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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

How to Fix Classroom Misbehavior

Don’t assume that students don’t care enough to change
By Asaf Mazar — May 03, 2023 1 min read
What can I do when a student keeps misbehaving?
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What can I do when a student keeps misbehaving even after they repeatedly promise to improve?

It’s not easy for students to change ingrained habits. Here’s something I wrote related to the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

My wife, Michelle, came downstairs with weary eyes. She had every right to be miffed.

I’m a morning person, and she’s a night owl, so every day I wake up before she does. As I go through my morning routine in the kitchen, grabbing pans, bowls, and spoons, I tend to loudly slam the cabinet doors.

At first, I wasn’t even aware I was being noisy, and when Michelle brought it to my attention, I immediately resolved to stop. But the next morning, as I was rushing to get out the door to teach an 8 a.m. class, I completely forgot about it. The following days were a mixed bag. Sometimes I remembered to daintily shut every cabinet. But more often than not, it would slip my mind.

I was disappointed in myself. Why did I keep getting it wrong? Did I just not care enough?

Research shows that we often underestimate how much our behavior is driven by habit. This misjudgment is especially likely in the United States, where our individualistic culture emphasizes personal agency. Instead, we tend to interpret actions as intentional. But in a world where much of our behavior is happening on autopilot, that belief can lead to arguments and hurt feelings.

After I accidentally woke Michelle up early yet again, we realized that counting on me to magically change my behavior wasn’t working. So we printed out a bunch of pictures of baby turtles and taped them to the cabinet walls. From that day on, every time I was about to slam the cabinets shut, I was reminded to close them instead with the slow, gentle pace of a newborn turtle.

Don’t assume that people are acting intentionally or even carelessly.

Do pause and consider whether your child or student (or spouse!) might be doing something out of habit, despite their best intentions. Then talk about it, and together, you can come up with an adjustment to cue a change in behavior. What might be your own version of a baby-turtle photo?

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now 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.

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