Five years into retirement and I still read school related articles from time to time. Although there have been changes since I retired after 37 years as a teacher, coach, and school administrator, the articles I read prove some things never change. Student behavior or misbehavior is one of those things that remains relatively the same year after year after year. As long as there are schools, there will be kids who, for whatever reason, choose to be rebellious, defiant, disrespectful, and obnoxious. Why? Every year countless articles and books explore that question, but to date, no one has come up with a better answer than kids are human, and humans are impulsive, unpredictable, and make dumb choices. Education discipline jargon changes yearly, and new enlightened gurus appear on the scene proposing the newest and greatest solutions ever conceived, but like the gurus before them, their solutions often prove ineffective and useless for dealing with negative student behavior. The number of books published annually on this topic is a clear indicator there is not an easy answer or cure-all solution. Education authors lay the blame for school discipline problems on bad apples, the teacher, poor parenting, peer influence, bullying, stupid choices, and academic difficulties, but the truth is school discipline problems are caused by all of the above laced with a healthy dose of animalism, humanism, and hormones.
If you follow Facebook, you will most likely be led to believe kids misbehave because they are mutinous little hellions, they come from bad stock, or they are simply BAD APPLES. Fortunately, such reasons are rarely the case. In my experience as a teacher and school administrator, I seldom faced a disobedient or rebellious student who was a pure evil BAD APPLE. As a good friend often reminds me, “God don’t make no junk,” and tongue in cheek bad grammar aside, he is right. All children have worth; it sometimes takes extra patience and prayer to find it in some, but they all have worth. In my 37 years as an educator, I would say less than 1% of the students I dealt with for behavior problems were just plain bad, and even that handful usually went on to become responsible citizens as they grew into adulthood.
“It’s the teacher’s fault!” is the number one cry of too many parents when confronted by reports their child is misbehaving at school. Many parents like to point at the teacher as the problem because they are frustrated themselves with junior’s behavior, or they are not adult or savvy enough to understand most teachers will do backflips or whatever it takes to avoid having a parent conference due to a child’s behavior. Teachers want to be left alone to do their jobs, and there is maybe a 1% chance they will hold a grudge against a child, take revenge against a child, or intentionally do anything to a child that will ultimately result in a hostile parent conference. Teachers have degrees for good reason; they are smart, and it is not smart for an adult, especially a professional, to create circumstances that result in extra work and stress. However, teachers are not perfect, so it could be the teacher’s fault if a child misbehaves, but not likely.
Likewise, the number one reason teachers give for student discipline issues in the classroom is “poor parenting.” Although, they rarely know for sure, teachers are often quick to blame mom and dad for the child’s disruptions in the classroom. They see disrespect, rudeness, and defiance as traits of poor upbringing, and although there is some merit to such perceptions, there are often other influences or factors that are the real cause. Parents, like teachers, are not perfect, but most of them do the best they know how to do when raising their children. Like teachers, they despise parent/teacher conferences and would as soon get a root canal as attend one. Both teachers and parents need to understand, student misbehavior in the classroom is the student’s fault; there is no one else to blame! The student made the choice to be disruptive or lash out, and the student should be held responsible for his/her disruptive behavior! It is important to understand why they chose to act out, but it is just as important, if not more so, to hold them accountable for their actions. Consequences for poor choices is the only way to teach children to be responsible, caring human beings.
Although schools are much more aware of bullying today than a few years ago, it still happens. In cases where a child is bullied by another child, we often think of the bullied child as one who withdraws within himself, isolates himself, or becomes depressed and even suicidal; we think of a helpless victim. However, a bullied child can sometimes lash out. As a defense mechanism, such a child can take on the role of the bully with his peers or even become a disruptive force in the classroom. Such a child is not a bad apple, mistreated by teachers, or the product of parental malpractice; the bullied child takes refuge in the only protection he sees available to him – “if you can’t beat them, join them.” By becoming part of the problem, the bullied child builds a wall of protection that shields him from further torment and provides some semblance of sanctuary.
A more likely reason for unruly behavior at school is peer influence. When growing up, did your parents ever say, “If Susie jumped off a cliff would you also jump off the cliff?” Mine did, and quite often! If you are 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, or 18 the answer is “YES! You would follow Susie off that cliff!” Middle and high school students are likely to try anything, regardless how stupid, if they think it might be fun, make them more popular, or get them noticed favorably by their friends. Peer influence is more of an inducement for disruptive behavior than all the bad apples, vengeful teachers, poor parents, and bullying combined.
Sometimes students misbehave at school because something is out-of-whack at home. Students from good homes with the best parents are not immune to behavior problems in school. There are times when things go wrong in the best of homes with the most loving and caring parents. In a world of shrinking commitment, children are often the unintentional victims of family quarrels over finances, infidelity, and divorce. Such potentially life altering events in a family cannot help but ride to school on the shoulders of children who out of hurt, frustration, and feelings of betrayal and abandonment act out contrary to their norm. In my experience as a school administrator, roughly ten percent of student behavior issues were the result of problems at home – not issues of bad parenting, but issues that threatened to tear the family unit apart. Under such conditions, even the most even keeled child can break and lash out.
The number two reason for student misbehavior in school is stupid choices. As smart and sophisticated as kids are today, they still make stupid choices. It is no secret that teen elevators do not always go all the way to the top floor. They are not only at the mercy of peer influence and pressure, but all too often, they are impulsive and empty minded. Little thought is given to consequences for their actions. For example, I still recall the stench of deer urine a student poured in a friend’s locker as a practical joke. The books in the friend’s locker as well as the books in adjoining lockers were saturated and ruined with the stink. The smell was so bad the whole locker section, approximately thirty lockers, had to be closed off and two classes had to be evacuated and reassigned elsewhere in the building. On top of that, the student had to make restitution for a couple hundred dollars in damaged textbooks. Was the student who committed the foul deed a BAD APPLE? No, but he caused a major disruption of the school day just the same!
Finally, the number one reason for student misbehavior in school is by far the saddest – academic deficiencies. When I was a high school principal, my assistant principals and I studied discipline data religiously. We especially focused on students with habitual discipline problems. We combed the data and reviewed cumulative folders looking for clues that might show how to best intervene with the student. What we found was over fifty percent of students with habitual discipline issues were a grade to two grades behind, struggled academically in two or more core subjects, and could not read on grade level. Academically, they had little hope for passing to the next subject or grade. They could not keep up, so they disrupted class out of frustration and to cover up their academic difficulties – primarily, their inability to read. If a child cannot read when he reaches high school, he is lost, and there is little that can be done to get him/her back on track. Therefore, what else can a child do but act out and become a discipline problem?
During a school year, school administrators, especially at middle schools and high schools, will be confronted by discipline issues ranging from mean spirited to ridiculously stupid. Except for a very few kids, they will find BAD APPLES are rare, and misbehavior is a human reaction to the cards life deals, or the result of stupid human choices. Over time and with help, 90% of kids learn to deal with life’s ups and downs as well as learn from the stupid choices they make. These kids move on to bigger and better things in life. The other 10% is why principals, assistant principals, and guidance counselors earn their paychecks. If they don’t give up on that 10%, ninety-nine percent of the time, those horrible little hellions are also likely to turn out all right and become productive citizens. When that happens, teachers and administrators should write their own book! They did something right, and it should be celebrated and shared with the world.
©Jack Linton, April 18, 2018