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PPLE Assessment 1 18216295 – ASHLEA DALE

Why do young people misbehave in school?

This report aims to compare and contrast individuals’ perspectives and academic

literature in order to develop an improved understanding of student misbehaviour. Thematic

analysis of conversational interviews with three men and three women, who are teachers, pre-

service teachers, parents, and non-teachers (or a combination of these) reveals a diverse range

of perspectives on why young people misbehave in school. Critical analysis of these

attributions of student misbehaviour, synthesised with contemporary research on the topic,

reveals both similarities and inconsistencies which may have significant implications for


Student misbehaviour can be broadly defined as any action that is perceived to

“impede the teaching-learning process” (Thompson, 2009, p. 43), and has been alternatively

labelled as student misconduct (Stewart et al., 1998) or problem behaviour (Ho, 2004). These

terms can refer to behaviours ranging from relatively mild infractions such as speaking out of

turn and “hindering other children” (Houghton, Wheldall & Merrett, 1988, p. 298), to more

severe behaviours, such as “verbal abuse” and “physical aggression” (p. 305). Despite some

variation in the types of behaviours identified as most problematic, minor offences such as

talking and other off-task behaviours (Alter et al., 2013) are broadly identified to be the most

frequently occurring, both across primary (Wheldall & Merrett, 1988) and secondary schools

(Little, 2005) on an international scale (Crawshaw, 2015).

The overarching concept of student engagement is frequently cited in contemporary

literature as a key influence on student misbehaviour. Put simply, engagement is a measure

of the “attention, interest, investment, and effort students expend in the work of learning”

(Marks, 2000, p. 155). This concept synthesises emotional engagement, or the value students

place on their educational experience (Park, Holloway, Arendtsz, Bempechat, & Li, 2012),

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with behavioural engagement, or their participation in learning activities (Fredricks,

Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004), alongside a cognitive component, which considers students’

active and strategic engagement with the learning material (Chi & Wylie, 2014).

Disengagement from the learning environment and processes is linked to off-task problem

behaviours (Baker, 2007), whereas student engagement is found to produce on-task

behaviours (Klem & Connell, 2004). Significantly, reduced emotional and behavioural

engagement is connected with a rise in more severe, “delinquent” forms of misbehaviour

(Wang & Fredricks, 2014, p. 723).

Ineffective school-based disciplinary strategies are also linked to student

misbehaviour. Despite the research reflecting the positive impact of proactive and

rehabilitation-based measures on student behaviour, schools’ continued use of punitive and

exclusionary disciplinary measures like suspensions is convincingly linked to poorer

behaviour-management results (Hyman & Snook, 2000; Mitchell & Bradshaw, 2013). These

issues also extend to security-related school practices. Restrictive and dehumanising security

practices, like the strip searches conducted in schools in the U.S.), are self-reported to result

in more student misbehaviour, which tends to disproportionately impact upon minority

students who come from low socioeconomic areas (Servoss, 2014). These systems of

behaviour management are linked to the proliferation and growth of oppositional behaviours

in general, and, worryingly, the growth of violent behaviours in particular (Hyman & Perone,


Students’ mistreatment by teachers in classroom management situations also provides

a socio-educational lens through which to consider student misbehaviour. These behaviours

can range less deliberate infractions, such as teachers reducing their affective investment in

(Demanet & Van Houtte, 2012) and avoiding challenging students in response to previous

aversive interactions (Sutherland & Oswald, 2005), to more deliberate acts such as bullying

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and emotional abuse (James et al., 2008). These behaviours of teachers all result in feelings

of alienation, shame, and inadequacy in students, and are linked to student misbehaviour.

In the light of the findings of this contemporary literature on the topic, it was an

interesting prospect to investigate whether this data would be reflected in the present

interviews. In order to ensure that the research was conducted ethically, interviewees were

informed of the entire interview process, including the purpose of the interview and the way

the contents of the interview would be used. Participants were also made aware that their

responses would remain entirely confidential, as the participants would be de-identified in the

report, and were told that they were free to withdraw their consent at any time. The attached

consent forms reflect the participants’ understanding of the ethical guidelines followed in the

interview process, and their ongoing consent to participate.

The interviews consisted of open-ended questioning in an informal, conversational

tone, in order to ‘flesh out’ the interviewees’ perspectives. This approach was useful in that

the open-ended questions elicited authentic responses, which generated interesting and

detailed data. Further, this approach somewhat resists researcher bias, in that the open-ended

questioning does not incorporate any leading questions.

Six individuals were interviewed regarding their perspectives on the question “In your

opinion, why do young people misbehave in school?” The interviews were balanced in terms

of gender, and included parents, teachers, pre-service teachers and non-teachers, with some

participants belonging to more than one of these categories. Details about the demographics

of the participants are listed below:

F1 Female, 25, pre-service teacher

F2 Female, 37, teacher

F3 Female, 22, non-teaching friend and parent

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M1 Male, 45, teacher and parent

M2 Male, 52, parent

M3 Male, 24, non-teaching friend

After a briefing of the interview process, the participants were asked the interview

question. Follow-up questions were asked in order to gain more detail regarding the

participants’ responses, and the interviews were conducted for between 10-20 minutes each.

This interview length was based on when the conversations naturally ‘wrapped up,’ rather

than an arbitrary finish time.

Once the interviews were completed, the handwritten data recording the responses

was manually collated and compared in order to identify the predominant themes. These

themes were extracted from the data in terms of both the frequency mentioned (e.g. task

avoidance was mentioned by 5 participants), and the emphasis placed on these themes by the

interviewees, identified by comments such as “I think the main issue is…” (M2) or “… is the

most important” (F1). It must be noted that these judgements of thematic emphasis are

largely subjective, and despite a conscious effort to remain neutral, these judgements are

therefore inherently influenced by interviewer bias. The three primary themes which were

extracted from the data were task avoidance, attention-seeking, and boredom. However,

there is considerable variation in the ways that these cause-behaviours were attributed by the

interviewees, which provides a more nuanced perspective on why young people misbehave in


Task avoidance was the most commonly proposed reason for student misbehaviour

(by five of the six interviewees), but it was also the most contentious theme in terms of the

extended attribution of this behaviour. It was conceptualised from a deficit perspective by

M2, who asserted task avoidance is simply a result of permissive parenting. Some students

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were characterised as inherently “naughty” as a result of “poor parenting” as “their parents

never instilled discipline in them… [They] let them get away with whatever they want.” In

contrast, this task avoidance was linked to students’ academic and cognitive ability by M1

and F1, who are a teacher and a pre-service teacher respectively. These interviewees

suggested that students are likely to display task-avoidant behaviours when learning is not

differentiated for their needs, such as situations in which students are “being expected to

complete year ten English work when their literacy is at a year six level,” (M1, teacher). F3

also linked this to an affective element, suggesting that students are attempting to avoid the

feelings of shame associated with their inability to participate in or complete the learning

tasks. As such, avoidance was linked to ineffective pedagogy and unsatisfactory student

support by these participants.

Attention-seeking was the second most prominent theme, with four of the six

participants discussing this concept. Again, there were differences in the way this cause was

categorised as a social behaviour. While M2 attributed this attention-seeking behaviour to a

desire for enjoyment (“they find it fun […] to get a rise out of the teachers”), the more

common explanation was that this attention increases students’ social status. As explained by

F2, a teacher, students “publically undermine their teachers to impress their peers,” and idea

which was suggested by three participants in total. While M3 agreed with this reasoning, he

also proposed an alternative explanation, suggesting that these attempts to gain attention may

be “pushing the boundaries […] to experiment with social boundaries and cues” as a normal

part of development.

Interviewees also cited boredom as a cause of misbehaviour. While F2 attributed this

boredom to an inherent fault in the content, (“some of it’s just dull, dry stuff to learn”), M3

suggested that the boredom may be attributed to shortcomings in teachers’ pedagogy. When

prompted to explain his perspective, M3 described situations in which students’ questions are

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“being dismissed or answered in a way they don’t understand”, and uniformity of lesson

plans which aren’t designed to meet the variety of students’ preferred learning styles (“like

just using written material instead of combining practices to engage everybody”). As such,

M3 frames this boredom as an issue which is able to be alleviated through improved

professional practice, rather than as an inevitable phenomenon of classroom life.

Although some teachers and pre-service teachers acknowledged the issues of

ineffective teaching practices in the development of student misbehaviour in the present

interviews, this is not necessarily reflected in the broader research on teachers’ attributions of

student misbehaviour. In fact, teachers are more likely to ascribe student misbehaviour to

external factors, such as home-life instability and poor familial relationships, rather than to

pedagogical issues (Kulinna, 2008; Cothran, Kulinna, & Garrahy, 2009). This external

attribution reduces teachers’ sense of responsibility over behavioural issues, as they believe

that these ‘home problems’ are outside of their control and, therefore, they do not have to

reflexively shape their own practice to promote positive behaviour (Kulinna, 2008).

Given that student misbehaviour is a key cause of teacher burnout (Bibou-Nakou,

Stogiannidou, & Kiosseoglou, 1999; Aloe, Shisler, Norris, Nickerson, & Rinkler, 2014) this

lack of understanding of the root causes of student misbehaviour, coupled with teachers’

limited belief in their ability to change student misbehaviour, is particularly troubling.

Conversely, internal attributions of stressors like student misbehaviour have been found to

not only allow teachers to actively work towards proactively shaping positive behaviour, but

this also facilitates better stressor-management practices, which ultimately generates greater

teacher wellbeing and lower levels of burnout (Wang, Hall, & Rahimi, 2015).

Given these findings, it will be vital to acknowledge my own role in contributing to

student misbehaviour as a teacher for my own wellbeing, and to actively shape my pedagogy

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to proactively support positive student behaviour. As such, I intend to embody Kleinfeld’s

“warm demander” approach (1975, p. 329), which was developed as an effective teaching

practice for indigenous students. Warm demanders emphasise both affective investment in

students’ wellbeing and development (also known as personal warmth and caring), and high

expectations for student behaviour (or demandingness) (Irvine, 2003). This approach

produces would serve to promote positive behaviours towards students, and has been shown

to produce high levels of student engagement (Ross, Bondy, Bondy, & Hambacher, 2008),

both of which would serve to promote positive student behaviour.

Another troubling trend is that the behavioural attributions were generally presented

as individual and disconnected, as the interviewees rarely addressed the connections between

the causes of student misbehaviour. As such, it is arguable that student misbehaviour should

be conceptualised within Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory, which states

that behaviour is contextual and shaped by interacting systems. The use of this theory to

frame student misbehaviour is valuable in that it acknowledges the multidimensional and

interactive nature of the causes of student misbehaviour (Gillen, Wright, & Spink, 2011), and

therefore places the onus on all stakeholders in students’ education (including students,

teachers, staff, parents, the wider community, and governing policy-makers) to contribute

positively to cultivating positive behaviours.

On a school-wide level, I intend to make use of a whole-school behavioural

management approach, such as a Positive Behaviour Support (PBS), to provide the

consistency in behavioural standards and disciplinary practices needed to promote positive

behaviour (Warren et al., 2006). This approach clearly defines appropriate behaviour, which

is encouraged through reinforcement practices that are standardised across the school (Sugai

& Horner, 2002), and also reinforces constructive ways to deal with misbehaviour. This

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approach provides a valuable framework which reflects the shared responsibility of students

and all school staff to maintain positive behaviours.

In synthesizing the findings of the interviews and the literature on student

misbehaviour, it is clear that the causes of student misbehaviour are complex,

multidimensional and interactive. Though these causes can be considered on a small-scale,

individual level, there is a necessity to conceptualise student misbehaviour holistically, which

requires broad-scale interventions and reflexivity to continually reassess behaviour

management practices. As such, it is necessary to continually use research to shape praxis, in

order to manage student misbehaviour and to constantly produce and improve the quality

teaching and learning environments in which students flourish.

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