Warning: Most Teachers Make This Classroom Management Mistake; Do You?

If you can eliminate this one mistake when responding to misbehavior, you will lower your stress level, save time, and have a more influential relationship with your students.

What is it?

The mistake most teachers make is asking students why they misbehaved.


Mr. Shoemaker glances across the room and sees Jeffrey standing on a chair.

Mr. Shoemaker (yelling): Jeffery! Get down from there right now!

Jeffery gets down. Mr. Shoemaker pulls him aside.

Mr. Shoemaker (exasperated): Why were you standing on your chair? Please explain it to me, because I don’t understand. What were you thinking?

Jeffrey hems and haws and, like anyone caught behaving poorly, is not sure how to answer.

Mr. Shoemaker (becoming more frustrated): Answer me, Jeffrey. The class is waiting.

Jeffrey still doesn’t know what to say, but Mr. Shoemaker is determined to pressure an answer from him in the false belief that by doing so he is holding Jeffrey accountable.

Jeffrey must learn a lesson and therefore should explain himself… right?

So Mr. Shoemaker waits on Jeffrey until Jeffrey mumbles an acceptable response. He then lectures Jeffrey on why he shouldn’t stand on chairs, and the incident ends.

But not without lingering effects.

Mr. Shoemaker walks away tense and frustrated. And Jeffrey is angry—though not with himself.

He’s angry at Mr. Shoemaker.

Why This Is A Mistake

You should never ask a student why he or she misbehaved because…

You already know the answer.

The reason Jeffery made the decision to stand on his chair is the same reason any of us behaves poorly: because, at the time, he wanted to. Ultimately, this is the reason any student misbehaves.

It’s hard to answer truthfully.

Few students answer truthfully because (A) they have difficulty putting into words their desire to misbehave, and (B) they know their teacher doesn’t want to hear the truth: because I felt like it.

So they make something up, blame someone else, or tell you what you want to hear—something like, I was bad, I made a mistake, and I won’t do it again.

It replaces a real, effective consequence.

The reason teachers ask students why they did this or did that is not because they really want to know the answer. The reason is because they’re angry and want to teach the student a lesson.

But in doing so, they’re undermining their classroom management plan. Consequences remove the need to pressure, browbeat, or intimidate students into behaving.

It causes resentment.

Forcing an explanation from students causes resentment. To them it feels like humiliation. Yes, you have a right to handle misbehavior this way. But you’ll pay a price for it.

When your students dislike you, you have little influence over their behavior choices.

It’s stressful to you.

Asking why results in tense, frustrating conversations that rarely end well. Why subject yourself to that? Especially because, in the long run, it will increase bad behavior.

You don’t have time.

Pulling students aside after they misbehave wastes time. It also breaks up the positive momentum in the classroom, creates tension, and forces the rest of your students to wait on you.

A Better Way

A better way to handle misbehavior is to hold students accountable with a consequence.


Mr. Shoemaker notices Jeffery standing on his chair. Unhurried, he moves into Jeffery’s sight line until Jeffery sees him and gets down.

Mr. Shoemaker (motioning to Jeffery): You have a warning. (Or a time-out or whatever your classroom management plan calls for.)

Mr. Shoemaker then turns and continues on with whatever he was doing.

That simple.

Jeffrey already knew he was wrong, so Mr. Shoemaker didn’t need to point it out to him. There was no reason to ask why, because Mr. Shoemaker already knew why. There was no reason to make Jeffery explain himself, because the consequence took care of that.

Mr. Shoemaker communicated to Jeffrey in a way that students best understand. And he did it without wasting time, feeling stressed, or driving a wedge through his relationship with Jeffrey.

Four words, three seconds, one consequence and Mr. Shoemaker was done with the interaction.

Note: If later in the day Mr. Shoemaker wanted to explain to his class the dangers of standing on chairs and remind them that it’s a violation of classroom rules, then this would be perfectly appropriate.

But there is no reason to discuss the situation further with Jeffrey.

One Exception

There is one exception to the no-asking-why rule.

If you notice a student lashing out against others, you may have to ask why in order to rule out retaliation against bullying—which can never be taken lightly.

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5 Responses to Warning: Most Teachers Make This Classroom Management Mistake; Do You?

  1. Janet March 28, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    still reading your blog even though you haven’t heard from me lately. ha ha
    I am so glad you are posting for us! Keep up the good work.

  2. Bill Alexander March 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    You’re right, it’s easy for teachers to feel thay have to get students to explain the reason why they misbehaved, and even more to get them to apologise for it. As you say, this often backs students into a corner and the incident escalates into a full confrontation because the student doesn’t want to lose face.
    I think your strategy is effective because it aims to deal with the behavior without judging the student. It also means the minimum amount of disruption to the learning – deal with the incident and move on.
    I’ve sometimes found that you need to use a slightly more detailed script to deal with this type of incident.For example, repeating the request or command three times in a stepped way can work.
    Step 1 ‘Jeffrey, I want you to come down’.
    Step 2 ‘Jeffrey, I’ve asked you once, I’ll ask you again,please come down, or I’ll have to …[whatever the consequence is to be]….’
    Step 3 ‘Jeffrey, I’ve given you two chances to come down, I’m now giving you…..[the consequence]….’

    Of course, Jeffrey may continue to be stubborn, in which case further consequences will be necessary – but at every step students can see that you focus calmly on getting Jeffrey to behave – it’s not personal and you’re not angry, you’re just following your classroom routines.

  3. Keri June 27, 2012 at 5:40 am #

    Hi, Michael. I enjoyed reading this article, “Warning: Most Teachers Make This Classroom Management Mistake; Do You?” I need clarification. In this article, my understanding is that you mention that it is a waste of time to privately conference with the student immediately after climbing on the chair. Rather it is better to immediately give a consequence. Reinforce with action rather than words. Is my understanding correct? In your article “How to Correct a Big Classroom Management Mistake,” my understanding is that it is okay to take time to privately discuss with a student what happened if that student said he/she was not at fault. Also, it’s okay to take additional time to talk with a witness if necessary. What exactly is the difference between these two situations of taking or not taking time? If a student says, “I need to talk with you privately” because he/she wants to tell me why he/she is not at fault, what should the rest of the class be doing in the meantime so that I am not wasting their learning time? What if the timing is difficult and we don’t have much time for a private discussion? I teach K-5 music. Kids are in and out of my classroom every 30 minutes. I would find it very difficult hold a kid from a previous class while the next class is coming into my room. Thank you in advance for the clarification and suggestions. I appreciate your articles.

    • Michael Linsin June 27, 2012 at 6:52 am #

      Hi Keri,

      I’ll do my best to clarify. The mistake in the article above is that you shouldn’t ask a student why he or she misbehaved, so yes, it’s best to enforce a consequence (always best to enforce a consequence). In the second article you mentioned, if the teacher mistakenly enforces a consequence–didn’t see what she thought she saw, which is rare but bound to happen–your students then know how to handle it (by asking to speak to you privately). As for time, if a student needs to talk to you, you have to find a way to meet with them, even if it’s later in the day.