The Achievement Gap and Middle School Math

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 12 2012

On misbehavior

As I student, I never misbehaved. I was in an environment where everyone else was mostly doing what they should be doing, so I guess I just got in the habit of doing what my teachers asked me to do. Since this kept working out very well for me, it never even occurred to me that I could or should disrupt class, be mean to the teacher or other students, throw things, etc.

I really don’t understand misbehavior. Sure, on an intellectual level I am willing to accept that a student might misbehave because they don’t understand the content and therefore are either bored and trying to entertain themselves or they are trying to cover the fact that they are lost. Or, if a lesson is going too slowly and a student gets bored, or if a student is upset about a family issues or a social issue, or an issue in another class, or any number of other things which could lead a student to not be doing what (s)he should be doing.

However, what mystifies me is the step that connects one of those causes with the actual decision to talk over another student who is asking a question, or throw a ball of paper at the back of the teacher’s head, or take a piece of paper, tear it up into little bits and throw it all in the air, etc. What goes on in the head of a student who is confused and then thinks to himself: “Ok, I am confused. Therefore, I will toss a ball of paper at the teacher.” I really have no idea how that thought happens.

There is an episode of The West Wing in which CJ, the press secretary, admits to someone that she doesn’t remember exactly what had happened on the night of a shooting that she was present for, and that all of the information she had been sharing with the press was based only on what other people had remembered.

I feel a similar way with regard to my understanding of discipline issues.  I can recite an explanation of why people might misbehave and some ways to prevent those things, but this is all based on other people’s understanding of this topic. I really don’t understand why people misbehave, I am just basing my understanding and my (attempted) solutions on what other people have tried to explain to me. I do not understand what is going on in the head of someone who is misbehaving, and this makes it hard for me to prevent that from happening or stopping it once it had started.


I wonder if there is a special class on classroom management that could be taught to people who were the “good kid” in school that would help us actually understand misbehavior. I would take that class.


8 Responses

  1. Lauren

    Sadly, I don’t think any “special class” could ever teach the classroom management skills that just come with years of teaching experience. But maybe the closest thing to what you’re referring to would be an educational psych or child psych class. Or maybe just imagine being in the kids’ shoes…imagine being in the most mundane AND difficult class you could be in. For example, maybe an upper-level class in a foreign language that you don’t understand. Imagine you had to sit there for 90 minutes and pretend to understand (and care) what was going on. Chances are, as a college student, you’d dick around on your computer or phone, or maybe you’d even leave the classroom (or skip class) because college students have those options. But middle schoolers certainly don’t, and when you dab the bit of immaturity they all have, plus maybe a lack of appropriate mannars that some are never taught at home, it really makes sense why they act the way they do.

  2. MeghanK

    Also, you’re forgetting the “aura” attached to being “bad.” I had a student last year, my first year, whose whole goal in life was to be the proto-typical bully and bad boy. This was in first grade, and I swear, everything he did was in line with this one goal. I had other children my first year who just wanted to be labelled as “bad” because they thought it was interesting, I guess. They didn’t really have emotional problems, but they knew how to pretend like they did.

  3. Lisa

    I think when you have been successful in life and have had supportive people around you when things have been more challenging, it’s hard to understand what it’s like to be missing those experiences. I see kids in middle school who have *always* had trouble meeting expectations for behavior and academics, so failure is very familiar to them. They have been viewed as behavior problems for so long that it’s now who they are, not something they sometimes do. They’ve never *not* been “confused” in school. They also don’t have many experiences of having trouble with something and that difficulty being met with concern and successful problem-solving approaches by the adults around them, hence reinforcing a view of themselves as flawed and unfixable. Finally, in middle school there’s no carrot, at least where I work. Kids will be promoted to 9th grade no matter what. Kids who fail too many classes won’t be allowed to walk, but that’s the extent of the consequences.

  4. Lisa

    Meghan, a different way to view those first graders is as people who for some reason were not getting their needs met. Bad behavior in early grades is not something kids consciously try on or find interesting, it’s a way of communicating that something is not working. When kids are older there are some who seek peer attention by acting the fool, but that is really not the case with younger kids.

    • MeghanK

      I’m telling you, you would have to have met this kid. It was unbelievable. And I disagree. Kids can consciously try on bad behavior. You’re saying when kids misbehave for a sub that’s NOT because they have a sub and they want to see how much they can get away with that day for fun?

      • Speaking as someone who was a horrible child, I don’t really remember consciously deciding when and where to misbehave. It was more like the impulse to do stupid things was always there, but when I didn’t feel like my behavior was being actively kept in check (e.g. on days when there was a sub), I was much more likely to give into it. Even that sounds much more calculating than it really was.

        There are a few times where recall I actively plotted something, but the vast majority of the time it was just that my id was in the driver’s seat.

  5. Beyond all the psychological and environmental considerations, getting people to overreact can be plain old funny. Even as a “good kid” you must have at some point pranked someone, at least mildly, played a joke on someone…it’s basically the same impulse, I think. It’s entertaining to mess with people, to startle them. Combine that urge with a reduction in empathy, or a lack of self-control, and these behaviors aren’t particularly surprising.

  6. Lisa

    I think of it developmentally. Older kids can and do test their teachers and subs, sometimes to impress their friends, sometimes to watch their teachers lose it. First graders? Not really. A kid having trouble keeping it together in first grade is a kid with problems, and someone who needs help. Punishment or rejection are not going to be effective longterm with that child.

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Closing the achievement gap with middle school math

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