Kids Act Out For Reasons We Don’t Often See

On the journey to improving school climate, schools and school districts must consider how decisions are made. If we look at school climate like an epidemiologist, decisions about student behavior and discipline are considered “determinants.” Determinants influence how we assign cause to behaviors. How we characterize and respond to student behavior affects how we discipline students.

Attribution theory is the study of how people assign or attribute cause to the behavior of others. Assigning cause to other people’s behavior is normal and common. Everyone does it. But, here’s the important point in relation to student discipline: Research in attribution theory shows that what we assign as the cause of behavior has a significant influence on our reactions to that behavior.

An example from everyday life is road rage. When another driver cuts in front of us, we become outraged, yelling, screaming, and maybe even shaking our fist. Why do we respond this way? Because we attribute the person’s driving to being caused by a disrespect for others and a total disregard for safety. Our attribution becomes as important as the behavior. Would we react the same way if we knew the other driver was racing home after just receiving word that his newborn baby was very sick?

As we continue to explore attribution theory, we encounter a concept that ensnares almost everyone. Called the Fundamental Attribution Error, it occurs when a person incorrectly attributes a cause to a behavior and then responds disproportionately or incorrectly as a result. In responding to the behaviors of others, most people are more severe in their reaction if they think the cause of the behavior was defiance or disrespect. Their reactions are less severe if they believe the behavior was caused by circumstances such as peer pressure or fear. What if we are wrong about what causes a certain behavior? That’s Fundamental Attribution Error, and it can have an impact on school climate and student success.

This pushes us to question if a student’s misbehavior is caused by circumstances rather than defiance. Is the fighting problem in my school occurring because my students don’t feel safe? Are they acting out because they can’t speak up? Some teachers and school administrators seldom consider possible situational factors—such as the elements of school climate—and how those factors may influence or even encourage student misbehavior. When we automatically attribute disruptive behaviors to disrespect and defiance, we are more likely to apply a harsher consequence than we would if we attributed the same behavior to external factors like peer influence—even though the behavior is the same.

Fundamental Attribution Error highlights the tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics, motives, perceived attitudes, or personality to explain a person’s behavior rather than considering situational or school climate factors. Fundamental Attribution Error can become the norm in a business, a school, a courtroom, or in any group of people, making change difficult and the current status acceptable.

Think of this in terms of consequences for student misbehavior. What does student data really show? How are schools really making decisions? It’s important to ask. It is a fairly common belief that students and/or the community determine a school’s climate, and that’s why many people think misbehavior occurs by chance or at random. Studies have shown, however, that the factors that most significantly influence a school’s climate are the personal interactions of the teachers and administrators in the school and how those interactions interface with students.

A positive school climate has been shown to influence many different behaviors and outcomes. The systematic study of school climate has led to a growing body of research that attests to its importance in a variety of overlapping ways, including social, emotional, and intellectual development; sense of safety and well-being; mental health, and healthy relationships. Fundamental beliefs about behavior must change, including the attribution of all student behavior to internal control and the acknowledgment of the possibility that external situations and conditions may influence student behavior.

We should include Attribution theory in our conversations and in the professional development and college training programs for teachers and administrators. By pointing out the concepts and consequences of attribution, teachers and administrators become better prepared to understand and recognize the determinants of behavior. Pointing out the effects of attribution makes people more aware of their reactions and why. That’s the power of changing perception.

— By Garry McGiboney, Deputy Superintendent, Georgia Department of Education

Note to readers: This is part two of a four-part series on school climate by Dr. McGiboney. Look for the rest of the columns soon. Go back and read part one here.