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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do We Provoke Misbehavior in Our Students?

By Peter DeWitt — September 30, 2015 3 min read
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As a former teacher, I had my share of students who were discipline issues. Although they are much older now, their young faces pop up in my mind as I think of their names. I had a student in second grade that dropped the “F” bomb when I taught in a city school. The only other student to use that kind of language happened to be his older brother. I should know, because he used it on me as I was doing my administration internship.

Both were less concerned about my “status” as a teacher than they were concerned about their own status among his friends.

As a principal I had a student in third grade who provoked us all so much we had to remove the class around him in order to de-escalate the situation. Our lockers on rollers were pushed my way several times as he went through the motions of keeping us on our toes.

From social stories, parent meetings, in-school suspensions based on board policy and expulsion into programs to better fit their needs, we have all seen our share of students who struggled with their behavior. Most times the behavior we all see in our classrooms and schools are much less destructive.

But, are we more responsible for the outbursts that we take credit for when the moments happen?

In October’s Educational Leadership (ASCD), there is an interesting article called 5 Practices That Provoke Misbehavior by Eric Toshalis. Toshalis writes,

When we feel vulnerable, misunderstood, humiliated, or betrayed, we’re inclined to act out. Families do it at the dinner table, educators do it in faculty meetings, and students do it in classrooms.” What might surprise teachers and leaders is his next line.

Toshalis goes on to write,

We needn't feel bad about this, however, because it's normal and often healthy to react against the circumstances that produce negative emotions. Sure, we sometimes fail to make our best decisions in such situations, but our misbehavior is rarely without cause."

Clearly, Toshalis isn’t condoning the behavior I referred to from some of my own experiences, but he is correct is when he writes that “our misbehavior is rarely without cause.” I felt then, and still feel now, that the second grader with the affection for the “F” word, knew what he was saying it when he said it, because he wanted a reaction out of me and his peers. However, I think the “F” word was commonly used in his apartment.

And at the time, he felt his back was against the wall, so he said what he needed to say to make sure I knew that he had as much status in the situation as I did. Sure, I wanted to lose my mind, but I maintained my composure...after all...I was the adult, right?

In the article, which you can (and should!) read here, Toshalis offers 5 provocations that provoke misbehaviors in students that teachers should avoid, which are:

  1. Highlighting Ability Differences - When students feel that teachers are talking down to them, they will act out.
  2. Grading Practice Work - Nothing can stifle learning and create negative behaviors in students more than when teachers grade their practice work.
  3. Establishing Vague Norms - We have all seen, and used, posters that tell students to “Be Respectful.” What does that mean? In my second grader’s case, his respectful may look very different from mine.
  4. Letting Students Choose Their Seats - Have you heard of cliques? Students who go through school unscathed do well findings friends to sit with, but what about those students who don’t have as many friends?
  5. Using Tired, Old Scripts - Toshalis uses the best one, which is “Do as I say and not as I do.

Toshalis does a much better job explaining the reasons why we may provoke students and dives deep into each provocation, so take the time to read his article. He has done some pretty extensive research on the topic.

In the End

As an instructional coaching trainer and someone who works a lot with school leaders, observing the way teachers talk with students is certainly one interaction coaches and leaders can look for during the process. We all have blind spots (Otto Scharmer), and one blind spot for teachers may be the way they are interacting negatively with students which provoke the misbehavior.

After all, there are teachers who allow students to choose their own seats, and others who grade practice work. Sometimes in an effort to help build flexibility in the classroom we end up creating situations that increase frustration among some of our students. The last thing we want to do in the classroom is provoke misbehavior when we want to focus on learning.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Mindaugus Danys.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.