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.
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.
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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