Dear Beginning Teachers, Your Instincts Are Wrong

Michael Rousell, PhD
Aug 9 · 4 min read

Your students’ misbehavior will inevitably trigger an instinctive response that prompts you to act. Don’t. This initial instinct is almost always wrong. But it’s a great clue that signals what you should do instead.

While you’re giving instructions, Max gets out of his seat and walks across the room to sharpen his pencil. He’s butting up against the fourth-grade class rule: Stay In Your Seat Unless Given Permission to Get Up. It’s November and he’s seen others get censured for breaking this very same rule. It’s a deliberate act. Let’s call it misbehavior. Is he doing it to get attention, to show you who’s boss, or just to piss off the teacher? Choose one before you read on.

The behavior itself is not the indicator. The reaction to the misbehavior is the clue. And that’s the brilliance of famed psychologist and child development pioneer Rudolf Dreikurs.


Several decades ago, Dreikurs catalogued children’s goals of (mis)behavior into four categories: attention, power, revenge, and helplessness. He referred to behavior as misbehavior when its function (sharpening a pencil while the teacher is talking) was to meet an unmet psychological goal (attention, power, revenge, or helplessness).

These goals are progressive. If you don’t get your needs met for attention, you’ll progress to power, and if not met there, you’ll proceed to revenge. If you don’t get any of these met, you eventually give up and fall into the final phase, helplessness. This last stage is a precursor to depression. Helplessness is qualitatively different, so I’ll deal with it separately in another article.


Max might be sharpening his pencil just to get noticed — attention — and you’ll feel annoyed. He might be doing it to show you who’s really boss — power — and you’ll feel angry. Max might just want to hurt you — revenge — you’ll feel wounded. Your response is the indicator that tells you the goal.

Here’s where your instincts may lead you astray. If it’s for attention, you’ll feel annoyed, and your instincts tell you to say, “Max. You know the rules. Go back to your seat.” Don’t do it. You just gave him attention, inadvertently rewarding his misbehavior. If it’s to show power, you’ll feel angry, and your instinct is to push back or punish, “Max! You know the rules. You have detention after school.” Don’t do it. You’re now in a power struggle and it’s personal. If it’s for revenge, you’ll feel wounded, and your instinct is to sag and ask yourself woefully, “Why is he doing this to me?” Don’t do it. You just reinforced his misguided goal.

What to do instead? Here’s more brilliance from Dreikurs. Consider the opposite. If you feel annoyed with Max — attention — ignore him, then give him attention later when he’s doing appropriate behavior. “Hey Max. I see you’re working hard at your desk.” Give him attention when it’s positive. If you feel angry at Max — power — give him some power. It’s pretty hard to do it right in the moment. If he feels like he has personal power in general, he won’t feel a need to express it when it’ inappropriate. Choices empower students. Give him lot of choices (a good strategy for everyone): “How much time do you think you need to do this assignment? Would you like to go first or last? Do you want to do math or science during this work period?” If you feel wounded — revenge — it’s time to repair the relationship. Speak to Max after class, as a negotiating equal. Remember that he got to revenge because he didn’t feel he had any power. Find out why he wants to hurt you. Push away your need to defend yourself. Try to negotiate a truce. This conversation, treating him respectfully, with active listening, is often enough to deescalate the tension.

These productive interventions are counter-intuitive. But once you’ve solved this conundrum, you’ll begin to form a new response pattern that will evolve habitually. You now have a new productive instinctive response.

Managing a classroom is as much art as it is science. Many teachers describe it as their biggest challenge. A model for understanding behavior provides an indispensable guideline for responding. Yes, exceptions always exist, but it’s a conceptual framework from which to learn and understand. It’s not so much a prescription for responding as a call to reflect and be strategic with your reactions.


Trust your instincts, but don’t follow them blindly. They signal what you should avoid as much as how you should act. If all your students get their attention goals met through authentic encouragement, that goes a long way toward avoiding escalating misbehavior.

Note: Avoid empty praise — “Good job.” Use authentic encouragement: “Aha! Your pencil is sharpened and you’re ready to learn.”

Dreikurs, R. (1957). Psychology in the classroom; a manual for teachers. Oxford, England: Harper.

Dreikurs, R., Grunwald, B. B., & Pepper, F. C. (2013). Maintaining sanity in the classroom: Classroom management techniques. Taylor & Francis.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Michael Rousell, PhD

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Psychologist, associate professor, and author of Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives. Studies instant belief formation.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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