Posted in Pedagogy

Bad Behaviour: Does it exist?

Anyone who has ever taught a lesson, or in fact been around children, will know it can be difficult to get your message across sometimes. Equally, you can set up a task or activity, meticulously explain the step by step processes and then await someone saying ‘so what are we doing then?’

It can be natural to take this personally and assume that this is a result of poor behaviour, a lack of effort and attitude on behalf of the listener, or indeed because they’re getting distracted by those around them. But on the other hand, I know full well that there have been times when a colleague who I respect has been delivering CPD or a meeting and I’ve trailed off myself. Reflecting on my day or pondering what takeaway I would like if I weren’t on a fast day. I’m not badly behaved and I certainly care about my ‘progress’ – but everyone has the capability to day dream.

As such, ‘distracted’ behaviour as exhibited by students who are bored, tired, excited or stressed is a perfectly natural state of being. It certainly doesn’t need a ‘naughty’ label. It can also be countered, if they’re tired you create a task that livens things up, or simply harnesses their newfound ability to be quiet. If they’re stressed go easy on them, who knows what they’re going through? If they’re excited you need to harness that excitement and use your own enthusiasm to create a fun atmosphere conducive to risk taking. Don’t treat all situations the same; sounds simple, but many do.

This is clearly an example of where behaviour isn’t ‘bad’ but is just ‘behaviour’. But what about occasions where students are clearly exhibiting behaviour which is disrupting the learning of others, is disrespectful towards yourself or others, or is self-destructive? This is less clear cut. I always maintain there are reasons for behaviour but there aren’t excuses. I fully believe this. 

Every student I have ever taught who has exhibited this sort of behaviour usually has some sort of underlying reason for it; be it a rocky home life, low levels of literacy, a lack of understanding, or other psychological reasons. They’re not choosing to be bad, they’re just trying to exert some control over their lives. I admit, it’s still by definition poor behaviour. But it, unfortunately, might be just what they need. It’s hard sometimes to realise that studying romantic poetry might not be as important to them as it is to us. 

I can’t really make excuses for students here, we’re under enough pressure as it is without suggesting that we need Good Will Hunting moments on a daily basis. But what I am suggesting is that the key skill a good teacher requires to succeed with behaviour is empathy.

I’ve lost count the amount of times I’ve seen a teacher reprimand a child, (sometimes in quite an aggressive way), only for staff to be told later that day the child is suffering a bereavement or is currently unwell. An extreme example perhaps, but the same logic applies to any situation with a child. Consider the behaviour they’re displaying; ask yourself ‘why?’; then act in a way which will help create a more positive situation. Sometimes this may involve sanctioning the student and laying down the law, but there are other weapons in your arsenal, and I urge you to try them out. 

I am not saying for one second that being strict is wrong, far from it. In fact some students will appreciate the clear boundaries they may be lacking elsewhere. Instead, I am suggesting that students need to be treated in a calm, fair and consistent manner. Don’t keep changing the goal posts, (they hate that as much as we do); don’t make assumptions of them or their behaviour – ask them why they’re doing something and engage them to reflect on it. Wherever possible try not to become too emotionally charged, the student will probably be emotional enough for the both of you. 

Getting students to display the behaviour you want to see relies on you having great relationships with them – therefore treat them like you’d want to be treated.



I am a teacher of English at a rural secondary school in the West of England; in my third year of teaching I became an NQT Induction coordinator and last year I was placed in charge of coordinating literacy across the school. I am now approaching my 6th year as a teacher and I feel as though I am still only just scraping the surface of what this job entails. Every year there is a new challenge to overcome and as any teacher will attest, sometimes we choose the challenges, other times they are thrust upon us. Sometimes the challenges seem worthwhile and alas sometimes they feel less so. I have made this blog to share some of the challenges that are beginning to arise as we strive to improve and to also share some of the ways in which we've done this - hopefully some may find it useful, hopefully I will too! Mr P.

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