Beating bad behaviour

Gita Krenek

I am standing in front of a group of standard four boys and girls. All eyes are on me, as they listen with rapt attention. Someone has a question: he politely raises his hand. His question is respectful and pertinent. When I ask the students to open their textbooks at page 52, all comply quickly without a murmur.

Then I wake up.

Oh, how lovely it would be if our classes were like my dream. Unfortunately they are (in most likelihood) not. So much time and energy is wasted in ‘crowd control’, where the focus of the majority is constantly scattered by the disturbing antics of the few.

Examples of the kind of behaviour I am referring to are:
• Distracting other children
• Annoying other children
• Chatting while the teacher is trying to say something
• Interrupting the teacher

Reasons for distracting behaviour

  • If there is too much sitting-down-focus time, and not enough activity time, maybe the kids are just bursting to play/do something, and if annoying another kid is all they can do, they will do that.
  • Children love attention. Since bad behaviour attracts the attention of the teacher, some children misbehave to get attention this way. This can become a fun game (for them).
  • The child could be feeling insecure and be seeking a sense of security from firm guidelines. Children need to know where the boundary is, the behaviour you find acceptable. They will push and push till they come up against that boundary. Once the boundary is established, and it is quite clear and enforced, usually children will stop pushing and settle down.

Example: Josephine came from a dysfunctional family. Her father was in jail. Her mother was very young and could not manage her. She had no siblings. Josephine was part of my Brownie group which I took once a week. She was constantly disturbing the group by calling out inappropriate comments, being silly, or distracting others. In this way she constantly drew attention to herself. Finally I had enough. I made the rule that if I had to correct her three times in one session, she would have to miss Brownies next week. So every term she would miss Brownies at some time. The point is this: the following year, she asked anxiously: “Can we have the same three-times rule like last year?” The child was desperate for boundaries, for a strong adult. Only with this could she really feel secure.

  • Children love the sound of their own name, and can misbehave to get you to say it.
  • Because they can. (When Mallory was asked why he wanted to go up Mt. Everest, he said “because it’s there.”)
  • It has become a habit.

Some things can sometimes feed/encourage bad behaviour

  • If the teacher does nothing, the child thinks it’s OK.
  • Giving too much attention to bad behaviour.
  • Reprimanding by calling out their name – can be just what he wants to hear.
  • Punishment that is actually enjoyable – e.g., being made to sit next to the teacher, and (for some children) being sent out of the class. In this situation, a sure way for the child to get what he wants is to misbehave.
  • Too much sit-down-and-listen time.

What might help

  • Make sure attention seekers get attention when they do something well, not just when they are naughty. Give minimum attention to bad behaviour, just enough to make your point. Hopefully the child will learn that he gets more attention when he co-operates.
  • For younger children: stop distracting behaviour by distracting the child away from what he is doing. “Sanju, let’s see how high you can stretch your arms to be the tree branches.”
  • Rules of behaviour/expectations. Children can cope with rules for games or for activities that interest them. So they should be able to cope with expectations/codes of behaviour that everyone recognizes. They just need to be clear. Children can help draft the rules themselves – they know perfectly well what is acceptable. They are more likely to abide by rules that they have made up themselves.
  • Consequences: It may be helpful if repeat offenders know that there will be a consequence – e.g., “If I have to speak to you again, then….” The child can then choose to exercise self-discipline to avoid the consequence.
  • NEVER talk when someone else is talking. Stop in mid-sentence, stare at them. Expressionless. Make sure everyone knows the rule: “When one person is talking, you don’t talk.”
  • Pre-empt bad behaviour – give troublemakers a job, or seat them away from their friends, before they start being annoying.
  • Physical solutions (e.g., pushing, pulling)
    – This only works as long as you are stronger than them. They don’t learn co-operation this way – or respect.
    – The message is that it’s OK to solve problems physically. They will imitate what you do. If you want them to learn to use words to solve problems, then be a good role model.
  • Anger. If you get angry, you have lost control over your emotions. And you have lost control over the class. Children find it really funny to see an adult angry. Yet: sometimes, for some teachers, it works – if it is a very rare occurrence.
    There is a huge difference between anger, and calm, quiet, yet very firm telling off.
  • Responsibility. Sometimes a child disturbs out of boredom. It could be a child who struggles with academic subjects, or a particularly bright child. Often, a way to deal with this is to give the child a responsibility. “I need your help.” E.g., in a physical education game: let them be the whistle blower/caller/rope holder/your assistant. It makes them feel important and noticed.
    (BUT make sure that the ones who always co-operate and do what they are asked, also get to be ‘special’ and noticed sometimes. It is easy to forget about those who don’t cause trouble. This makes them feel invisible and saps motivation. Sometimes a quiet word of praise is all that is needed. “Well done.” “Thank you for….” “You are working well”.)
  • If children are wasting your time: “Sorry, we were going to paint now, but now we have no time” and go on to the next lesson. Or make up lost time (individuals or whole group) during break.
  • If a child constantly interrupts with irrelevant questions: “I’ll talk to you about it during the break.”
  • If you need to send a child out, bring him back into a quietly working class.

It is important that a child is made to realize that disturbing behaviour is actually a very selfish act. The child does what he feels like, without taking into account the effect of his actions on other people in the class, such as the ones who actually want to hear what the teacher is saying, or who don’t want the lesson to be constantly interrupted by the teacher reprimanding someone. Just as “no man is an island”, so also no lesson is only about instilling knowledge – it is also about teaching children to be responsible members of a society and to consider the needs of others.

The author has taught English to school children in Austria and Ecuador and to young adults in India. At present she is working as a volunteer in a small NGO-run primary school for rural children in the foothills of the Himalayas. She can be reached at

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