Identify the root cause

Behaviour Management

Identify the root cause

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Identify the root cause

Almost all behavioural issues that you will come across in schools are typical, common, low-level issues that are relatively easy to deal with. With these behaviours, the problem is not the behaviour itself, but the sheer volume of incidents, and in particular, when multiple issues occur at once. If every student in a class of 30 did something small every half hour (such as a brief chat to a friend) the teacher has a behavioural issue to contend with every 60 seconds or so. That mathematical reality doesn’t take into account the small number of chronic repeat offenders. Managing this aspect of a typical lesson is a monumental feat and a full-time job in itself; somehow the teacher has to deliver a lesson at the same time.

What is the teacher to do? First, research clearly shows that students prefer teachers and classrooms with clear boundaries and controls (Quinn, 2017). That is a start. We know that a combination of proactive and reactive strategies is considered best practice – the puzzle is coming together. However, something is missing. We need to understand the root cause of the behaviour because this has significant implications in terms of determining which strategy best fits and addresses the behaviour.

Research clearly shows that students prefer teachers and classrooms with clear boundaries and controls (Quinn, 2017).

Like a neat maths equation, many experts and programs advocate managing behaviour as if it were a neat formula: this behaviour = this technique, this problem = this strategy, this class = this system. It sounds perfectly reasonable and simple on paper – more than achievable. In the real world however, students are people, and people are complex – theories do not always work as they were intended. When dealing with people, and large numbers of them, we need more than a basic formula. We need to understand why students behave the ways that they do. This begs the question – why do students misbehave at all?

Teachers often refer to ‘the root cause’ of behaviour. The root cause is the underlying reason, motivation, choice, trigger, factor or instinct that drove the student to behave in a certain manner. Uncovering and understanding the root cause of a particular behaviour is the basis of many of the most respectable and popular modern behaviour management programs. In Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) a ‘functional assessment’ is carried out to figure out why the student does what the student does. An ABA assessment team is interested in what triggers the student’s behaviour (certain stressors for example), what the behaviour is trying to achieve (often it is an escape from something) and whether the current behaviour provides some form of reward (e.g. a student being allowed to leave class). These insights when combined with data (frequency, time of day, location, intensity, duration, existing strategies, failed strategies, and other known factors) give rise to bespoke approaches that address the root cause and not just the surface-level undesirable behaviour (i.e. what we see happening).

Defining misbehaviour by what we see only gives us part of the picture and is the number 1 behaviour management mistake that teachers make (Barbetta et al., 2005).

This approach is highly proactive by nature, and if you recall, we know that anything proactive is a good thing. In the case of ABA, teachers and other staff spend a lot of time assessing, planning, discussing, implementing and refining their approach. Students are explicitly taught prosocial skills including ways of managing various emotions (anger, stress and frustration). This is often achieved with social stories which are visually based cartoon scripts that demonstrate what to do in specific situations. Another common practice is to replace the existing ‘reward’ (such as a trip to the principal’s office) with a more acceptable reward that doesn’t require the student to display disruptive and undesirable behaviours to obtain it. The pattern of trigger – response – reward is engineered to achieve a more positive outcome without relying on any harsh disciplinary measures. The education team can then aim for ‘extinction’ (a term used to describe the eradication of an undesirable behaviour).

figure 1

Figure: How understanding the root cause of surface behaviour leads to an appropriate strategy response.

In the figure above, treating the surface behaviour without recognising the reason for the behaviour in the first place is unlikely to lead to permanent change – in fact, it reinforces the behaviour and the student learns to repeat it with growing frequency and intensity. This is because the root cause continues to exist, and over time the student becomes addicted to the reward. As we know with addictions, they need to be fed with ever-growing frequency. The student may temporarily reduce undesired behaviour due to the threat of punishment, but the underlying cause is ever-present and will eventually re-surface. Defining misbehaviour by what we see only gives us part of the picture and is the number 1 behaviour management mistake that teachers make (Barbetta et al., 2005).

Hint: A common root cause of behavioural issues that is often overlooked is the instructional strategies chosen by the teacher (Sullivan et al., 2014). While students ‘should’ behave, teachers who provide poorly designed activities and lessons, and who implement inappropriate or few teaching strategies, are in fact the root cause. Common and effective strategies such as explicit instruction, scaffolding, guided and shared learning, questioning techniques, pair and group work, class discussions and so forth are an essential part of almost every lesson and for all grades and abilities (Green, 2020). Another common problem is when teachers inadvertently feed undesirable behaviours – again, the addiction grows. Providing attention to attention-seekers is a case in point (Zirpoli, 2008).

Choosing a strategy that addresses the root cause will help improve long-term learning outcomes and behavioural issues. Depending on the severity of the problem, this is generally achieved with small incremental improvements. For example, if the root cause of a student’s behaviour is determined to be fear of failure (and therefore fear of embarrassment in front of their peers), the teacher might work closely with the student to achieve a series of small micro-goals each lesson. A few well-directed, relevant compliments may lead the student to question whether their fears are justified. Where possible, ignore any negative behaviour and comment on what the student did well instead. At the end of the lesson, show the student what they achieved by providing a quick summary of their progress.

This type of positive approach takes time because the student’s poor self-belief is likely the result of years of repeated failures and a long-entrenched pattern of task-avoidance behaviour. It is unlikely that you are responsible for initiating this pattern. You can, however, stop the student from sliding any further down this road and then begin to untangle the ‘knot’. Below are the main root causes that teachers need to be aware of:


These students may feel the need to seek out the attention of one or more adults or their peers. They may not be getting much attention at home and see their teachers as parental figures. They may really ‘like’ their teachers while at the same time find their current task to be irrelevant, boring, difficult or disengaging. Some students seek the attention of others to pass time, to avoid work, to distract them from the task at hand, or to boost their social standing. Teenagers especially have a heightened desire to feel accepted by their group and will often prioritise this need above all else.

Fear of failure (task-avoiders)

When a student is regularly off task, distracts others and talks a lot during class, in many cases it is due to fear of failure. This is caused by lack of self-esteem or self-belief. The student believes that they have no chance of successfully completing the task and therefore concludes that there is no reason to bother trying. Coupled with the social fear of being ousted as a failure in front of their peers, this student will do almost anything in order to be removed from class.

Hint:Self-esteem should not be confused with self-confidence and an extroverted personality. You may know a lot of confident people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a high level of self-esteem. Being extroverted, loud or the centre of attention has little correlation to self-esteem. Veteran teachers will tell you that students with the most self-doubt, anxiety and other mental health issues are sometimes deceivingly ‘happy’ and sociable.

Mental health

Mental health issues can have a dramatic effect on an individual’s behaviour. Some of the student mental health issues that you may come across as a teacher include:

  • chronic (long-term) stress
  • acute (sudden onset) stress (but often temporary)
  • depression (remember that people experience depression in different ways)
  • anxiety (panic attacks, excessive worry, hyperawareness)
  • trauma (such as from PTSD).

If you suspect a student may be experiencing the start of a mental health problem, record your observations and inform your manager. Do not ‘interview’ the student beyond asking the usual day-to-day questions (e.g. ‘how are you?’). Identifying and reporting noticeable changes in student behaviour is an important task for teachers, regardless of whether you think parents/managers will care.

The issue of privacy is a contentious one. It is not uncommon for a number of students in a given class to have mental health problems and for teachers to not be informed. Students and parents may want to keep the condition private for whatever reason. Sometimes principals are informed but don’t pass it on. When students have multiple teachers, as is the case in many high schools, teachers almost never learn of students’ medical or mental health issues unless the family or student asks the school to inform all relevant teachers. Often a teacher only learns of the issue when reporting worrying behavioural changes. In other words, teachers should not assume they are privy to all relevant facts.

Medical treatments and medicines

Medical treatments and medicines can cause ongoing or sudden changes in behaviour, the extent of which will depend on the particular treatment. Common side-effects to watch out for are listed below:

  • drowsiness and sleepiness
  • lack of concentration
  • reduction in fine motor skills (e.g. handwriting)
  • reduction in gross motor skills (e.g. throwing)
  • being unusually withdrawn – inhibition
  • being more ‘chatty’ than usual
  • being ‘high’ – a sense of euphoria
  • come-down effects such as moodiness (when drugs are wearing off)
  • pain and discomfort in affected areas
  • changes in personality and mood
  • slurred speech and slow reaction time in conversations
  • nausea (feeling sick, especially in the stomach)
  • headaches and migraines
  • skin issues such as rashes and dryness
  • tremors (the shakes).

Learning difficulties and disorders

Learning difficulties are usually defined as problems or issues with a core skill such as reading or writing, or learning in general. Learning difficulties are usually temporary (they can be ‘resolved’). Intervention programs may help students with learning difficulties.

Long-term learning difficulties may be caused by a disorder or disability. Disorders are neurological (of the brain or mind), long-term and usually diagnosed conditions that typically require additional support and specialist programs to help minimise their effects. Different disorders affect behaviour in different ways.

As you read about the disorders below, think about how teachers might act differently had they been told or realised that these students have a learning disorder.

  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)
    These students may not understand your instructions. They are easily distracted by distant sounds and find it hard to concentrate and process your instructions, especially when you talk at length. A teacher may think that an APD student ‘never listens’.

  • Dyscalculia
    These students may struggle to do a numeracy activity which, based on their intelligence, should be easy. Their teachers mistakenly believe that they are lazy, ‘off with the fairies’ or even defiant as they avoid starting certain activities.

  • Dysgraphia
    These students struggle to write neatly even after repeated reminders from their teachers, who believe they need to concentrate harder and ‘take more pride in their work’.

  • Dyslexia
    These students spell words incorrectly and avoid engaging in activities that involve words and sentences. Their teachers may think they ‘hate reading and writing’.

  • Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
    These students try but struggle to engage with others and don’t seem to fully understand what is happening around them. They have no academic issues per se. Their teachers may secretly think they should be tested for autism, ‘are a bit strange’ or ‘probably psychopaths’.

  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit
    These students have problems with basic physical tasks such as holding a pen and throwing a ball. Their hand-eye coordination is well below their peers which results in messy work and task avoidance in music and art. Their teachers may think they are really uncoordinated and need to play outside more instead of watching TV.

  • ADHD
    These students are always out of their seat and often follow their teachers around the room. While not aggressive, they are always in trouble for doing everything but the task at hand. Their teachers may think they are always ‘high on sugar’ and ‘just won’t leave me alone’.

Undiagnosed or multiple disorders

A large percentage of students have multiple (2 or more) disorders which makes life even more complicated for both them and their teachers. Disorders interact and exacerbate each other. In addition, many students have traits of a disorder, but fail to meet the required standard to be formally diagnosed. This is common with autism; many children do not meet the threshold in one or more categories, even though they score above the threshold in other categories.


A disability is a long-term, usually incurable condition that physically affects a person’s ability in some way. A disability also often results in some form of restriction which will affect a student’s behaviour in some way.

Environmental factors (contextual factors)

Environmental factors are influences that occur outside of the classroom and are therefore well outside of the control of teachers. Some are listed below:

  • poverty or lack of resources
  • homelessness (including lack of secure, permanent accommodation)
  • attendance at school (consistency, routine, isolation, insecurity)
  • substance abuse (alcoholism, drug abuse)
  • domestic violence
  • lack of parental care and support (from indifference or neglect to abuse)
  • death, medical or other issues affecting a loved one
  • disasters (floods, fire, storm etc.).

Each of these factors contribute to the way in which students behave. For example, consider children who are neglected at home. If they arrive at school worrying about where they will be sleeping that night or whether there will be food in their homes for dinner, then learning algebra seems like a distant priority.

Cultural factors and effects

Culture has a profound influence on the way people behave, such as their:

  • treatment of authority figures and subordinates
  • beliefs about what can and can’t be talked about
  • expectations of achievement and career paths
  • beliefs about gender roles
  • levels of openness and honesty (e.g. what is and isn’t private)
  • communication patterns such as disagreeableness (bluntness).

For example, in some Asian countries people avoid saying ‘no’ as an answer to a question or request. They much prefer to say ‘maybe’, even when the intended answer is clearly ‘no’. Other cultures see no issue in bluntly saying ‘no’. In Australian culture, it is more appropriate to water-down a ‘no’ response (such as by saying ‘sorry I unfortunately have to say no’ or ‘not now but maybe later’).

Power and revenge

As a root cause of behavioural issues, this type of behaviour is extremely rare. It generally only occurs in students who have been diagnosed with a disorder such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Most students who fall into this category complete their schooling in specialist programs with staff who are trained and versed in strategies and approaches specifically designed for this type of disorder. Most teachers will go their entire careers without meeting such a student. Even the known ‘troublemakers’ who have a disregard for school rules and teachers’ instructions are not attempting to dominate and control others – even if it seems to be the case!

When students are being defiant, they are not necessarily power-seeking. Usually they are simply disagreeing with their teachers, having a very bad day, protecting their image (particularly if challenged or embarrassed in front of their peers), or communicating their frustration, anger or anxiety; they may have an extreme aversion to a particular teacher or an unusually low level of self-esteem resulting in aggressive task-avoidance tactics. As stressful as these students can be from time to time, they are not seeking to control, manipulate or terrorise the teacher for the sake of it. They do not wake up in the morning and begin plotting how to make their teachers’ lives hell. In other words, they are not power-seekers.

Note that some existing and long-standing behaviour management programs treat power-seekers as if they were a common occurrence. This is not the case and in almost all instances, the root cause is years of poor self-esteem and an ingrained habit of some kind (such as learned task-avoidance).

A simple way determining whether a student is in fact a power-seeker is to observe or query whether the problem behaviour occurs across all situations (e.g. at home, with family, with friends during lunch, with other classes or teachers etc.). If the behaviour is not consistent in every situation, something else is the root cause.

Temporary effects

There are many temporary underlying causes of behavioural issues such as those listed below:

  • a lack of sleep and rest
  • a lack of exercise and recreation
  • a poor diet (e.g. sugar highs/lows, vitamin deficiency, changes in diet)
  • the common cold, flu, viruses (a poor immune system)
  • one-off incidents and ‘bad days’ (e.g. becoming excited due to a fight at lunch)
  • the time of day (behaviour is usually easier to manage early in the morning)
  • the desire to socialise (e.g. crushes, the need for acceptance)
  • bullying and feeling unsafe
  • hormonal and physical changes.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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