School Behavior

The No-Punishment Guide to Stemming Misbehavior in the Classroom

From blurting out answers to bouncing off the walls, students with ADHD may display challenging behavior. The most effective teacher strategy, though, isn’t punishment—it’s relationship-building. Get started with these five strategies.

When students act out or fail to turn in the required schoolwork, many teachers instinctively punish them. However, punishment is seldom effective in changing behaviors long-term. Enduring success comes when teachers work to identify the underlying causes of poor student behavior, which commonly include undiagnosed learning disabilities, ADHD, or deficits in executive function — and when they work to build strong relationships with each student.

Here are some proven strategies for teachers to develop strong bonds with students:

  1. Meet students at the classroom door and greet each by name every day.
  2. Talk to students who are struggling. Learn more about them, their families, and their talents.
  3. Remember to praise a student when they make even small changes towards improving misbehavior, such as remembering to raise their hand or pausing before blurting out an answer.
  4. Behavioral issues may be mitigated by proper ADHD treatment, so consider asking parents to discuss behavioral and academic concerns with their child’s physician. Screening for anxiety and depression also may be warranted. Researchers report that, if medication doses are too low, students with ADHD have trouble paying attention and reaching peak academic performance. A medication adjustment may be needed.

Do This, Not That

Challenge #1. A student blurts out in class.

Don’t do this: Withhold recess. Research has shown that punishing a child by denying their participation in something appealing (and physically exhausting) is counterproductive. Students with ADHD need to be active to release excess energy and refresh their brains.

Do this: Talk privately with the student: “I’m so proud that you almost always know the answer to my questions. But I want to give everyone in class a chance to answer. You can help me by always raising your hand and waiting until I call on you. If you’re worried that you’re going to forget the answer, write it down.”

  • Take a picture of the student sitting at their desk with their hand raised. Tape the picture on their desk as a visual reminder to wait for the teacher to call on them.
  • Place a small three-color tri-fold flip chart on the student’s desk that they can use to signal you silently. The green card means “I am working fine!” The yellow card means “I need help, but I can keep working.” The red card means “I need help and I can’t keep working.” Respond immediately to the red card.

[Read: School Punishments That Don’t Work – Taking Away Recess]

Challenge #2. A student talks continuously and doesn’t complete classwork.

Don’t do this: Speak sarcastically to them in front of classmates or isolate them by having them stand in the hall or sit far away from peers.

Do this: Talk privately with the student. Review the class rules. Remind them that they need to do their classwork and talk less.

  • Send the student an agreed-upon signal as a reminder to stop talking (for example, by tapping your ear).
  • While lecturing, walk toward and stand near the student. Most chatterboxes will stop talking upon the teacher’s approach.
  • Set up a point system with “OOPS! Cards,” which are neutral (rather than negative) reminders of desired behavior—e.g., to stop talking or to raise your hand. Here’s how it works: The student starts the day with 5 OOPS! Cards and must give one back when they forget to do a desired behavior. The reward for keeping a set number of cards each week might be reading to younger students or allowing them to read morning announcements. Examples of OOPS! Card statements: “Mistakes are the stepping stones to learning,” or “Sorry, I forgot.”

[Read: Positive Reinforcement, Behavior & ADHD – The Science of Reward and Punishment]

Challenge #3. A student doesn’t stay seated during classroom instruction.

Don’t do this: Tell them to sit down and be still. Students with ADHD often learn better while moving their bodies.

Do this: Place the student’s desk at the end of a row so they can fidget or move around without disturbing classmates.

  • Build movement activities into the schedule. For example, assign “brain breaks,” when students may stand and stretch their bodies, do jumping jacks, or march around the room to music.
  • Assign a fidgety student two seats; one could be a standup desk. So, after language arts, the student moves to their second desk to work on a math assignment.

Challenge #4. A student is argumentative with a teacher.

Don’t do this: Send the student to the principal’s office or yell at them in front of classmates. By continually criticizing a student in front of others, the teacher may unintentionally set up that student for bullying behaviors among their classmates.

Do this: If irritability is unusual for this student, talk with them privately and ask questions, such as, “This is unlike you. What’s wrong?” If the oppositional behavior occurs frequently, talk with the guidance counselor, and review the student’s school records and testing. Undiagnosed learning problems may be contributing to defiance in the classroom.

Challenge #5. A child frequently falls asleep in class. Their work is incomplete, and their grades drop.

Don’t do this: Send the student to the principal’s office.

Do this: Talk with the student privately. Ask why they are sleeping in class and not completing classwork.

  • Refer the student to talk with the guidance counselor to determine the cause of this behavior.
  • Try the “2 x 10 strategy.” For 10 consecutive days, take two minutes each morning to talk with the student about their family, their weekend, or their special interests. A teacher may discover that the student is working two jobs to help support their family, leading to exhaustion and poor grades.
  • Suggest to the family that the student be checked for obstructive breathing disorder or some other condition that could interfere with restful sleep.

Teacher Strategies for Misbehavior: Next Steps

Chris Dendy is a former educator and school psychologist. She is the author of Teenagers with ADD and ADHD: A Guide for Parents and Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD, and Executive Function Deficits.

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