Why Do Young People Misbehave In Schools


Student misbehaviour is not a new phenomenon in classrooms around the world. Teachers have recognised the professions growing social anxiety around student misbehaviour and the impact such behaviour has upon individual and peer learning (Tsouloupas, Carson & Matthews, 2014; Little, 2005). What constitutes as misbehaviour in schools has been subjected to considerable debate in the past. Minor but high-frequency behaviours were cited as the most common and disruptive behaviour in comparison to more serious behaviours (Sullivan, Johnson, Owens & Conway, 2014). Misbehaviour as a general overview has been described as a series of actions, such talking out of turn, distracting other students, rule violation and overall actions that interfere with student engagement (Johnson, Goldman & Claus, 2019). These behaviours have been viewed as socially unacceptable and repetitive (De Nobile, Lyons & Arthur-Kelly, 2017). More serious, but low-frequency behaviours were defined as aggression and violent acts towards teachers and students (Little, 2005). However, it was interesting to consider the analysis of behaviour as outlined by Sulliavan et al (2014) where the link between behaviour and academic achievement was established and behaviours were labelled “productive” and “unproductive” (46).  The interview question of “Why do young people misbehave in schools” has guided the research of the report to understand in greater detail the reasons that underlie student misbehaviour in schools. In view of the literature and interviews with six individuals based on the same question, three categories within the ecological systems theory with distinct factors emerged: microsystem, exosystem, and macrosystem.

An ecological systems theory outlines the complexity of the interrelationships between students, their families, schools and the wider community (De Nobile et al., 2017). An ecological approach encourages teachers to consider how these interrelationships affect student behaviour either directly or indirectly (De Nobile et al., 2017). Student behaviour is rarely the result of just one factor. It is difficult for reasons to act in isolation as outlined by Tsouloupas et al. (2010) due to the overlapping nature of other factors in a student’s life. The inter-relation of factors and the influence on students is highlighted with the student being placed in the middle of the ecological system theory model (De Nobile et al., 2017). The microsystem has been referenced extensively in literature as it concerns directly related to students and their daily life and includes home environments and family (Crawshaw, 2015), peers and subsequent peer pressure which is grounded in Goal theory (De Nobile et al., 2017). Dreikurs states four distinct goals drive student behaviour: attention, power, revenge, and escape (De Nobile et al., 2017, 216). Choice theory is underpinned by the belief student behaviour will improve once the student has discovered alternative and more positive ways to achieve their goals. Psychoeducational approaches also outline students have needs such as acceptance, belonging and power. Misbehaviour is often a reaction in order to fulfil the need (Cothran, Kulinna & Garrahy, 2009). Poor home environment and parental influences were considered to play a minimal role in attributions for student misbehaviour (Cothran et al., 2019).

Teacher and school orientated factors are encompassed in the microsystem and relate to factors such as student engagement, demands of the curriculum and teacher’s management of behaviour (Infantion & Little, 2005). Results indicate exclusion as a means of regulating behaviour can be a junction for students to which the results are twofold: increased motivation to assume greater responsibility for their behaviour and actions or a more negative path to which the student can become further disengaged from learning and prolonged exclusion can lead to students dropping out of school altogether (Romi, Lewis & Salkovsky, 2015). Classroom management has been identified as a significant aspect of the schooling environment in regards to learning and teaching effectiveness but also in light of research for the impact effective management can have upon a student’s psychological and social development (Romi et al., 2015).

Section two

In light of understanding the inter-relationship of the factors underlying student misbehaviour, a report outlining the factors underlining student misbehaviour has been developed. Interviews were conducted with six individuals based on the question “In your opinion, why do young people misbehave in school?”. The answers differed as each participant relied on anecdotal experience, different interactions with students and also based on their time during secondary school (Source). Participants questions were guided by the response to the initial question Interview answers were analysed quantitatively as more than one reason was provided for student misbehaviour by the participants as each participant started their answer with “there are many reasons why students misbehave”.  The dominant themes were extracted from the interview data and represented in terms of frequency as represented in Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Reasons for student misbehaviour.

All interviews were conducted individually with six people, both female and male and followed the stipulated ethics protocol. Each interview lasted about 20 minutes with the exception of P3 and P6 who exceeded 45 minutes. The profile of the interviewees are as follows:

  • P1 – Male- 26 years old- Pre-service teacher and SLSO.
  • P2 – Male- 27 years old – works in manufacturing.
  • P3- Female- 25 years old – K-10 teacher
  • P4- Female – 50 years old- K-10 teacher.
  • P5- Female- late thirties- social work for over 12 years – Parent to four children.
  • P6- Male -Forties- Secondary HSIE teacher for over 16 years.

The dominant themes that emerged occurred in the microsystem including engagement, curriculum content, attention and home environment. Media influences were also identified by more than half the participants. P2, P3 and P6 are all current teachers. P3 and P4 are currently working in primary schools however both have had experience teaching casually in secondary schools. Both P2, P3 and P1 stated being a casual in a secondary school environment presents a different set of attributions for student behaviour and outlined a lack of relationship and boundaries to be a likely cause for students to misbehave but also stated “Because they can”. P5 who was the only participant to identify hormones as a reason for student misbehaviour.

Section three

After comparing the literature findings and interview answers the data was collated into three established themes: Student orientated, teacher/ school orientated and other. P1, P3, P4, P5 all identified the structure of the curriculum in terms of mandatory subjects to correlate with student engagement. This follows with the outline from Liljequist and Renk (2007) outlining the pressures of the curriculum creating stress in students but also stress within the teacher navigating their requirements. P1 spoke of compulsory classes and referenced it was often stated by students “Why do I need to know this?. P6 also stated this in his junior classes and believed an absence of autonomy in what students are being taught lead to greater levels of disengagement and minor but high frequency and distracting behaviours emerged daily. Disengagement as a result of no choice in course content correlates with the psychoeducational approach of student orientated reasons for misbehaviour (De Nobile et al., 2017). P6 provided valuable insight into the interview question and extended the response to a comparison between year 7-10 and 11-12 acknowledging the difference in behaviour and engagement because students had assumed greater responsibility in their learning and thus had acquired autonomy through subject selection. In this instance, students have gained power and control in their learning. P6 however did acknowledge a limitation to the claim stating this was from a senior history perspective and is aware engagement issues are still a problem in subjects such as English due to its compulsory nature. P5 was also against the increasing test culture in schools and stated “adolescence is stressful enough. Remove the standardised testing and see what happens”. How the content is taught came under the theme of engagement. Five out of the six participants stated the content needs to be presented in a fun way. P3 stated “The standards tell me to know my students and how they learn. It’s my job to make the content as fun as possible”. P4 made similar remarks stating over the course of her career her pedagogical approach changed but acknowledged engagement was becoming increasingly difficult with technology changes in the classroom.

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Home environment/family influences were identified as a factor by over half the participants. However, it was interesting to note in the literature, home life was considered to play a minimal role in explaining and attributing student behaviour (Cothran et al., 2009). P4 was a strong believer in behaviour starts at home. In her experience of working in difficult schools, there was a direct relationship between home life and school behaviour stating lack of punishment at home created a sense of students believing they were “untouchable”, and the fear of punishment could not regulate behaviour. P3 also contrasted what was outlined and home environment was her first reason for why students misbehave. P3 stated each environment outlines a set of behavioural expectations and home life expectations took priority over classroom. Behaviour in school is “Just another thing to learn” and therefore, P3 believed model behaviour starts at home and needs to be taught the same expectations are held in the classroom. However, it was interesting to note the insight provided by P5 who varied considerably. P5 believed students misbehaved at school as the punishment was less severe than the punishment at home. However, this point was not mentioned in the body of literature and could not be elaborated under the theme of attention. P1, however, suggests no punishment at home does not equate misbehaviour in the classroom. Based on experiences, P1 outlined some students from complicated homes thrived on having rules and expectations and the praise from complicit behaviour.

Attention and media influences have been categorised together based on the responses from P1, P2, and P6. Regarding media influence, P2 stated during his time at high school Summer Heights High dominated the school. P2 recounts how students would quote characters to impress peers, make the class laugh and generally disrupt the teacher to have a break from learning. P6 also mentioned the media’s influence stating, “behaviour is dictated by the actors playing teenagers”. The category of attention was similar, P1 acknowledge the presence of peer pressure driving student behaviour and the role it plays in forming student identity. Increased social status is often the result of the misbehaviour, new relationships form between peers (Cothran et al., 2009). P6 and P4 outlined they always remembered the “class clown” and the attention they gave. P4 believed she had failed Applied Behaviour Analysis as students began to learn inappropriate behaviour was rewarded with attention, regardless of whether it was positive or negative and model behaviour was ignored (De Nobile et al., 2017). P3 outlined points similar to Glock & Kleen (2019) and agreed the best interventions occurred early and relied upon short verbal reminders to address student behaviour and enacted such intervention in a way to ensure learning was not disrupted. A particular favourite means of management by P3 was planned ignoring. This encourages students to find alternative ways of gaining attention within the parameters of the classroom rooms and also through more socially acceptable behaviours. 

Section four

As a teacher, it is important to consider the whole student when assessing the factors that underlie misbehaviour. The Australian Teaching Standards (AITSL, 2011) outlines teachers should know their students and how they best learn (source). Therefore, teachers need to be aware of the best practices and approaches to learning, but also flexible enough to recognise the emergence of behaviours which indicate engagement has not been fulfilled. It is also important to consider if the content is too difficult or too easy and this by using non-formal means of assessment. One of the takeaway points from the literature and the interviews is what behaviours do you feed in to and give attention to and what behaviours are relatively trivial and phase out organically (Sullivan et al., 2014). Therefore, goal theory and choice theory provide a sound theoretical basis for teachers to assess student behaviour and construct a management strategy that does not interfere with classroom activities nor is unreasonably harsh and ultimately avoids the teacher overreacting in front of a group of students (Glock & Kleen, 2019). The skills of effective classroom management are learned skills and develop after experience in the classroom. Therefore, from the perspective of a pre-service teacher is vital to recognise the entire picture of factors relating to student misbehaviour and consider the ecological systems theory model and acknowledge the interrelations between factors such as home and family influence, is this class compulsory, the growing presence of standardised testing, is the class engaged with the content and what outside influences will be entering the environment. Total elimination of misbehaviour is not a feasible option, however, the best question to ask is how does a teacher best manage the inappropriate and unproductive behaviours that will occur daily in the classroom? In light of the literature and the interviews, it becomes apparent a reliance on theory such as the above mentioned and frameworks such as ABA can act a guide but knowing your students and also involving students can be effective in managing the reasons why students misbehave.


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