The #1 Strategy to Improving Disruptive Behavior at School

Eighty percent of our current clients (school and district leaders) desire to improve unprecedented, off-the-charts, disruptive student behavior. Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 25% of high school students reported worsening emotional and cognitive health and over 20% of parents with children ages 5-12 reported similar worsening conditions for their children ( We are swimming in uncharted waters, and the lasting impact on students, educators and communities is only a guess at this point.

In previous blogs I’ve discussed Who’s Doing the Talking? and now I will ask, “Who’s doing the listening?”

When behavior issues run rampant, what does it ACTUALLY mean? As educators, we want to have the answers immediately… jumping right into solution mode to fix the problem. Operating this way not only leaves the underlying issues linger, but it makes them worse.

So, what can we do?

LISTEN. Listen to the students who are chronically causing disruptions and get to the root cause of their behavior problems. SPOILER ALERT: It’s unlikely to be what you thought it was.

When I was a high school principal, there was one point where I was completely exhausted by the high number of referrals I was encountering daily. I was frustrated. I was burned out. We all needed a change. I brought all my chronic offenders into a meeting and asked, “What in the heck is going on?” I showed vulnerability by not having all the answers. That built trust and my students opened up. They felt judged by their teachers… that their profiles, life circumstances and challenges defined them. They didn’t feel worthy so acted unworthy. When I shared this feedback with the teachers it was a true eye-opener. And only then did things begin to change.

When we listen fully with an authentic desire to know what’s truly going on with our students, especially the ones who are a particular challenge, we are changing the narrative of education. The focus is less on the rules or “holding students accountable” because that’s the way it’s always been done, and more on a collaborative process where we are learning and growing together.

But wait… there’s more! Inspiring a shared approach, also known as shared leadership, helps stay solution focused. Of course, all educators (teachers, leaders, and support staff) need to understand the key actions essential for creating the necessary conditions for self-awareness to take place. That’s the only route to sustainable behavior change. Listening builds trust and trust leads to love. We must radiate love to the students who need it (and are begging for it) through their acute behaviors.

It’s more important now than ever to flip our mindsets and unbind ourselves from rules, policies and procedures that have failed underserved student populations for so long. We can do better. Start to listen and watch the culture change.  

Image Source: Ally Nathaniel.