solved problem’ (Gerber & Solari, 2009).

Similarly, when teachers fail to recognise that ill-structured problems are typically situated in

and emergent from a specific context (Jonassen, 1997), teachers run the risk of generalizing.

This tendency to generalise prevents students from understanding how their behaviour

specifically impacts on the class and themselves (De Nobile, Lyons & Arthur-Kelly, 2017).

Grinder argues that teachers’ self-image is the main variable that limits professional

development (Grinder 2015), impacting their ability to positively impact their learning

environment. Similarly, Izadinia (2012) recognises the value of being open, honest and

reflective as teachers.

Interview responses

For the purposes of this study, six individuals were invited to share their response to the

question: In your opinion, why do young people misbehave in school? Interviews were 20

minutes in duration and were conducted one-on-one in person either at Western Sydney

University or in the participant’s own home. Participants included a Western Sydney School

for Specific Purposes (SSP) Special Education teacher (F1); two pre-service teachers, one

who has ‘a lot’ of experience with students aged 12-18 through tutoring (F2), and the other

who has limited experience teaching but has a sibling aged 16, (F3); a sessional lecturer who

has worked in a number of first year programs in a variety of universities (M1); a museum

curator in South Western Sydney (F4); and a marketing and advertising strategist based in

North Sydney who is also a father of two children (M2). (F) denotes females and (M) denotes

males. All participants formally consented to the study and were told that the purpose of the

interview was to gather perceptions about student misbehaviour based on their individual

experiences, through open questioning and reflective listening (Kervin, 2006). Notes were

taken by hand and summarised for analysis, revealing four key themes; all six participants

believed that there are many reasons why young people misbehave, and there was some

awareness of how the factors of student, teacher and the environment influence

misbehaviour. Some participants also linked misbehaviour to the quality of adult influences

and role models, and to factors related to ‘personality’.

Misbehaviour is complex

A common view shared by participants was that the reasons young people misbehave are

complex. F1 believed there are various personal, social, cognitive and educational factors that

lead to misbehaviour. She defined misbehaviour in the context of her teaching context, in

classrooms with students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as ‘behaviour that is not

social’. M1, F2, F3 and F4 all defined misbehaviour in terms of deviating from set

boundaries and guidelines. M1 concentrated on the skills the young person might be lacking.

He defined misbehaviour as behaviour that is inappropriate with respect to the framework

that has been provided, saying that misbehaviour is contextual: ‘a misread’ of the

expectations of a given environment resulting from a lack of skills.

F2 gave three clear reasons for misbehaviour: a lack of interesting content (‘a lack of fun’), a

lack of relevance (‘it doesn’t connect with my life right now’), and because ‘real issues were

occurring at home’. These reasons inform the cognitive-development based perspective she

brings to her teacher education. As F3 reflected on the behaviours of her younger sibling, she

argued, along with M1, that young people may lack ‘skills like resilience and coping with

change’. F4 suggested that young people misbehave out of a ‘frustration of being

misunderstood’, out of boredom, and from the need to impress their peers and ‘look cool’.

She also raised changing hormones as factor in misbehaviour. F4 defined misbehaviour

interpersonally: a ‘behaviour that has a negative impact on either the person misbehaving or

those around them’. M2 rejected that misbehaviour necessarily impacts others, identifying it

as intentionally going against the rules. All participants understood that misbehaviour is

behaviour that is not appropriate for a specific situation and environment.

Misbehaviour involves the student, the teacher, and the environment

There was also a common awareness among all participants that misbehaviour involves the

student, the teacher and the environment. F1 listed factors that were student-centred: focusing

on the student (cognitive ability, preferences), the teacher (was the approach specific to the

student) and the environment (how is the environment conducive to the learning needs of the

student). M1 identified student factors (the skills they have interact within the social

situation), teacher factors (their knowledge of the skills students need to learn) and

environmental factors (quality role-models), suggesting that a combination of these factors all

contribute to student misbehaviour. F2 and F3 both took a similar approach of highlighting

these three spheres in with no particular hierarchy. F4 and M2, neither of whom work in

education, took an alternative approach, stressing that factors related to the student were most


Interview responses and contemporary educational theory

All six interview participants believed that the reasons for misbehaviour are complex and

related to the student, teacher, and environment which is consistent to contemporary

educational theory. The belief that young people misbehave because they are lacking in skills

(M1, F2, F3) closely aligns with Greene’s argument (Greene, 2014). According to Greene,

students often experience difficulty with the important skills, including handling transitions,

following a logic, persisting with challenging tasks, maintaining focus, considering a range of

solutions to a problem and expressing their needs, thoughts and concerns in words as well as

appreciating the effect of their behaviour on others (Greene, 2014). M1, F2 and F3 described

many of these skills as reasons for misbehaviour.

F2, F4 and M2 identified a key tenant of the Pain Model, which argues that students ‘in pain’

will act in ways that ‘seek formal discipline’ (McDonald, 2013). The interview participants

showed an awareness of the link between student wellbeing and misbehaviour. There was

also consensus between the participants on the importance of student-centred perspectives on

misbehaviour. There is a possibility such a consensus reflects the limited age range of

participants (24-40). Regardless, this view is in line with various contemporary theories,

namely Glasser, Marzano and Marzano, Grinder, and Marshall. F4 most nearly articulated

Glasser’s perspective that behaviours derive from base needs, while F2 shared the perspective

of Marzano and Marzano that students are responsive to unmet needs through passive or

aggressive behaviours (Marzano & Marzano, 2003).

Participants closely aligned with research related to the interplay of student, teacher, and

environment. Grinder, echoing F1, argues that misbehaviour occurs from a complex

combination of needs determined by an environment (Grinder, 2015). M1 reinforced the

importance of environmental factors that are discussed by Marshall (Marshall, 2005). In

terms of prioritizing student, teacher or environment within their interplay, the contemporary

research predominately centred on the student and the factors of teacher and environment

related to the student, which aligned with F1’s perspective. This is likely due to F1’s SSP

context, where student behaviour significantly affects the environment for other students.

All participants recognised that student misbehaviour can be influenced by teaching that is

not engaging or relevant, or by teachers who do not connect or engage with the needs of the

student. The assumption that teachers ought to be critical of the reasons why a student

misbehaves is reinforced by Jonassen (1997). F1, F4, M1, and M2 explicitly stated that they

valued researching and reflecting evidence-based teachers. The fact that this wasn’t explicitly

valued or recognised by pre-service teachers F2 and F3 points toward a need for further

teacher-education programs that demonstrate the value and efficacy of critical self-reflection.

Generally, the alignment of education theory with participant perspectives on why students

misbehave in school revealed a correlation between evidence-based theory and societal

perception. Participants who were invested in education were aware, broadly speaking, of the

complexity of misbehaviour as it is discussed in educational research.

Implications for teachers

The student

What arises from this study is the need to teach from an evidence base. The view that young

people misbehave in schools for a variety of reasons is widely accepted and will therefore

shape my perception of student misbehaviour in the classroom. I am required to know my

students and their unique skills, and I must design curriculum that is responsive, suitable and

inclusive to their unique learning needs. I am also required to take the time to conduct

positive interventions using, for example, the proforma supplied by Greene (2014).

The environment

Having understood the factors relating to the student’s misbehaving actions and teaching with

excellence according to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, the environment

remains a crucial element in the matrix of student misbehaviour. I must consider the impact

of the environment on my specific group of students. My classroom design and learning

programs must respond to their educational needs. I must also be responsive to issues related

to student misbehaviour that do not directly relate the actions of the student and the teacher. I

must be critical and responsive in doing what I can to create a positive environment for

students to learn in my classroom.

The self-reflective teacher

Finally, I need to continue to commit to a practice of critical self-reflection. I must work

collaboratively with wellbeing personnel, the school counselling team, the learning support

team, and other supportive structures to increase my awareness of ways that I could teach

specifically to the needs of my students. I must read current, up-to-date journals, just as I

must reflect on my practice and the ways I engage with what I learn from contemporary

research. This is essential for my development as a teacher; as this paper has demonstrated,

an awareness of contemporary research enabled me to identify what perspectives in my

interviews correlated with current research, and which perspectives revealed areas of

improvement. This process of collecting data revealed areas for further research, which may

develop the course of my own action research as a teacher. Critical self-reflection, as I have

undertaken in this essay, helps to shape my future actions and responses to students, which in

turn will help me to control what is in my sphere of influence: specifically, the ways I

respond as the teacher, and the elements of the environment I can control.

Reference List

De Nobile, J., & Lyons, G. (2017). Positive learning environments (First ed.). Victoria,

Australia: Cengage Learning Australia.

Greene, R. W. (2009). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling

through the cracks and how we can help them. New York, USA: Simon and Schuster.

Grinder, M. (2015). A Cat in the Doghouse: Making Your Classroom a Humane Society.

Retrieved from https://www.michaelgrinder.com/

Izadinia, M. (2012). Who I was and became: A critical reflection on my teacher-student

self. Reflective Practice, 13(2), 183-194.

Jonassen, D. H. (1997). Instructional design models for well-structured and III-structured

problem-solving learning outcomes. Educational technology research and

development, 45(1), 65-94.

Kervin, L. (2006). Research for educators. Victoria, Australia: Cengage Learning Australia.

Marshall, M. (2005). Discipline without Stress, 1 Punishments, or Rewards. The Clearing

House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 79(1), 51-54.

Marzano, R. J., & Marzano, J. S. (2003). The Key to Classroom Management. Building

Classroom Relationships, 61, 6-13. Retrieved from



McDonald, T. (2013). Classroom Management: Engaging Students in Learning (2nd ed.).

Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.