The 4 Faces of Misbehavior and What They're Trying to Tell YouYou stayed up late pulling together an awesome activity that is sure to be a slam dunk with your students.  You go in early to make the copies and put everything in its place.  When your students arrive you start presenting your material.

“Boys and girls, today we’re doing a rock investigation for scie…”  You notice a scuffle in the back of the classroom.

“Mrs. Braun, Paul is under his desk.”  You crouch down and sure enough, there’s Paul, hiding under his desk, taking the attention of everyone else away from your carefully crafted lesson.  What is he doing!?!  Is he purposely trying to thwart all of your best efforts?  Why would he derail the education of everyone around him?  For what?!?  Does he want the test class’s test scores to look bad?!?  Does he want ME to look bad?!?

I recently came across the work of Rudolf Dreikurs and it gave me a peek into the minds of some of my most infamous students.  I bet you’ll recognize some of your students, too.  Dreikurs points out that all people “have a need to belong and be accepted.”  He says that all behavior (good or bad) has the goal of achieving social recognition.  Misbehavior happens when a child makes mistaken assumptions about how to find a place in their social world.

There are four motives for misbehavior: gaining attention, exercising power, exacting revenge, and displaying inadequacy.

Gaining Attention

Behaviors: showing off, asking irrelevant questions, being disruptive, overly eager to please
Their Incorrect Assumption:  I must have constant affirmation to prove my worth.
They Make Their Teachers Feel: Annoyed
How to Respond:
In a private conversation, ask: Do you know why you ____?   Could it be that you want me to notice you/do something for you/want to be special to the group?  Point out that the student’s behavior is not getting them to their goal because it is bothering others.  Suggest appropriate ways for the student to get noticed or to become special to the group.  Giving students attention for inappropriate behavior encourages the behavior.  When possible, ignore the negative behavior and but be on the lookout, and give praise for positive behavior.  Help students realize that they don’t need constant affirmation to confirm their worth.

Exercising Power

Behaviors: Arguing, throwing tantrums, lying, being stubborn and disobedient
Their Incorrect Assumption: If I can’t get the attention I want, I will seek control to affirm my worth.
They Make Their Teachers Feel: Threatened
How to Respond:
In a private conversation, ask:  Do you know why you ____?  Could it be that you want to be the boss/insist on doing what you want to do?

Point out how the student’s behavior may cause others to lose respect for them which puts them farther from being an important part of the group.  Suggest positive ways for the student to be a leader.  Engaging in a fight with a power-seeking student is not productive.  Stepping back from the authoritarian role makes it so that the student has no one to fight with.  Not that you would turn over your class to the power-hungry student, but phrases like, “You’re right, I can’t make you,” may come in handy.  Keep in mind the things you can control and those that you can’t.  You can’t physically make a student move somewhere or do something, but you can contact their parents later and come up with a consequence.  You can withhold a privilege.  Sometimes a student’s power-seeking behavior can be assuaged by giving them a leadership role.

The 4 Faces of Misbehavior and What They're Trying to Tell You

Exacting Revenge

Behavior: Getting even for perceived injustices, destroying property, insulting others publicly
Their Incorrect Assumption: I can’t get attention or power in the group.  This is unfair and I am justified in getting even.
They Make Their Teachers Feel: Hurt
How to Respond:
In a private conversation, ask: Do you know why you ___?  Could it be that you wanted to punish me/get even with me/show me how much you hated something I did?

Revenge-seeking students hurt others because they are hurt.  Causing them more pain only provokes more revenge-seeking behavior.  Offer understanding and assistance.  Encourage other students not to retaliate when the revenge-seeker misbehaves.   Give students a chance to  express what has hurt them.  Help them find a more productive way to deal with the situation that has caused them pain.  Point out how their behaviors are pushing them away from the support of the group.

Displaying Inadequacy

Behavior: giving up, striving to be left alone, avoiding participation
Their Incorrect Assumption: I can’t achieve a sense of self-worth from attention, power-seeking, or revenge.  I will retain the little self-worth I feel by pushing others away and avoiding any kind of public display.
They Make Teachers Feel: Helpless
How to Respond:
In a private conversation, ask: Do you know why you ___?  Could it be that you want to be left alone because you think you can’t ___/because you can’t be on top/because you want me to stop asking you to do something?

Tell the student they are alright as they are.  Remove pressure by being less critical.  Remove competition and give the student time to achieve at their own speed.  Provide an abundance of support and encouragement.  Coax higher performing peers to accept the student displaying inadequacy.


It’s all definitely easier said than done.  Teachers don’t have a lot of time to be playing psychologist.  But if you can understand the misbehavior of one or two of your challenging students and help them see the disconnect between their behavior and their goals, you may have set them on a much more positive path in life.  If nothing else, knowing these behavior motivations has helped me to take student misbehavior less personally.  One more skill set for your magical box of teacher tools.

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Hannah Braun
Hannah Braun
Hannah Braun is a former teacher with 8 years of experience in the classroom and a master's degree in early childhood education. She designs engaging, organized classroom resources for 1st-3rd grade teachers.

1 Comment

  1. Great post Hannah,

    I remember reading Dreikurs when I did my student teaching 25 years ago and it has really shaped my teaching and management. Thanks for sharing your review with us!

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