Behave! The neuropsychology of misbehavior and 8 tips on how to remedy it

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything

This quote, attributed to BF Skinner, although no one really knows if he uttered these exact words, is certainly bold. Rather optimistic too, I’d say. As a teacher who has dealt with thousands of students of different ages, I wish I could have this power. At least that’s my first thought. However, how much can we control what goes on in the classroom, particularly when it has to do with students’ behavior? What can neuroscience and psychology tell us about why we behave the way we do? That’s what I intend to explore ahead, focusing on some of the causes os misbehavior and what we might try to do in order to avoid or minimize this problem.

Neuroscience of behavior

We could say we have two systems that guide our decisions to do or not do things. The first system is what generally drives animals and is related to what Daniel Kahneman would classify as Thinking Fast. It is the ability that our brain has to make quick judgements based on automatized frameworks that we’ve acquired throughout evolution and reinforcement. It doesn’t require too much effort and it happens naturally. The second system is Thinking Slow. This one requires effortful thinking, analytical skills, pondering, and reasoning. It has to do with the “rational” part of our brains, particularly the Prefrontal Cortex.

Let’s say you have a cat. A new element that this cat had never seen before is introduced to the environment. What happens? The cat gets incredibly suspicious of this new element and may avoid it, hide from it, or get curious about it, however, in a catious way. The cat doesn’t have to think much about it. It’s an instinct that has been “hard-wired” in the cat’s brain. This is the dominant system of animals because they haven’t developed a sophisticated cortex, the outermost part of the brain, particularly the frontal areas, as we have. There’s something interesting, though: both cats and humans are creatures of habit. Very similar mechanisms are at play when we do something out of pure habit. It’s like an instinct.

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The Human Brain showing the STRIATUM in red

Whatever we do that doesn’t require much thought is directly connected with the subcortical structure known as the striatum. It is related to habit formation, goal seeking, and reward in the brain. So, to put it simply, whenever we learn something new, let’s say a new behavior, we can see a lot of activation in the conscious areas of our brain, the frontal lobes where the working memory systems are. That means our brain is making effort to learn that new skill, which is good and expected. The more we repeat that new behavior, the less activation we’ll see in the frontal region of the brain and the more activation we’ll see in the parietal lobe, the area of the brain that is directly below the top of our heads. That means that behavior is being automatized or, in other words, becoming a habit. And guess what? The striatum mediates that process.

That’s why doing something habitual does not require conscious effort. When you first learned how to drive a car you had to pay attention to every little detail and consciously think of every step. Adjust the seat and the mirrors, put on the seat belt, insert the key, check the gear, start the car, step on the clutch, change to first gear, release the handbrake, step gently on the gas and release the clutch softly, steer the wheel, etc. It’s a monumental task that requires a lot of conscious effort and attention. Once it’s automatized, you can drive and brush your teeth at the same time, check your GPS, and even text (don’t do it, though).

What does that have to do with misbehaving?

Well, maybe not much depending on how often the student does it. Let’s say you have a kid, teen, or even adult who rarely misbehaves in class, but, to your surprise, they do it once or twice. Chances are they were disengaged in the lesson and had to act it out. There could’ve been a number of reasons. When I asked WHY DO STUDENTS MISBEHAVE IN CLASS? on my social media, I got many replies and most of them focused on lack of interest and boredom, bad parenting, problems at home, seeking attention, and lack of respect or rapport towards the teacher. These things are bound to happen in many lessons and the individual perceptions of each student are quite different.

What about those who always, or at least almost always, misbehave? Now this has a lot to do with habit formation. You know who I’m talking about. That one student who has a lot of trouble staying on task. The one you have a hard time managing and that has made you consider giving up your profession. This student might need special attention because of ADHD, autism, and/or dyslexia. But these conditions need a proper diagnosis and I won’t discuss them now. I’m referring to students who are neurotypical and yet cannot manage their behavior.

What can I tell you from a neuroscientific perspective? This behavior, or lack thereof, might have become a habit and they might not even know they’re doing it. It’s embedded in their brains. From a psychological perspective, the reinforcement of certain behaviors through repetition and reward may cause them to stick and make it difficult to remedy. As a matter of fact, going back to Skinner and behaviorism, learning can only be assessed by observing behavior after a stimulus is given to the subject.

In short, students without Special Educational Needs (SEN) who fail to keep on task systematically in most lessons may be doing so because misbehavior has become a habit.

What can we do then?

We can help them develop what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence. If they work on their self-regulation skills, with our incentive, we might be able to make them better control their behaviors. You can read more about this here.

How exactly can we do that?

Ever heard of Charles Duhigg and his book The Power of Habit? In it, Charles describes a well-known mechanism in psychology that relates to habit formation. It’s a loop that starts with a trigger (the CUE), which leads us to the ROUTINE, or the habit itself, because that gives us a REWARD sensation. In other words, whenever the cat sees a strange object (CUE) this activates the suspicious/cautious behavior (ROUTINE) and ultimately leads to the REWARD (staying alive and clear of danger).

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The Habit Loop

What about your misbehaved student? One possible way to see it would be like this: The CUE is boredom, which leads to misbehavior, and buys the student a few minutes off the lesson because you stop what you’re doing to bring the student back to the task. Or maybe misbehaving gets the student a little bit of fun with his/her peers.

As the respondents of my poll kindly shared, there can be many factors that contribute to triggering misbehavior. It could actually be related to learning difficulties, lack of role models, impulsiveness, and all the other things they mentioned. What can we do then? I’ll share some strategies below:

  • 1 – Use brain breaks. Negotiate with the students some time off task in every lesson so that they can do whatever they want or do something more fun and engaging. When they know that there will be a brain break in every lesson, they’re better able to manage their behavior and it becomes a habit. I can’t tell you how much better my lessons were after I implemented the brain break practice. Give it a try. Read more about it here.
  • 2. Breaking a habit normally means identifying the CUE and replacing the BEHAVIOR with something more useful. Whenever you feel that one student is about to misbehave, you can make him/her in charge of something a little more engaging, like writing on the board, sharing something, checking if the other student are on their task, etc. I realize that we often have more than one chronic misbehaved student and that it can be hard to offer them differentiated activities, but you’ll have to come with ideas to address this difficulty. Read about differentiation here.
  • 3. Students who misbehave chronically might be suffering from the inability to pay attention. Mindful meditation might be an allied in this case. You can set up a few minutes each class to ask all your student to sit comfortably on the ground and guide them through a fairly easy breathing technique that you can basically copy from an app called Headspace. Again, the idea is to make this a habit.
  • 4. Reflection can also become a habit. We often do what we do because we’re on autopilot. When we’re forced to reflect, that is, access the Thinking Slow system, we might be able to change the value we give to certain behaviors and start the real changing process. Reflection might be hard, but we can help our students do it. Have you ever tried asking that student who misbehaves in a non-threatening way why he/she does that? Don’t settle for silly or superficial answers. Ask the student to think about it and use the Socratic method to ask more and more questions to try to get to the bottom of the problem and help them realize their behavior is not benefitting anyone.
  • 5. Instead of focusing on the CUE, you can focus on the REWARD. Praising and honesty can be quite rewarding if you use it strategically to let students know what type of behavior you expect of them. Setting the bar high when it comes to expectations and acknowledging when they were able to meet these expectations might be enough to break the bad habit cycle. Read more about REWARD here.
  • 6. Incorporate movement and choice in your lessons. When dealing with kids and teens, we should be aware that misbehavior might be the need to act out because of the lack of movement. Many of our students had been sitting for hours before our lessons and can take it anymore. Allow them to stretch or stand sometimes.
  • 7. Be patient. Breaking a bad habit or developing a new one unfortunately takes time. There are some estimates in the literature (between 21 and 90 days, 28 days, 10,000 hours, etc), but I fail to see how these deterministic recommendations can fit in every scenario. What I believe in is that it is hard to change a habit and it requires a lot of willpower and reinforcement. Be the one who provides the reinforcement your students need. Encourage them to stay on track. Read something related here.
  • 8. Keep your promises and hold your students accountable. If you promise to reward your students for their behavior (or even punish them), do as you said. They need to understand the value of accountability. Also, make sure you remind them when they did not keep their promise to you. It helps a lot when they have respect for you as their teacher and when they admire you. That’s why it’s worth putting some time into developing rapport with them. Read about the importance of emotions here.


The truth is: even if you try all the things on my list (you may have tried them already), it might not work perfectly. It might be the case that your student really hates your subject, going to school, even you. It might be more serious and out of your hands. You might need to involve their families. Read about it here. It might be something at the heart of our educational system. However, the good news is that habits can be unlearned and replaced. Give the strategies above a try and let me know if you have others that have worked well for you.

Again, I’m not as optimistic as Skinner might have been about conditioning people, but I also know that students who are misbehaving chronically can actually become the professionals who break some of our paradigms in the future. I know now that I don’t want to shape my students into what I’d like them to become. Rather, I’d like to help them shape themselves into what they’d like to become and hopefully into what will bring them the most joy in their lives. When we realize that sometimes their disruptiveness is a rebellion against something we cannot control rather than against us personally, we might give them the room they so desperately need to grow into freer human beings who are accountable for their actions.

You can also check out Christopher Walker’s video about this topic here.

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4 thoughts on “Behave! The neuropsychology of misbehavior and 8 tips on how to remedy it”

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