What Were They Thinking? Adding a Bit of Psychology to Your Classroom Management

While “misbehaving” is an adjective generally reserved for children, the noncompliant, complaining, and related behaviors seen in some adult students still evoke negative reactions. This is likely because the same emotions—anger, frustration, fear, and so on—that bring out the worst in children are the same emotions that fuel the disruptions, catastrophes, immaturity, and other woes that trouble many adult students.

I came into education as a mental health counselor and play therapist. In reaching into my psychology bag of tricks for assistance in effectively managing my students, I have found the most help from my play therapy training, particularly the strategies I learned from noted Adlerian Play Therapy founder Dr. Terry Kottman and the strategies offered by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, co-founders of the Love and Logic Institute. The goal of my classroom management approach is to interpret student behaviors and then respond appropriately in order to minimize classroom disruptions and improve the learning process.

Goals of misbehavior
Following in Alfred Adler’s footsteps, psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs identified what he called four basic goals of misbehavior in children: attention, power, revenge, and proving inadequacy. I believe these also apply to adults. Before diving into these, however, it’s important to remember to take account of your own emotional well-being so that you don’t project your feelings onto students.

AttentionWhen a student is seeking attention, teachers feel annoyed or irritated. The worst thing to do when someone is negatively seeking attention is to give him or her attention, as this merely reinforces the behavior. Instead, once you recognize that attention is what the student wants, you ignore the negative behaviors and focus on the positive things so that you reinforce those preferred behaviors.

PowerWhen a student is seeking power, teachers will feel angry or challenged. Ignoring power behaviors causes them to escalate. According to experts, the solution to power struggles lies in giving choices and doing so sincerely, not with sarcasm, frustration, or anger. “Well, either you take the exam or you fail the class” is not a realistic set of choices. The goal is to give students power within clearly established guidelines. However, teachers need to be able to live with the choices offered students, and the choices must fit within departmental and college guidelines.

In this area of power, it’s important to help the student establish an internal locus of control. You want to give students the opportunity to work through their power struggles and stop power struggles before they get out of control. Staying calm and noncommittal and not getting caught up in the student’s emotion is how experts recommend responding to power challenges.

RevengeWhen a student is seeking revenge, the recipient of that behavior will feel hurt. Unfortunately, the gut reaction to being hurt is to hurt the other person. This starts a cycle of hurt that does not resolve the problem. Instead, take a moment before responding. Recognize that the student feels hurt. The goal is not to take the hurt away by giving in to the student but to help the student process the situation in a healthier manner.

Proving inadequacyFinally, if a student is feeling inadequate, encouragement can help overcome those feelings. What the students need to know is that they can accomplish what they fear they cannot. While the students are ultimately responsible for their success or failure, the instructor can help students take ownership of their learning and of their self-confidence.

Other pieces of the classroom management puzzle
The four goals of misbehavior are one piece of the classroom management puzzle. Students also respond in specific ways to stressful situations. Terry Kottman adapted Edith Dewey’s application of Adlerian psychology into what she called personality priorities that capture these ways of responding under pressure. To identify a personality priority in a student, you must pay attention to your reactions to the student’s behavior, what the student says, what the student wants, and what the student is trying to avoid. The four priorities are comfort, pleasing, control, and superiority. Control can be over self or over others. Superiority can be achieving one’s best or achieving to outdo others. As you might guess, pleasers rarely pose a problem to instructors. Those whose priority is comfort will tend to avoid decision making and need help becoming self-motivated.

Although instructors are not psychologists, a basic understanding of human behavior can go a long way toward improving classroom management. It can help instructors more effectively and compassionately respond to students. I’ve discovered that by paying careful attention to students’ behaviors in class, especially to subtle shifts that are a harbinger of reactions to come, I can forestall classroom disruptions and effectively manage the classroom without sacrificing the learning process.

If you’re interested in reading more of Kottman’s work, I suggest Partners in Play (2nd ed.), published in 2002 by the American Counseling Association. For more about the Love and Logic approach, I recommend Fay and Funk’s Teaching with Love and Logic, published in 1995 by the Love and Logic Press.

Contact Teresa Fisher at

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