The REAL Reason Children Misbehave...

 Hi everyone,

This week I realised, much to my own chagrin, that I am kind of doing a sort of literature review. Why is this a problem? Well… it’s not really. It’s great for you because you get to have a quick, digestible version of three (or more) different research papers about behaviour. It’s a problem for me because every time I end up doing something like this (for fun), my wife suggests either embarking on a PhD or writing a book.

And deep, deep down, I know she’s probably right. But if you’ve read my posts about completing my MA in Academic Assessment, then you’ll know how I feel about writing academically! Which still leaves the book idea… but that takes time and imposter syndrome is real! 

I don’t know though. What do you think? Let me know in the comments or tell me on Twitter - should I go for a PhD, write a book, or just keep doing what I’m doing?

Back to this week. If you’re not sure what a literature review is, it’s pretty much a summary of a bunch of peer-reviewed papers that all talk about the same thing. The idea behind it is to get an idea of what has already been discussed, researched, proved and disproven before you try to test your own, unique hypothesis.

So what inspired this little jaunt into academia? Well, of all things, it was TikTok (specifically, it was a YouTube Short that was lifted from TikTok, but I feel like we’re splitting hairs there). The exact video should be below but if it isn’t, this link will take you to it

In the video, a lady says that when children misbehave, they are mirroring emotions they have read in you. She goes on to talk about romantic relationships but I stopped listening at the ‘children are empaths’ bit. I started thinking about my own child, who is just nine weeks old. It is certainly true that, despite any training, or the ability to communicate verbally, he is already pretty adept at reading a room. If I’m tired-stressed during our 1 am feeding time, he is less relaxed until I have settled myself.

His mood was a reflection of my mood.

Then I started thinking about the children I teach and have taught. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I am a big advocate for telling children when you are in a bad mood. Just openly tell them and reassure them that it is not their fault (unless it is; never lie). I had always assumed this was simply modelling good behaviour; however, the act of owning my mood and recognising that no one in the room was to blame, was a small act of catharsis for me and helped to calm me down. And because I was calm, the children were calm, the room was calm, teaching and learning could happen freely.

The mood of the whole room was a reflection of my mood.

Now, before I delve into the research, I want you to stop and think for a minute. Think back to the last time you had a truly awful day at school. A day when either everything went wrong, or you the kids were acting up, or you just weren’t feeling it. Ask yourself about the overall mood in the room. Was it a reflection of your own mood? If it was, which came first: your mood or the room’s? If we’re truly being honest (I won’t tell), it was probably not the room’s.

So I did a bit of digging through research papers asking ‘Do Children Mirror Emotions?’ and adding ‘Behaviour’ because I wanted to know if behaviour management could be enhanced simply by making sure that we are first calm. So, if this is going to be even a little bit academic, I guess my hypothesis is:

Does misbehaviour in children reflect my mood as a teacher?

Let’s have a look at how to deal with this…

The first obstacle for us as researchers is to define what misbehaviour is… which means we first have to understand and clarify what behaviour is. It’s a word we all use frequently but have you ever stopped to think about what it actually is?

It’s not as straightforward as you might first think. See, it is something that we can modify; we can have bad behaviour and good behaviour (so, when we say to children ‘behave’, what are we really asking of them?). But what is behaviour?

Fortunately for us, we don’t have to look far. Ruth McClenathan, writing in The Journal of Educational Psychology way back in 1934 offers us the following definition:

[Behaviour] is a socially evaluated, and socially regulated product[1].

It's a habit. It is the way we live our lives when the effect of social judgement is considered, which means that it is a two-way thing. Our behaviour impacts others. There is a fantastic YouTube video that clearly exemplifies this - I’ve mentioned it before - called ‘How to Order Pizza like a Lawyer’. Follow the link and watch it; it’ll change the way you deal with playground disputes forever.

With this in mind, we can go on to consider good and bad behaviour. Only, as researchers, we can’t just go blundering in with our own opinions, oh no, my friends, we need to find people who have already said the same thing (we must be seen to be standing on the shoulders of giants, you see. Our little bit of research is but a grain of sand on the dune of understanding. This is why academic research pains me).

So, if behaviour is living by a social contract, then bad behaviour is living in such a way as to disturb that social contract negatively; to worsen society in some way. This time we’re going to turn to the words of Robert Stebbins, who posits that behaviour in children (specifically at school) can be described as ‘bad’ when it impacts on the potential for others to learn[2]

This might sound like common sense but, to be properly academic in our pursuits (and that’s important because, if we’re not, we could be seen as arguing from an emotional point of view), we need to have an agreed definition. So:

Misbehaviour interrupts the teaching and learning. 

Great. Now we are all agreed on what misbehaviour is, insofar as this essay is concerned, we can begin to look for the causes of it and explore whether or not it is a mirror of our own behaviour as a teacher, right?

Hold your horses!  

We’ve established what misbehaviour is - a disruption of the teaching and learning - we haven’t specified what that disruption looks like. Is it whispering to a partner during silent reading? Is it shouting out an answer when asked not to? Is it hitting, spitting or throwing objects? Any one of these could impact the lesson but are they all considered misbehaviour?

This is an important question to ask ourselves because it directly impacts our response and it’s our response that the children will react to. In my classrooms over the years, I have been okay with low-level talking but a paper by Brian Wolverton[3] found that the teachers in his research group considered it misbehaviour. One way to mitigate against this ambiguity is to establish a set of school rules, and maybe even a set of class rules.

This all goes back to existing in society, which has its own rules, and you could keep getting more and more microcosmic in scale (Society rules, school rules, class rules, table rules, personal rules). The underlying point is the same:

Everyone needs to know how to play the game

More accurately for our purposes, everyone needs to know when, and how, a rule has been broken. Otherwise, you end up with resentful children who feel unjustly told off for breaking a rule they didn’t know about. But perhaps it’s the acknowledgement of rule-breaking that is the problem? 

A paper by Andrew J. Martin suggested that praising children for following the rules, instead of reprimanding children for breaking them, actually resulted in more children actively looking to be seen following the rules[4]. This is probably not a massive surprise, especially to anyone who teaches younger children where negative, reproachful rules like ‘Don’t be rude’ are replaced with positive, encouraging rules like ‘Be respectful’. I used to roll my eyes at this sort of syntax but the data suggests that it actually makes an impact on the behaviour of the class.

Following this logic, when a child does break a rule, it is much easier to address the decision behind the behaviour while at the same time avoid frustration through ambiguity. If one of your rules is ‘We are respectful to others’ and a child is talking so much that they interrupt the learning for others (remember our agreed definition of misbehaviour?), then it becomes very easy to explain to the child why they are in trouble. In fact, one of my go-to lines for any child who had been sent to me (I was the teacher who every naughty child was sent to - this is not a good idea and I’ll tell you why later on) was: “Which rule have you broken?” There were only five school rules so it was pretty easy for the child to recognise (or hard for them to hide behind, depending on your outlook) their social faux-pas. From then, appropriate sanctions could be enforced (usually these have also been agreed with the children. Again, I never saw the point of this but now, after 13 years, I strongly recommend it!). 

But let’s not get off-topic, a quick check of our hypothesis reminds us that we are looking to see if my mood as a teacher is reflected in misbehaving children. Well, if we’re rewarding rule following (in a social sense, not in a dogmatic, oppressive sense), and if those rewards encourage ‘good’ behaviour, and if ‘good’ behaviour allows us to teach and the children to learn, then everything in the room is delightfully copasetic. My mood is good, the children's moods are good; we have good behaviour; everything is as it should be.

Hang on, if that’s the case then surely badly behaved children would just be a myth?

That’s clearly not the case (although, for the record, there are no ‘badly behaved children, just children who sometimes behave badly - it’s an important distinction). Well, let’s get back to what ‘bad behaviour’ is: it is an interruption of the teaching and learning for others (not for the self). This means that there is a certain amount of subjectivity involved. Earlier, I said that I had no problem with low-level chatter; you might be very different, deciding that any distraction is impeding the lesson. The participants of Biran Wolverton’s study certainly thought so. And it’s in this conflict of subjectivity that the problems associated with bad behaviour are born.

Anyone can misbehave

Anyone can stray from the agreed social rules of conduct. You, me, the children, everyone. That’s not the problem. Most children, having broken a rule, will accept the consequences (often a quick reminder of the rule, or the ‘teacher eye’) and move on with their day. Misbehaviour, then, is not the problem. The problem is a bad or unequal reaction to that misbehaviour.

I’m sure you’ve had the situation in your classroom: a child does something wrong, you tell them off, they go absolutely ballistic. Things escalate; situations get tense and the atmosphere in the room sours. Then, when you look back, or report to the teacher you’ve ended up sending the child to, it seems like the actual catalyst of the event is a pretty minor thing. You might even hear yourself saying that the child wouldn’t let things go, or that they kept arguing and that made it worse, maybe even you’ll completely disregard the initial rule-breaking and say that their behaviour now is the problem. But here’s the thing…(trigger warning)

It’s not their fault; it’s yours

That’s quite a bold statement to make but I promise it’s true. You see, the children don’t react first; you do. You react to their misbehaviour and it’s that reaction that determines how the rest of the interaction will play out.

According to the mental health charity, Mind, anger is the result of feeling unfairly treated[5]. If you as the teacher feel that a child has broken a rule but they don’t, then any kind of reprimand is going to result in that child feeling unfairly treated. Especially, if they feel like others have also broken the rule but are not being punished for it. This might sound extreme but really it’s just coming back to the subjectivity of the rules. Using our talking example, you might decide that child A is talking to help their partner understand the learning, enhancing the teaching, while child B is talking to distract their partner, detracting from the learning, so you reprimand child B and ignore child A. Seems totally justified to you, but to child B, who sees you singling them out for special treatment, it is entirely unfair.

So what does the child do when they feel unfairly treated? They try to redress the balance but they are just a child and they know, sometimes deep down, that you are the person in charge so now they’re starting to feel a little trapped. Often, their first attempt is to completely deny any involvement: ‘I didn’t do it’ or ‘It wasn’t me’. Again, perhaps even more crucially, our reaction as teachers is the key to everything.

This child has now made a public declaration that they are innocent and have not broken the rule. This is not because they want to lie, or because they are feeling particularly disruptive; it is because they do not want to fall outside of the society to which they belong. Children who behave badly are not popular.  If you, as the authority figure in the room, double-down and make sure that everyone in the room knows that yes, the child did break a rule and has now broken another one by arguing with an adult (it’ll fall under disrespect, I guarantee it), then they are feeling even more alienated. And so the cycle continues. It is often a very quick cycle and it only goes one way. Down. 

One of the reasons for this rapid descent is that children who frequently misbehave are often children with self-esteem issues[6]; alienated from their society in some way, and are more likely to feel unfairly treated more of the time. They’re also more likely to feel the need to defend themselves (it’s been suggested that their home life is often a factor here[7]) in any way that can and this can result in argumentativeness. On top of this, because of their self-esteem issues, they often begin on the defensive back foot and can be subconsciously looking for what they perceive to be unjustified attacks. To top it off, the resulting public  back-and-forth reinforces their belief that they are separate from their peers and it’s just a self-perpetuating mess.

But I said it was your fault. It’s not your fault that the child has family issues. It’s not your fault that they think less of themselves. You can’t be blamed for someone else’s reaction; that’s entirely on them. So how is it your fault?

Because their reaction is based on yours

Let’s go back to the talking example. We’ll pick up just after child B has told us they weren’t talking. We know that they are trying to save face. We also know, as does the rest of the class, that they were talking. But we don’t want that misbehaviour to escalate into a confrontation.

So you make light of it. ‘Really?’ You might ask, knowingly, ‘It sounded like you. Must be my ears playing tricks. Get back to work.’ 

This works because the child knows they broke the rule and they know you’re in charge. And that’s really important; the children have to know that you are in charge. People who are in charge don’t have to prove it by winning every argument. In this scenario, the minor disruption was met with a reminder that the rules are being enforced by someone who is in control. It’s calming and reassuring.

Want to make it even better? Don’t tell the child off in the first place. According to a paper from 1973 entitled: Influence of teacher behavior[sic] in the preschool[8], to guarantee more children are on-task, you should be giving fewer commands and less criticism. So, instead of outright flagging the rule-break, try saying something like: ‘Oh, I thought you were talking, I must be mistaken. Well done, everyone for working so hard.’ This approach was reinforced over a decade later when researchers found that positive teacher attention actually increased task-appropriate behaviour and actively decreased misbehaviour[9]

I’m going to have to leave it here for this week because I’ve already written way more than I intended to! Next week, I’ll continue with why it is a bad idea to send problem children to a different teacher, even if it’s your school’s policy to do so. We’ll also take a look at why behaviour management does not receive as much training as it should (the reason is simultaneously sensible and silly) but that will all have to wait for next week… and possibly the week after.

As I mentioned at the start, due to a serious lack of time on my end, I will be combining the blog posts and the podcast episodes for the foreseeable future so, if you would prefer to listen to this, head over to the podcast tab or subscribe and download Mr M’s Musings: The Podcast from your provider of choice.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on the things I’ve discussed here. What are your experiences when dealing with misbehaviour? Is my opinion that no child is badly behaved naive? Is it better to strictly enforce than to gently remind? Seriously, I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if they are different from mine.

Leave a comment, here or on the podcast, drop me an email or @ me on Twitter (links below). Until next time, thanks for reading and remember:

You can do this; you’re awesome!

Carl Headley-Morris

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References for this Post

1) MacClenathan, R. H. (1934). Teachers and parents study children's behaviors. Journal of Educational Sociology 7, 325-333.

2) Stebbins, R. A. (1970). The meaning of disorderly behavior: Teacher definitions of a classroom situation. Sociology of Education. 44, 217-236

3) Wolverton, B., Litcher, L., McCoy, L. (1999). Why do Students Misbehave in the Classroom? Wake Forest University Department of Education

4, 6, 7) Martin, Andrew & Linfoot, Ken & Stephenson, Jennifer. (1999). How Teachers Respond to Concerns About Misbehavior in Their Classroom. Psychology in the Schools. 36. 347 - 358.


8) Fagot, B. I. (1973). Influence of teacher behavior in the preschool. Developmental Psychology, 9(2), 198–206.

9) Ellis, S., Blake, C. (1986). Reducing Jason's Disruptive Behaviour. British Journal of Special Education. 141-142