Psycho-Educational Insights for Managing Habitually Disruptive Students: Contributing Factors to the Escalation of Behavior Problems
In the psycho-educational field, we believe that the classroom atmosphere or affective tone facilitates or interferes with students’ learning. Teachers consider managing student behavior to be equally one of our greatest challenges and greatest skill deficits, many times unaware of how our own behavior, what we say and do in the classroom, affects students’ behaviors. A teacher trained in psycho-education understands that teacher behavior strongly influences student behavior, often contributing to a classroom climate that inadvertently fosters and creates disruptive behaviors. In other words, teachers’ behaviors and overall classroom atmosphere can accentuate and maintain classroom discipline problems, rather than managing and solving discipline problems. Children too influence the behavior of teachers, creating exasperation and frustration that we may reveal to the disruptive student through body language, low expectations, and negative messages.
Many teachers find it difficult to handle and to react skillfully to habitually disruptive students, which is understandable when we take into consideration that most teachers feel they lack adequate training in the prevention and intervention tools they need to stop recurrent behavior problems. When we feel unsure of our ability to manage habitually disruptive behaviors, we may overreact, escalating minor disturbances into major ones, and overemphasizing on behavior control and domination rather than collaboration and problem solving. When managing habitually disruptive students, key questions for teachers to answer honestly are:
- Does the way I interact with this student create misbehavior?
- How am I contributing to this child’s behavior?
- How am I sustaining this negative relationship?
Factors that Contribute to the Escalation of Disruptive Classroom Behaviors
In addition, teachers need to be vigilant of affective and interactional factors that might inadvertently fuel inappropriate behaviors in the classroom such as:
- Creating on-the-spot penalties for misbehavior rather than developing and discussing consequences for negative behavior with students before problem behaviors happen. Students need to know the consequences for misbehavior in advance.
- Describing inappropriate behavior rather than appropriate behavior, e.g., saying, “Stop playing with that pencil!” rather than “Please hand me the pencil.”
- Using too many “stop” messages (e.g., “Stop talking”) and not enough “start” messages. Compliance is easier if we tell the child what to start doing rather than telling the child to stop a behavior.
- Giving negative directions that tell the student what not to do (e.g., “Do not hit,” “Do not make noises,” or “Do not color on the desk”) rather than using positive wording that gives the student an alternative and tells the student what he can do to fix the inappropriate behavior. For example, “Try hitting this toy if you feel angry” or “You can color on this paper, not on your desk.” The student may be willing to change his behavior if he receives a good suggestion (alternative behavior) of what to do instead.
- Using name-calling (e.g., “What a baby you are!”), put-downs (e.g., “You are just lazy” or “You better clean your act because I have had it with your behavior”), and/or threats (e.g., “You are going to get it if you keep that up!”).
- Using aggressive “you” messages that attack the child’s character or personality, for example, “You have no respect of anyone” or “You just never use your head.”
- Using criticism that is permanent (e.g., “You are always messing up” or “You never listen”), global (e.g., “Cindy is so shy” or “Daniel is such a troublemaker!”), and/or internal (e.g., “You kids are so selfish”). Constructive criticism is specific and behavioral, describing the student’s actions or behaviors; negative criticism is judgmental and concentrates on blaming the child for her behavior and in finding faults in the child’s character. When criticizing a student with recurrent behavior problems, we need to communicate our basic acceptance of the child even when we disapprove of the behavior. Simply put, we describe the student’s behavior as not acceptable, not the student’s identity or character.
- Not giving choices to the student, for example, “Either complete your work quietly or go to the time out area for five minutes.” With students with chronic behavior problems, one effective psycho-educational technique is to give the student two choices, and asking the child which of the two choices he is willing to do.
- Using vague commands, for example, “Knock it off!” or “You need to fix your behavior.” Effective commands are descriptive, and in fifteen words or less tell the child what you expect him to do to comply, for example, “Pick up all the books from the tables and put them on the shelves.” Do not expect instant compliance, and give the student a period of five to ten seconds to comply with the command.
- Using a very loud, fast pace of speech rather than turning down the voice volume, dropping the pitch and using a soft but firm voice (voice control technique). Remember that how we say things add significantly to what we say. We can train ourselves to react appropriately to recurrent disruptive behaviors by reciting a daily self-message until the self-message becomes automatic to us, for example, “I will remember to lower my tone and voice volume and to speak more slowly. I am going to send an ‘I’ message to this student, for example, ‘I am having difficulty handling your behavior right now. We will discuss your behavior later.’ ”
- Refusing to compromise with the student, for example, “When you sit on your chair, I will show you the next activity,” or the “When you…, then I…” format.
- Failing to reinforce the student’s compliance with our appreciation.
- Focusing on what the teacher wants and needs rather than on what the student wants and needs.
- Focusing on the teacher’s feelings while ignoring the student’s feelings.
- Focusing on the student’s weaknesses and negative behaviors rather than focusing on the student’s strengths and positive attributes that can help the child reduce inappropriate behaviors.
- Bringing up old issues and reminding the student of past problems or negative behaviors rather than focusing exclusively on the here and now.
- Communicating low expectations regarding the student’s behavior, and making negative comments (e.g., “Here you go again…”). Positive comments and encouragement are scarce. Similarly, behavioral expectations may be unclear to students, or the teacher does not enforce rules and expectations fairly and consistently.
- Trying to dominate the student rather than collaborate with the student.
- Mirroring the student’s behaviors, for example, yelling or being sarcastic. Teachers must avoid reacting in a counter-aggressive way to students’ aggressive and acting-out behaviors. With students with recurrent behavior problems, it is extremely important that the teacher appears stable, relaxed, calmed, supportive, and able to establish structure. The external structure that the teacher provides should help shifting the student from acting-out and aggressive behaviors to mutual problem solving.
- Failing to recognize the need to listen empathetically to a student’s concern and troubled feelings rather than responding negatively and acting defensively. An empathetic listener puts himself “in the child’s shoes” and tries to understand the child’s behavior from the child’s point of view, not from the teacher’s point of view. An empathetic listener does not judge the child’s behavior in terms of good or bad, right or wrong. An empathetic listener asks, “What is the need (social and/or emotional) behind this behavior that this child believes will be met by acting this way?” (Mahony, 2003) The answer to this question helps the teacher guide the student in problem solving and in finding alternative behaviors to satisfy the child’s social and emotional needs.