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Understanding the Motivation Behind Student Behavior

Understanding the motivation behind kids' actions is key to creating effective behavior management systems in your classroom.

behavior management tips

You don’t know who Martin Corcoran is, but he will forever be imprinted in my memory as the boy who never followed the rules in my fourth-grade class. Now, as an educator, I can look back and better understand why Martin made such poor choices.

Have you ever considered why students choose whether to follow classroom rules? Before you can even think of implementing a behavior management system in your classroom, you need to first understand the motivations kids have for the way they behave.

Think about it this way: About 80 percent of your students will consistently make good choices (me, when I was a student). Five percent of your students are going to break classroom rules often enough to be labeled “difficult” (Martin). We don’t always consider the cause for the behavior; often we focus on the act and how to stop it, or even prevent it from happening again. What about the other 15 percent? These “fence-sitters” are looking at Martin and me, and weighing the risk-benefit ratio. From which choice will they gain more?

The reasons are central to implementing a successful long-term behavior management system. Students choose to follow rules for different reasons, and not always the altruistic reasons we think. Some are eager to please the adults in their lives, some are looking for a reward, and still others follow rules out of fear of consequences. Those who make poor choices do so for a variety of reasons, as well. They seek some degree of control, attention, or behave inappropriately due to special needs such as impulsivity due to ADHD, attempts at masking learning difficulties, or even from emotional disturbances. Addressing the behavior must go deeper by considering the underlying causes.

"Kids often need tangible examples in order to truly understand how their actions affect others."

Before the school year even starts, you should have a system in place to ensure your classroom remains a safe haven for all of your students. First and foremost, establishing a relationship with students needs to happen before any learning can take place. Many teachers create a “classroom constitution” by brainstorming the rules for the classroom together. Clearly display rules and instructions in an easy to see location. Try reading the picture book Do Unto Otters as a segue into a discussion about what it means to treat others how you want to be treated, and create an anchor chart that outlines what respect looks like, sounds like, and feels like.

Kids often need tangible examples in order to truly understand how their actions affect others. Consequences should be natural, rather than punitive. For some kids who seek control, punishments become a type of “bungee cord,” where the teacher is pulling on one end, and the child the other. Whether both hold tight, or either lets go, both lose. Focusing on how others feel as a result, kids begin to learn empathy.

Once behaviors start to emerge and you’ve determined the reasons for a child’s behavior, you can begin thinking about how to best address them. Keep in mind that punitive responses won’t have the long-term benefits you’re looking for. Common methods are Red-Yellow-Green cards and "Ready to Learn" displays. Marble jars for group behaviors can be frustrating for the 80 percent, who may feel their efforts are in vain when Martin just isn’t cooperating.

"With 25 kids in your classroom, you’ll have 25 different needs. Don’t expect one system to work for every student."

Tying responsible behaviors to an already established classroom economy will usually result in student buy-in if there is an enticing reward involved. But prizes are still a short-term solution. Kids naturally need breaks (often referred to as “Brain Breaks”) from challenging tasks. Keeping lessons truly engaging, or shortening their length, can make a big difference. Your students need to move. Implementing flexible seating doesn’t necessarily require you to buy all new furniture for your classroom; it can simply mean allowing your students the option of choosing a different area of the room to work temporarily.

With 25 kids in your classroom, you’ll have 25 different needs. Don’t expect one system to work for every student. The ones for whom you need a system in place might not respond the way you’d hoped. But understanding the reasons kids behave the way they do will help you to begin to develop a management system that addresses those needs.

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Want to read more from this author? Check out Amy's tips on making your first year of teaching a successful one, dealing with difficult parents, building a positive classroom community, or learn what special education teachers wish "regular" education teachers knew.
Author Bio:

Amy McKinney, M.Ed., is a third grade teacher in Pennsylvania. She has been teaching for eleven years, eight of them in special education. Her experience working with students with special needs has helped form her philosophy on teaching and collaborating with her colleagues. Follow her on Instagram: @theuniqueclassroom.

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