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Behavior Model Series

Part IV: The Primary Causes of Misbehavior

All behavior–appropriate and inappropriate–has purpose. Attention, power, revenge, and self-confidence are the primary causes of both appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

The primary and secondary needs are vital considerations in changing unacceptable behavior to acceptable behavior. They offer a teacher clues to the causes of misbehavior, and also suggest action to change that behavior. Yet, four needs cause the majority of problems:

Attention, Power, Revenge, and Self-Confidence

Perhaps more than any other obstacle in teaching, discipline problems cause us to be less effective than we could be. They can make us give up and quit on some kids. Discipline problems can cause us to make rules for the majority to control the minority. They can cause us to be mean, sarcastic, and hateful toward some students–and maybe toward a whole class. In truth, if they didn’t affect teachers in such destructive ways, they wouldn’t hold so much significance. Even one discipline problem can affect us in a negative way. That’s why our need to learn and understand more about discipline and behavior is so vitally important.

All Behavior–Appropriate and Inappropriate–Has Purpose

A teacher must never forget that all behavior has purpose. The fact that all misbehavior has purpose is the primary reason we can’t lump all discipline problems under one label and treat them the same way. It won’t work. The bully does not have the same motivations for misbehavior as the class clown. The late arriver is different from the student who talks back to a teacher. The defiant student may have a different motivations than the student who talks all the time.

In maintaining a successful approach to changing unacceptable behavior to acceptable behavior, teachers must never forget that the first step to solutions lies in discovering the purpose of the misbehavior.


Most students gain attention through normal channels. However, for some students, misbehavior is the only source of attention. Most commonly, these are the students who speak out without permission, arrive late for class, or make strange noises which forces class and teacher attention. Remember, attention reduces potential problems and cures current ones. Once these purposes are identified, students needing attention must receive it in positive ways to prevent their seeking it in disruptive ways.


Students express this need by open dissent, by refusal to follow rules, or by being controversial. Remember, these students usually feel defeated if they do as they are told. Most commonly, we know these students as the total independents, the defiant ones, the rule breakers, and the bullies. They believe that if they had more power, nobody could tell them to do anything; they would be doing the telling. If they cannot gain power in appropriate ways, they will fight for it in inappropriate ways. We should recognize that giving power to those students who need it is easy–and whit it comes the perfect opportunity to teach that responsibility is a part of power.


Some students find their place by being disliked, feared, or hated. unfortunately, they find personal satisfaction in being mean, vicious, and violent. The purpose of their misbehavior is revenge. They are the students who write on desks, beat up classmates, threaten young students, cause constant controversy, and mar restroom walls. If you have students who fall into misbehaving because they are seeking revenge, realize that only appropriate success will change them. Understand that the revenge seekers can be diverted back to healthy goals they have abandoned out of despair, if they are given a sense of place and belonging. They cannot be ignored or rejected, or their hate will remain.


A lack of self-confidence is also a cause for misbehavior–and a very common one. Those students use inability or assumed inability to escape participation. When they are suppose dot be studying, they play and talk to others. They they offer “I couldn’t do it,” or “i don’t know how” as an excuse. Again, only success can change these students’ self-image. those who misbehave because of feelings of inferiority can be changed by success. However, minor or insignificant tasks will increase their anxieties–while succeeding at important tasks will increase their self-esteem.

To resolve discipline problems, a teacher must remember that all student behavior–good and bad–has purpose. When we take the misbehavior of students personally, we are likely to respond in ways that we will regret. It’s at this point–reacting personally–that we stop solving our discipline problems and start being consumed by them.

This blog post is excerpted from the book Before You Can Discipline

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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