How to increase disruptive behaviour in the classroom?

One of the more frequent questions that teachers ask is how they can work within the classroom to avoid difficulties with the behaviour of pupils. The question is probably wrong since it holds that even very good teachers always have one whose behaviour deviates from expectations in the classroom. This is also shown by the statistics; amongst the whole population (therefore also in every classroom of each school) there should be somewhere between 2% and 15% of children with difficult behaviour (Farrington, 2007, Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, 2008, Epstein and collaborators, 2008). Even if we assent to a quite realistically probable 5% this means that actually there should not be even one school classroom where at least one child with deviating behaviour is not included.

It is my firm belief that a teacher (or a pedagogue in kindergarten) should be grateful for every such child. The experiences of teachers and pedagogues, included within supervision groups show (Vec, 2000a) that a teacher learns more in one year (about his expert knowledge and group activity, creativity and flexibility, possibilities and limits, cooperation and autonomy) from only one behaviourally disruptive child than from leading groups of talented and diligent children in ten years.

The present essay is therefore designed for those who want even more children with disruptive behaviour in their groups – either because they wish to learn, or merely because they are short of material to complain about.

What can a teacher contribute in order to have more difficulties with pupils’ behaviour in the classroom?

In principle he can just sit at his desk and wait for behaviour problems to start to happen spontaneously. According to the data, he has assured conditions for that (those 5% problematic ones). The problem lies only in that the forms of expressions of problematic behaviour change from generation to generation. From this, for example, some are trying to assert that in recent times there has been more problematic behaviour. In truth they were just more affected by it; whilst in the past it was orientated more towards coevals and materials, it is now maybe (!) directed more towards the teachers themselves.

You can ensure more problems by holding to a basic principle: do not work professionally. Albeit generalised, you can not work professionally in at least three different ways (which are usually so interwoven that we distinguish them only by several theoretical premises):

  • do not consider the principles of good leadership,
  • do not consider the principles which derive from an individual child and a group,
  • do not consider the principles which derive from a general legitimacy of group dynamics.

How to avoid the principles of more effective leadership?

If we want to have as much as disruptive behaviour in the classroom as possible, it is good to avoid individual practices such as those listed below and, even better, as many as possible (I list only a few of them, but – allow yourself some creativity!):

1. Preparing the room; the appearance of the room itself (McLeod, 2007) can invite certain activities (for instance if there are balls or musical instruments in it, they just call out to be used – in a way the adults wish, and to the whole spectrum of that which we will not approve), directs (the setting up chairs, for instance), calms down or stimulates (for instance colours), gives ‘permissions’ (for instance damaged or broken objects like electrical plugs can ‘give the message’ to the children that it is perfectly acceptably to damage things) etc.

2. Principle of reality rests with the adult, so it is on him, at least in the first phase, to estimate what kind of behaviour, to whom, and in which situations and conditions to permit. If we want to encourage disruptive behaviour, we just leave the decision about all this to the children. Bearing in mind that they do not have much experience with setting rules and that they are, in searching for the consequences of breaking the rules, usually incredibly strict, sometimes even cruel, we are, in this way, on the right track.

3. The rules and framework should be set as clearly as possible, right at the beginning, and as few as possible. Considering the rules is easier for a child if they are understandable in themselves, generally known, accepted and grounded. There is nothing better for disturbing behaviour than to create pages and pages of lists of what is allowed and what is not – since this is what causes anxiety and at the same time directs them towards finding loopholes in prohibitions. The principle “Everything is good which I do not simultaneously forbid” works as a threat because of its undefined nature, and promotes testing of boundaries. We can certainly count on the disruptive behaviour increasing if the rules are not understandable, if they are valid only for you, for a certain group, if they are not grounded, and especially if they are going to sound as if they cannot be (at least within common sense) grounded at all.

4. A certain level of aggressive behaviour should be allowed. When we tackle the problems of aggression, we are going to arouse more with greater pressure – if not at once, it will show through later activities (this is bad because your co-worker who teaches the class after you might get all the glory from the increased problems; however better this way at least, lest your work produces no visible results). The most difficulty with working with those aggressive ones is to judge which behaviour is of ‘manipulative character’ and which is a consequence of recourse. Such behaviour is often a knot of both mechanisms; therefore great flexibility is necessary in leadership. In any case, to increase the disruptive behaviour more evaluation, moralising, estimating in a sense ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘impossible’ etc., is better. It is important, particularly at the beginning, that you never allow or ignore swearing, scolding and other forms of verbal aggression (especially to the adult).

5. An important goal is the gradual adaptation to greater and greater demands and pressures, and teaching acceptable ways to express feelings (since we do not punish a child for mistakes who has just begun to walk and still often falls). We can avoid this principle if we do not allow mistakes, difference and retrograde steps in progress. If we react to regression with a refusal and punishment, we have created splendid possibilities for developing disruptive behaviour in the classroom.

6. It is practical to have some activities in stock which can divert the appearance of disruptive behaviour, or try to direct it in a more constructive way (for instance we can use physical aggression in a game where fighting finds expression, but within precisely defined rules). The behaviour in the classroom can therefore become more disruptive if we try to follow the curriculum regardless of the needs and circumstances in the classroom. It would be even better to come to the class entirely without preparation; not only for reserve activities and methods, but also with old preparation (the ones of two years ago are still good, aren’t they) or even without them (a good teacher can invent an activity for one class on the spot anyway).

7. The more time we devote to solving certain problems and communication in general, the fewer occurrences of disruptive behaviour there will be. Here everything is probably clear: if it is possible, do not talk – especially about difficulties and problems – and problems will appear by themselves. Let me point out that this is a long-term investment. However do not be impatient; ignoring problems sometimes looks like as there will be fewer and fewer, but the lack of time and communication leads to problematic behaviour without fail, so you will be sooner or later drowning in them (if not you, because you act too threateningly, at least your more democratic co-workers).

8. An aggressive response to an adult is most frequently not pointed actually at him but to all that which an adult symbolises to a child. As Redl and Wineman (1984, p. 88) say, children “in essence are engaging with adults as representatives of this world” and later they point out the possibility of an aggressive response because of “fear from love”. If you do not consider this principle you can understand every child’s behaviour as an attack on yourself, therefore you have (which any average adult understands) an entirely legitimate reason to be aggressive to them yourself. (Carroll and Kraus, 2007)

9. In communication and giving messages (especially with criticism) to the child, the adult should not direct towards the person but towards the behaviour. This principle is quite well known and many can avoid it anyway (like the teacher who told the child that he is stupid because he did not know something, or that guide at boy scouts who told one group of children that they are clearly fools and the other that they are wimps). Maybe a warning for those who would want to have behaviour problems as soon as possible: these kind of ‘labels’ do not work well when a child is already convinced that he or she is stupid, a fool or a wimp. They will react appropriately only if, and as long as, they think differently about themselves!

10. Let one of the important goals when working with children and adolescents be the establishment and preservation of contact. To stimulate disruptive behaviour it is therefore good to prevent any establishment of a good emotional relationship with a child. Although I am convinced that you can be very creative in this field, this could still miscarry only because of the adaptable nature of a child. If, despite the effort, a good emotional contact establishes between you and a child, you can destroy it by using contact to achieve another goal (let’s say in a way you ‘squeeze’ it a little, “Now when we are true friends you will indeed not break any school rules!”)

11. Do not expect too much (of yourself and children). If you want to have a lot of disruptive behaviour in the classroom, expect a lot (there is never enough!) from yourself as well as from the children. For this, it is good to be as little as possible together with a child (it is ideal to teach it only once a week since then there is no problem with great expectations – you always have them, want them or not).

Start to fantasise “how it would be beautiful if…”, and then try with all your might (without thinking over whether it is realistic or not) that the children and yourself will fit these fantasies. It is great if you say to yourself that the children’s behaviour in the classroom depends on your leadership – if you work badly the children’s behaviour will be bad and vice versa. We could call this ‘the principle of grandmothers’ (the amateurish or common sense approach to solving problems) which is based on consideration that everything you do has an direct effect on children (like grandmothers ‘know’ that ‘parents are always guilty for the way children are’).

Therefore forget that with your work you only partly affect the behaviour of children, forget too that a lot of other factors affect children’s behaviour (coevals in school and on the street, friends, family, their history, their potential which they brought with them to this world, personal characteristics etc.), expect too much and create conditions for disruptive behaviour!

How to more successfully ignore the characteristics of an individual and group?

We can encourage not only disruptive behaviour but also unpleasant feelings, depression, disappointment in yourself and adults in the classroom when we neglect the needs and wishes of children (therefore that which they aim for) and when we neglect their characteristics (what are they capable of, want, know and what they are limited by). Non-consideration of the level of biological maturity, social experiences and a level of cognitive development is what also effectively reduces the capacity for self-reflection (Downey, 2001). We can get to disruptive behaviour easiest if we can neglect all the needs and wishes and also all characteristics, but since despite the effort only rarely do teachers succeed in this, let us look at a few possible areas of activity. With an individual child and a group we can neglect:

1. The level of maturity and interests of children. It is good to remember that the “child’s play changes with its development. … a child chooses play which is adjusted to the nature of its instinctive impulses and the nature of basic needs…, on the other hand also those which assist the developmental steps in structuring its EGO.” (Praper, 1992, p.176). This means that we establish good conditions for disruptive behaviour when we do those things in the classroom which exceed, or are far below the level of the children’s capability, but above all we avoid those which derive from their initiatives. The rule that children should not bring their toys into school, the latest in their thirdgrade (if they have not become serious by that age, when will they!?) is very valuable, for instance.

2. The initiatives which come from children. But this on the one hand mainly means greater motivation for activity and on the other hand the stimulation of self-motivation, or developing and accepting interests. If you ignore, despise, belittle, ridicule etc. their initiatives you give them a clear notion not only of what you think about their ideas, but also what you think about them as human beings (anyway some ask if children are already human beings or if they first need to learn obedience).

3. How long should some activities last, how long they are capable of concentrating, sitting in rest, concentrating upon listening … If we have a chance, we can start in the firstgrade of primary school – best to demand children sit still behind the desk throughout all hours of the lessons (at the end of the day, we are in school), but if we missed this opportunity we can later still at least encourage their feeling that lessons last at least three times longer than in truth (is there anybody amongst you who cannot deliver the most interesting thing in the whole world in the most boring way – one can even talk about sex without mentioning swelling and wetness!).

4. Preceding signs of conflicts and signals of possible aggression. These we can effectively do in two ways: the first one is more simple (for a beginner) – we simply ignore them, ‘do not see them’, the other is more pretentious (for real professors) – through watchful observation and, even better, by writing into the school register we can discover, recognise and then always suitably encourage them anew. For increasing the problems in the classroom it is, for instance, good to never divert an event onto some other activity but to persist, interfere, disallow conclusion, recrimination … etc.

5. The problem of competition. It is true that beginners are already satisfied by the school itself being innately competitive but with wilful direction towards a competitive atmosphere in the classroom we can somewhat increase the behavioural excesses.

Actually we can make a competition from every activity (for instance who has how many plusses, how many books did somebody read out of the regular requirement, in how many interesting activities somebody is engaged, how many extra calculations somebody did, how many days somebody manages to sit still etc.). And even more! Where the competitive situations are already formed (for instance with every giving of marks) the significance of winning and defeat is increased; in this way we can successfully generate feelings of pride in the more successful ones, and consequently feelings of inferiority in the unsuccessful ones. The latter will usually find by themselves some other area where they will be successful (for instance in fighting, offensiveness, inactivity or at least in spitting).

6. The results: hard work. In connection with previous definition we can do a lot towards more disruptive behaviour if we positively value only the presented results, not the effort the child put into something. Not only with marks (anybody can do this) but especially with encouragement, feed-back informing the child of what we noticed, what we estimate etc. In this way (if we appreciate only results) with the worst pupils, we can ensure that they will not try any more (consequently they will become more problematic). Like this, however, it is less known that even with the more successful pupils we achieve merely orientation towards results (high marks) which usually means ‘to attain the biggest reward with the minimum effort’, and that we even turn ‘the bright ones’ into those who will not have good working habits (which is a great foundation for behaviour difficulties if not already in primary school, then certainly in secondary school).

7. The level of particularity with an individual and particular characteristics of the class as a whole group. Sometimes the class as a whole has particular characteristics which we can use to direct towards disruptive behaviour (for instance certain cultural, socio-economic, behavioural, emotional characteristics, specific experiences from the past etc). As for an individual it is useful to know the Bregant’s (1987) classification of the origins of dissocial problems. We can increase the problems most successfully if we know the source of the difficulties within an individual and then act entirely orientated (which will give a much bigger effect than non-orientated stimulation of the disruptive behaviour). Let us look briefly at the classification of sources of dissocial disorders:

  • biological sources; this is innate (for instance smaller/bigger talents in various fields, hyper-kinetics, dyslexia, weak-sight, …); we can increase disruptive behaviour by particularly directing into so-called weak points (for instance the best is to expect a hyper-kinetic to stay still, and with a dyslexic we mark the writing especially attentively rather than the content etc.);
  • stemming from the environment (for instance the company of friends, difficult individuals, cultural difference in which a child finds itself, …); if we know that a child is growing up in different cultural norms (for instance any kind of ‘non-Slovenian’) we can induce it to disruptive behaviour if we do not consider its norms, we force Slovenian ones upon it, or merely insult its own;
  • exaggerated burdening in a current life situation which a child cannot cope with (for instance a divorce in the family, conflicts with its coevals, or just that we expose the child to unmanageable demands in school);
  • a disturbed emotional development: acting in this area is a bit more difficult yet with some practice you can start to well recognise a child’s emotional weaknesses, germs of neurosis etc. In principal you can always awake disruptive behaviour by constantly offering the child new experiences to show it is not worthwhile to trust people in general and particularly adults (do not worry, this works with all types of neurosis so you cannot miss!).

How to use the legitimacies of group dynamics for increasing disruptive behaviour in the classroom?

The legitimacies of group dynamics are bound to many factors, the most important amongst them are certainly:

  • formation of group structures (relationships, communication, group roles, social power etc),
  • expressing various processes in a group (processes of social power or so-called forcing, adjustment, forming of norms, conformation and changing of norms) and
  • appearance of certain typical (usual) phases in the development of a group.

In continuing I will present merely a few critical points from these three areas, which would be good to break if you are trying to have more disruptive behaviour in the classroom:

1. The progress of the development of group dynamics – as in the sense of bigger and bigger demands from meeting to meeting as well as in each individual meeting. “Only when a child adequately satisfies its needs for safety and love (as in a family as well in a circle of coevals) will it orientate towards satisfaction of ‘higher’ and more mature motives (efficiency, status, appurtenance to a group) whilst the one in whom these needs are not satisfied will show signs of stagnation (non-interest in work, indifference to others, isolation) or even regression (bizarre and anti-social compensation, compulsive daydreaming, aggression)” says Havelka (1988, p. 63). For more distress and conflict in the classroom your activities should be directed from complex ones to simple ones, from abstract to concrete ones, from more difficult to more understandable ones, from ones which demand greater co-operation, maturity, responsibility to more individually directed, immature, irresponsible, from very personal, disclosing, to those which are non-personal and non-threatening ones etc.

2. Adjustment of activity. (Schneider Corey, Corey, 2006). An activity does not stop with cessation of its execution, but it only slowly dies away; therefore they need to be chosen carefully, with a proper succession, duration etc. For an effective increase of disruptive behaviour, you simply introduce an activity in which children will get very relaxed, excited and turn wild before any serious work. It is great also that the tiresome activities last as long as possible – sooner or later one will ‘burst’. With it the ones with younger children have an advantage since they do not need so much patience; for raising problems in the first grade is sometimes enough to force children into 20 minutes of copying the same diagonal lines into their notebooks.

3. Contagiousness of behaviour. The behaviour of children (particularly those who have a special status in the group) is becoming a directive for what is desired in the class, ‘fine’, suitable (from coevals’ point of view), acceptable (better put, normative) … You can stimulate problematic behaviour also by not reacting to it (like at that school where at first teachers did not intervene with the conflicts outside the school building, then with the conflicts caused by ex-pupils in the school itself, and soon after they did not need to intervene within their classrooms).

It is important to remember ‘the threefold principle’; if the disruptive behaviour appears for the first time, it could be accidental; when it appears for the second time it could be coincidental, but when it appears for the third time you are well on the road since this behaviour has already become the norm in the group. Therefore you should by no means react on the first appearance of disruptive behaviour because children can take that as a clear sign of putting boundaries (and to your regret improve their behaviour)! If you do not react for the second time some of them are going to be in some doubt, but at the fourth appearance of disruptive behaviour you can react since there is a very small probability that you will influence a change in behaviour!

4. Current situation and momentary frame of mind. You can provoke disruptive behaviour even from diligent children if you simply do not consider flexibly what is appearing momentarily in the classroom (curiosities, interests, needs, requests, anxieties, …), if you do not link it with your prepared contents and methods. Keep to your plans, do not ever have varieties or substitute methods prepared – at the end of the day a good teacher takes care of the consistent execution of the curriculum, doesn’t he!?

5. Planning activities. When we draw children into this they become more motivated towards the achievement of planned goals, they also feel bigger co-responsibility for them (therefore they try harder), they break rules less, if we truly include them into their education etc. If we want to achieve non-motivation, rule breaking etc. we draw them up on our own for them (if it is just possible, let them be unattainable!).

But if we cannot avoid that (sometimes headmasters are just unpleasant and they want us to act this out democratically with the pupils), so let’s manipulate! Manipulation is clearly simple; we set up the rules and then we lead children (you know, one just needs ‘to put words in the mouth’ of the ring-leader) to take our demands as agreements. Therefore we can ‘agree’ in a class that from now on nobody will be late anymore, that everybody will always do their homework, that they will love and help each other etc. Just think how simple: you present the rules (which nobody can hold for more than a month) as agreements, children, parents and the headmaster will be happy, and you can enjoy wonderful experiences with the breaking of those ‘agreements’.

6. A problem always has priority. If we do not solve a problem, in each case, because of its persistence (energetic, emotional …), in one way or another it prevents or disturbs a continuation of a planned activity. If you want more difficulties, leave the problems to deal with themselves – tell pupils that they will be able to talk about them with their class teacher. If you are their class teacher tell them that you will talk after school, or even better sometime next week during class hour, or even better at the end of the school year.

7. Phases in the development of the group. You can increase disruptive behaviour by simply not knowing the characteristics of the phases which the group goes through. It is even better to use for each phase of the group those forms of leadership which work most destructively.

In this way we can act for instance in the initial phase when every group needs to establish safety and orientation so there is as little intelligibility, structuring, that the basic rules and directives of activity are not set etc.

In the phase of conflicts which follows it is good to forget that this phase appears in every group as the way a group establishes the structure of roles and status of individuals. So we will have a good feeling that we are single-handedly responsible for formed conflicts, and the consequence will be that we will put a lot of energy into something which most frequently dies away spontaneously.

And we can be very sorry for ourselves, too. If we know that this phase in the group is followed by the phase of establishment of cohesiveness and mutual trust and a working phase, we also know what to do to prevent that (for instance, instead of stimulating the group intentionally in the field of constructive activity and orientation towards productivity, we encourage them to think and talk over and over again about the relationships, how do they feel in the group, about their feelings towards other individuals etc).

It is important also that we forget about due preparation for consolidation of the group, since only like this will they keep the impression that a lot remained unfinished and unspoken for a long time. (Vec, 2000b)


(I am actually in doubt if I should mention them, since the less you read the more you contribute to disruptive behaviour in the classroom, but considering that you ‘have got through to the end of the article you are probably very eager – so let it be for you – if not because of anything else, so that you at least know what to avoid):

Bregant, L. (1987). Disocialnost pri otrocih.(Dissocial Children). Psihoterapija 15. Ljubljana: Medicinska fakulteta. (Faculty of Medicine).

Carroll, R. M., Kraus, L. K. (2007). Elements of Group Counselling. Back to the basics. Denver, London, Sydney: Love Publishing Company.

Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. (2008). Conduct and Behavior Problems Related to School Aged Youth. Los Angeles. Retrieved 28.10. 2011 from:

Downey, J. (2001). Psychological Counselling of Children and Young People. In Woolfe, Ray and Dryden, Windy (ur.) Counselling Psychology. (str. 308–333). London: Sage Publication.

Epstein, M., Atkins, M., Cullinan, D., Kutash, K., and Weaver, R. (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved 28.10. 2011 from:

Farrington, D. P. (2007). Origin of violent behavior over the life span. In D.J. Flannery, A.T. Vazsonyi, & I.D. Waldman (Eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Violent Behavior and Aggression (pp. 19-48). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. Havelka, N. (1988). Psihološke osnove grupnog rada. (Psychological Bases of Group’s Work). Beograd: Naučna knjiga.

Havelka, N. (1988). Psihološke osnove grupnog rada. (Psychological Bases of Group’s Work). Beograd: Naučna knjiga,

McLeod, J. (2007). Counselling skills. Berkshire: Open University press, McGraw-Hill.

Praper, P. (1992). Tako majhen pa že nervozen!? (So Small and Already Nervous!?) Ljubljana: Educa.

Prothrow-Stith, D. (1987). Violence prevention. Curriculum for adolescents. Newton: Education Development Center, Inc.

Redl F., Wineman D. (1980). Agresivni otrok. (The Aggressive Child). Ljubljana: Svetovalni center za otroke, mladostnike in starše. (The Counselling Centre for Children, Adolescents and Parents).

Schneider Corey, M., Corey, G. (2006). Groups: Process and Practice. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Vec, T. (2000a). Nekateri vidiki supervizijskega procesa pedagoških delavcev: specialistična naloga. (Some Viewpoints of the Supervision Process of Pedagogical Workers : specialisation degree) Ljubljana: Filozofska fakulteta. (Faculty of Arts).

Vec, T. (2000b). Skupinsko – dinamični procesi v skupini disocialnih mladostnikov. Group – Dynamic Processes in a Group of Dissocial Adolescents. Panika, Panics, 1 (5), 10–18.

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