NQT Special: The four reasons for poor behaviour and how to tackle them


Dreikurs’ Theory divides misbehaviour into four distinct types and offers a simple approach to managing each one. Nadine Pittam looks at the clear implications for teachers.

Apparently, there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

When Austrian-born child psychologist and educator, Rudolph Dreikurs, developed his theory that misbehaviour is the result of people feeling disconnected from their social group, he divided the world of misbehaviour into four kinds and developed a simple tool to enable teachers to quickly analyse and begin to manage unwanted behaviours. When students misbehave, he argued, they are seeking to achieve one or more of the following four “goals”:

  • Attention.

  • Power.

  • Revenge.

  • Hide feelings of inadequacy.

Furthermore, if we look deeper into Dreikurs’ theory then we learn that reward and punishment are not as effective as we would think, and often yield only short-term successes (watch Dan Pink’s TED Talk, Puzzle Of Motivation, and we can see there is much research to prove that reward has a negative impact on tasks which require any level of cognitive skill). 

Dreikurs would perhaps have argued that when teachers offer encouragement instead of praise, they are promoting their students’ self-worth; they are building relationships, making connections; they are holding a democratic conversation rather than presenting an autocratic demand.

So what does this look like in and beyond the classroom? Here are a few suggestions in relation to the main aspects of schooling.

During the lesson

Before the lesson, seek every opportunity to make a connection with your students. If they have to line up, have a conversation with them about something unrelated, such as a television programme, a sporting result, a film, a new hat they are especially proud of – how much easier it is to get them to take off their hat when you have first admired it.

Always, always, always treat your students, their efforts and their work with respect. You are the professional. If possible, remove yourself from the disciplinary procedure. Appeal to their sense of responsibility: “Choose the right thing to do here.” Or: “Think carefully about what you are choosing to do, and make the best choice. Our choices have consequences.”

Do everything you can to avoid battles in front of the class. Whether the student seeks attention, power or revenge you are unlikely to “win” a public battle because students are able to get that feeling of connection from their peers, not from you, so they will behave in a way they think their peers want to see. If you ensure the conversation takes place in private, then they have only you to connect with, so they are more likely to work with you.

Perhaps you have a student whose goal is power or revenge, if so try the “partial agreement” approach. When a student presents you with something negative, you could agree with them, at least in part, then shift the focus. If your student tries to hurt your feelings by making a personal comment, agree but show no emotion. For example: “Your face is really red.” Your response: “Yes it feels like it is, but commenting on it is not going to make it less red, nor will help anyone achieve the lesson objective.”

Or if the student is more aggressive: “This is all your fault; it’s all so much worse since you became our teacher.” Your response: “I’m sorry you feel like that (and then move on).”

If a student does something positive, rather than saying things like, “well done”, or even “I’m really proud of you”, try to instil an intrinsic sense of pride: “You must feel really proud of yourself to have done this. How much better do you feel having chosen to do this?”

Beyond the classroom

We have established that building relationships is key to minimising behavioural issues, so seize every opportunity to build those relationships when you are not in the classroom. While it may seem hugely time-consuming, a trip to the sports field to watch a student play a match (and cheering loudly to ensure you are seen) will have a profound impact. 

If this is not possible, it may be possible to volunteer to go on a trip. Many schools have a Duke of Edinburgh scheme, or run trips whether they are to the theatre for an evening or to a ski resort for five days – if you have the time to be able to volunteer to go on one of these trips, then do so. Ask your line manager or mentor if they can help point you in the direction of a member of staff who is likely to be running something which you can be a part of.

Putting yourself in, and then exploiting, these less academic, more social situations with the students will pay off, but if they are too time-consuming there are other ways of building relationships. 

In the very least, if you see the students in the corridor, say a confident hello and smile (if the student is too cool to respond, try a confident but discreet nod instead next time). Have a chat with your colleagues who teach the same students you are having trouble with and see if your colleague ever runs any activities in lessons with which you can help, such as competitions which you can offer to judge.

During detentions

If misbehaviours come from a desire to feel connected, sitting in a detention is likely to make students feel disconnected, and is unlikely to change challenging misbehaviour patterns long-term. 

If, however, we see the detention as an opportunity to either present the student with a logical consequence or to build a relationship and find a solution, we are more likely to see progress. You could run a detention like this:

  • Schedule a detention and if possible invite the parent/carer to attend. 

  • Set a time limit and a structure for the meeting then deal individually with each of the top two or three issues. Ensure the conversation involves all parties, is positive and solution-focused. A simple way to catch all of these is to ask parents and the student to help with offering solutions.

  • Agree on a logical consequence if the contract is broken, or perhaps agree that you will email home a brief report every week so the parent can support what’s happening in school. Write (or get the student to write) all these targets and consequences on a small piece of card and ensure all parties sign it. 

  • At the start of every lesson, place this card without fuss on the student’s desk, referring to it at any point during the lesson when the student is struggling. If you need to speak with the student about their behaviour, try to use words to encourage their efforts to behave appropriately.

This is more of a meeting than a detention, and in it you are proving that you are someone they can connect with, someone they can be heard by. You can show you are also willing to make small concessions to help the student conform: changing your seating plan, giving an agreed non-verbal signal before the first warning, writing every task instruction on the board etc.

With parents

Simply calling home with good or bad news is effective only to a point – it is essentially just a form of summative assessment. Dreikurs might suggest we use the contact home to help build a relationship, both with the parent/carer directly, and with the student indirectly. Use the call (or email) to praise the effort put in, not the piece of work produced. 

By praising the effort we are increasing the student’s sense of self-worth. It is easy to see that by encouraging students to strive for improvement, not perfection, we are creating more robust learners.

See the contact home as presenting the notion that you, the parent and the student are all part of the same team. 

“Alex struggled to stop himself from shouting out today, and I wonder if we could use this phone call to agree on some ways for how to deal with it...”

Or “Alex had a great lesson today, trying really hard to start the task immediately and without distracting. I wanted you to know I have given her a merit/achievement point, and I thought it’d be great if you could echo this encouragement for the increased effort at home too.” 

Ask the parent to tell you how they have offered encouragement so you can talk to the student about it next lesson.

When reflecting on lessons

When reflecting on your lessons, do not just beat yourself up about what you did and didn’t do in the lesson, try to reflect on how you are making progress with your students in the long-term. Some students may always struggle to behave appropriately (you may be trying to undo a lot of harm), but if they are trying, if they are “on your side”, you have already made progress. Finally, reflect on your own need for connection. Work hard to build these connections with your students, but also make sure you find time to make valuable connections with your peers too.

Dreikurs’ goals of misbehaviour: Some further advice

Attention (the most common goal)

The student: Only feels valued when you are noticing them, fussing over them, doing things for them.

The behaviour: Interrupting, being a “show-off”, noisy, pestering, getting and maintaining the attention of their peers, getting and maintaining your attention, may stop doing what you’ve asked them to stop doing but will soon find another way to get your attention.

General guidelines: Ignore the behaviour where possible, instead praising behaviour you want to see. Make clear the logical consequences that will follow their disruptive behaviour. Recognise that each time you speak to them, whether it’s to remind, punish or give a warning, it is going to reinforce their goal.

Practical suggestions: Give them as much attention in healthy ways as possible, for participating in and attempting every day activities. If the student has a good lesson, you could call home to acknowledge the effort they applied to get on with the task.


The student: Feels valued when they are in control or when they are proving that nobody can make them do anything.

The behaviour: They may do little or no work, or they may demonstrate stubbornness in other ways; they may lie and be wilfully disobedient, bossy or devious. May smile to him/herself as in some private victory. They are keen to make their opinion known about lots of things.

General guidelines: Avoid the call to fight, reprimands, public discussions or power struggles. Try to withdraw and stay unemotional, maybe offering a choice. Hold conversations when the rest of the class has gone. Make the rules clear and try to make this happen generally, so they don’t feel singled out. Show respect as often as possible, maybe even giving them opportunities to use their power productively.

Practical suggestions: Be transparent about your rules and expectations. Try to agree, at least in part, to what they are saying.



The student: They belong only when they inflict hurt on others. They may feel inherently unlikable. 

The behaviour: Their behaviour is likely to be defiant and negative; they may swear, lash out, destroy resources or equipment and call names. They are likely to be hurtful to others, even if it makes them disliked.

General guidelines: Take time and effort to build a relationship of trust with the student, perhaps by building strong relationships with their friend(s). Avoid showing that you are hurt and remove yourself from the conflict. Build on the student’s strengths and try to generate further encouragement from the rest of the class. Retaliation and punishment are only likely to reinforce their goal.

Practical suggestions: Remove yourself from conflict without removing your support, this way you avoid feeling or showing hurt. If building a relationship with the student is difficult, while you are trying, build a strong relationship with this student’s closest friend. 



The student: Is withdrawn, may be a loner and may pretend to be stupid. Thinks s/he is helpless. They may hope that others will forget about them and not blame them for anything.

The behaviour: They may appear dejected, discouraged and helpless and so are unlikely to pay attention; after all, if they don’t try, how can they fail? They will give up very easily, if they even try at all. They falsely believe they can’t meet the expectations, set both by themselves and by others. They are likely to arrive without equipment.

General guidelines: Minimise their mistakes, have (and show) faith in their abilities. Recognise the discouragement the student feels but focus on the student’s strengths and encourage all positive effort. Encourage the student to try but without expecting immediate or significant progress.

Practical suggestions: If you set a detention for the student not completing work, the key focus of the detention has to be to help them produce an attempt at the task. 


  • Nadine Pittam is founder and director of the skills-based website of teaching ideas, www.spark-ed.co.uk

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