Penny Van Bergen

Five qualities of teachers who form close relationships with disruptive students

It is now well known to teachers and researchers alike that student-teacher relationships are powerfully predictive of social, behavioural, and academic success. Students who have positive relationships with their teachers are much more likely to enjoy school, to engage in academic work, and to be well behaved. Positive relationships with teachers can also protect students from peer rejection and from the effects of a negative child-parent relationship.

The unfortunate truth, however, is teachers often find some students harder to like than others.

Image adapted from a drawing provided by a disruptive boy in Year One. Source: McGrath, Van Bergen, & Sweller, 2017.

Let’s face it, some students drive teachers mad! Disruptive students can test even the best teachers’ classroom management skills, and can make those teachers feel far less effective than they actually are. They give teachers headaches, require constant discipline, and have an incredible talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consequently, disruptive students are at risk of negative relationships with teachers – typically characterised in research as being relationships low in closeness and high in conflict.

For decades one thing has evaded researchers investigating student-teacher relationships: how do we support teachers to form close and supportive relationships with disruptive students? Despite challenging behaviour, and contrary to more general trends, some teachers and some disruptive students do report close relationships with one another. In our recent research, we wanted to know why. In doing so, we uncovered five qualities of teachers who were able to form close relationships with disruptive students.

1. Being reflective and forgiving

The teachers in our sample who formed close relationships with disruptive students spontaneously reflected on the causes of students’ disruptive behaviour. Hyperactivity, poor self-regulation, poor eyesight, speech difficulties, poor parenting practices to do with diet and sleep, and large class sizes were each provided as reasons for misbehaviour. Because those teachers often attributed the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour to things students had little control over, their reflections suggested that they were also more forgiving of those students.

Image adapted from a drawing provided by a disruptive boy in Kindergarten. Source: McGrath, Van Bergen, & Sweller, 2017.

Being reflective and forgiving are important skills for all teachers. Often, however, teachers need to react quickly to disruptive behaviour as it occurs. The frustration that follows these incidents, along with other pressures, such as high workloads, may distract teachers from thinking about why some students are so difficult. Although there is no easy answers, reflection time appears important not just for pedagogical planning but for relationship-building too.

2. Emotional perspective taking

While reflecting on misbehaviour, teachers who had close relationships with disruptive students also indicated a tendency to use emotional perspective taking. They put themselves into their students’ shoes to consider what their students were feeling and used that information to guide their responses to misbehaviour. They also were less likely to consider all disruptions intentional. For example, they spoke of students who were “unintentionally naughty”, who they had “a bit of a soft spot for”, who were “really genuinely sorry” when in trouble, and who were “loveable” despite having behaviour that was “maddening”.  

As a result of this perspective-taking, the teachers who had close relationships with disruptive students suggested that speaking calmly to disruptive students was a more effective strategy than yelling at them in front of other students. This way students may be more likely to feel heard and understood, and less likely to feel angry, ashamed, or humiliated.

3. Emotional regulation

To calmly speak to disruptive students, especially if they’re behaving in unsafe ways, is far from easy. It is perhaps not surprising that the teachers in our sample who formed close relationships with disruptive students also tended to show superior emotional regulation themselves.

For the teachers in our sample, such emotional regulation sometimes meant hiding their true feelings, and at other times it meant reducing the intensity of their emotional displays. Such emotional regulation can be exhausting, however, placing teachers who work with disruptive students at risk of burnout. For teachers to manage these challenging situations effectively, it is critical that emotional support is offered to both teacher and student.

4. Empathy

A common theme raised by teachers who experienced close relationships with disruptive students was that of students’ home lives and of the difficulties students had to endure outside of the school gates. These responses typically combined being reflective, using emotional perspective taking, and regulating their own emotions, and enabled teachers to express empathy and share the feelings of their students. This was particularly true for teachers who described being able to relate to a disruptive student either because they themselves had a difficult upbringing, or because they were a parent.

5. Making referrals

In addition to being reflective and applying their own emotional skills, the teachers in our study who experienced close relationships with disruptive students also discussed referring their students to other experts in order to better understand and support those students.

These other experts included school counsellors, optometrists, occupational therapists, and otolaryngologists. The teachers who discussed making such referrals also had more years of teaching experience, so were perhaps also more knowledgeable about potential impairments and difficulties. Importantly, this problem-solving approach framed the disruptive behaviour encountered in the classroom as both separate from the student, and fixable.

It is not a ‘secret recipe’

It is possible for disruptive students to benefit from close, supportive relationships with teachers, and we now have insights as to why. Close relationships appear particularly likely to form when teachers are reflective, use perspective taking, regulate their own emotions effectively, show empathy, and make referrals to other experts.

Of course, the qualities described above may not be a complete recipe for building close relationships with disruptive students. There are other qualities that may support relational closeness too. In addition, these qualities may not be a secret recipe. Such qualities come naturally to some teachers, who already use them successfully in the classroom. For other teachers, however, we recommend that these five qualities be considered in teacher education training and professional development. For teachers who are willing to invest in close relationships with disruptive students, the benefits for both teacher and student are tremendous.

Here is our full paper Attributions and emotional competence: why some teachers experience close relationships with disruptive students (and others don’t)

Kevin F. McGrath is a Tertiary Supervisor and associate member of the Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World at Macquarie University, and a Research and Evaluation Officer for the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors. After working as a primary school teacher in Sydney, he completed a PhD in Education in 2016 at Macquarie University, where he received an Excellence in Higher Degree Research award and Vice Chancellor’s Commendation. His research interests include gender and education, disruptive student behaviour, and the student-teacher relationship.

Penny Van Bergen is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. She is Director of the Faculty of Human Sciences’ Centre for Children’s Learning in a Social World. Penny’s research focuses on children’s development of memory and emotion skills in social contexts. She studies how parents and families reminisce with children about the past, how children use emotion and perspective-taking skills when working with others, and how group-work in schools and universities may facilitate learning. Penny is particularly interested in children’s relationships with teachers, parents, and peers, and in mapping the kinds of social interactions that best facilitate learning and development. Her work has been featured in several media outlets (e.g. The Conversation, The Sun Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunrise, and the US-based “Parents” magazine).

The hit and miss of dealing with disruptive behaviour in schools

Disruptive student behaviour is a major source of stress for Australian teachers and one of the most common reasons teachers cite for leaving the profession. Less discussed, however, is the role that schools play in driving misbehaviour. Whilst there are undoubtedly differences between children in terms of their temperament, ability and willingness to learn, the ways in which teachers choose to respond to those differences has a big impact. That impact can be positive or negative, affecting the child, their teacher and their future teachers.

Negative relationships and the ‘snowball effect’

Research has shown severely disruptive behaviour is affected by a process of “cumulative continuity”, where children’s early characteristics (self-regulation, temperament, academic and verbal ability) interact with their school/classroom environment, resulting in a “snowball effect”. Difficulties adjusting to the demands of school can result in poorer quality teacher-child interactions and mutually reinforcing negative relationships, which in turn compound learning and behavioural difficulties.

Over time, these interactions frame children’s perceptions, expectations and behaviours. Their subsequent teachers however often don’t know what that child’s school experience has been and/or what might be driving their classroom behaviour.

In the pressure cooker that is modern education, that teacher’s guide to action is often the behaviour that has drawn their attention in the first place. With large classes, heavy workloads and diverse classrooms, there is often little time to identify and reflect on deeper causes (called antecedents) in a more holistic way. In many cases, lack of time forces teachers to rely on their perceptions, which may or may not be accurate.

Perceptions about behaviour may be misleading

A common perception is that children’s behaviour affects their learning. This may well be true for some children, but it is equally possible that underlying learning difficulties are manifesting behaviourally. A belief that a child’s behaviour is affecting their learning will lead to an increased focus on behaviour management or perhaps a referral for behaviour support. But if the antecedent is the other way around, or if it is bidirectional (that is, going both ways), then behaviour management won’t address the underlying problem.

Common perceptions about misbehaviour affect how it is addressed in schools. Poor parenting is often blamed for a student’s disruption and non-compliance, a view which obscures factors that are outside parent control. These include (but are not limited to) the appropriateness of curriculum, the pace and level of instruction, peer relationships, teacher-student interactions, classroom climates, learning environments, school culture, and the provision of appropriate and timely supports.

A common consequence of these beliefs is an attempt to manage children’s behaviour by removing them from the classroom. Increasingly, this involves the child being moved into a separate support class or special “behaviour” school, rather than addressing the underlying issues within the setting.

What the kids have to say

According to students enrolled in NSW behaviour schools, their misbehaviour is a reaction to school work that they perceive as too hard, boring and/or irrelevant to their lives. These students – typically boys – are described in the media as  ‘dangerous menaces ‘ who need to be locked up for the safety of themselves and others.

But, when asked what they got in trouble for most at school, the teenage boys in our research named behaviours often classified as ‘persistent disobedience’ rather than physical aggression, such as talking out of turn, backchatting, not doing their work, not raising their hands, and swearing.

These findings resonate with the Behaviour at School Study (BASS) which has found that low-level disruptive and disengaged student behaviours occur frequently, and that aggressive behaviours occur infrequently.

The problem is that teachers find these low-level behaviours extremely draining. While most school students engage in such behaviours at some point, some students – like those in our research – do so more frequently. This tends not to be deliberate, not in the early years at least.

But, if these children are left unsupported and then punished when they fail, these behaviours can become very deliberate indeed. The trick is to correctly identify the source of the behaviour and to respond in a way that neutralises the antecedent, rather than seeking only to neutralise the behaviour. So, what is one of the most common causes of disruptive behaviour?

Misbehaviour as compensation for academic success

The boys in our research reported much greater academic difficulties than their age peers and would resort to misbehaviour to compensate or conceal these difficulties. For example, many said they would “walk out of class” or not turn up in the first place because they found the work too boring or too hard. In some cases, frustration with schoolwork would precipitate swearing, followed by an altercation with the teacher and the student leaving the room or refusing to do their work. Twelve-year-old Owen, for example, explained that he mainly got in trouble for swearing but then went on to explain when and why he swore:

I just didn’t want to do my work, so I swore: “F–K this! I’m leaving the classroom.”

Stories such as these seldom receive an empathetic response in the public comments that are made about school behaviour. This is because the challenges facing these students are typically oversimplified and often misunderstood.

It is important to note here that the students in this study had a history of severe language and learning difficulties that had remained unaddressed for much of their school lives. For example, there were three brothers in our study; one 14 year old and 11 year old twins. Their receptive vocabulary was equivalent to that of children aged 10, 8 and 7 years respectively. They scored even lower in expressive vocabulary with age equivalent scores of 8, 7 and 7 years. Imagine trying to engage with the Year 9 or Year 6 academic school curriculum under those circumstances?

The boys’ mother – who was actively engaged in trying to help her sons and who had a good relationship with their school – reported that they had not received any speech/language therapy or other targeted academic support since Reading Recovery in Grade 1. The resourcing simply isn’t available.

Many of the boys in our study faced similar challenges and reported feeling immense frustration because they felt they were being forced to do work that they couldn’t do. One boy reported that he was sent to the behaviour school in Year 6 when his primary school finally figured out that he couldn’t read and that he wasn’t just going to “get used to it”. Another stated that he was hoping that he could be a truck driver when he left the behaviour school because he could now read street signs. He was 15.

Many of these boys felt misunderstood by their teachers. Rightly or wrongly, these students felt that their teachers just didn’t like them. Most could recall at least one teacher who was kind, who they felt understood them and who could help them learn, but for these boys those teachers were an exception.

The good news is that the cracks in the system through which these students have fallen can be addressed. But, to achieve this, teachers need time and support to trial new strategies, modify curriculum and adjust their practice. And it’s not all about behaviour management.

Relationships & quality teaching

In another study that has been designed to longitudinally observe factors contributing to “cumulative continuity” in a sample of 250 Queensland prep year children, we found that teachers are generally well organised and have strong behaviour management skills. We also found that they are generally emotionally supportive. However, not all were equipped in the area of instructional support.

This is important, because classrooms that were lower in instructional support were also associated with higher teacher-ratings of child behaviour problems and with higher child-ratings of school avoidance. Alternatively, classrooms with high emotional support were associated with closer teacher-child relationships (as rated by both teachers and children) and lower teacher-student conflict. Interestingly, behaviour management did not predict student outcomes in any of our models.

These findings suggest that the common “go-to” response of more and better behaviour management may not be what is needed: perhaps because the majority of teachers are already quite competent in this area. Rather than more professional development on proximity techniques, seating plans, or gimmicks like Class Dojo (an electronic equivalent of reward charts), we need to start looking at ways to address the emotional and learning needs of students who are acting out.

Only techniques which address the underlying issues that are causing behaviour problems will be successful.

Band-aid solutions which attempt to remove children or “fix” only the symptoms will simply create a generation of disengaged students who will leave school early with few of the skills they need in a modern economy.

These children aren’t hard to spot, even when they are very young. But, for some reason, they seem very easy to miss.


Linda GrahamLinda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.

Cologon copyKathy Cologon is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood, Macquarie University. Her research focuses on the development of effective approaches to supporting inclusive education and social inclusion with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children. Kathy’s book “Inclusive education in the early years: Right from the start” was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.



Sweller copyNaomi Sweller is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Macquarie University. Her research interests focus on cognitive development, primarily with children in the prior to school and early primary school years. Her main areas of research involve the use of gesture as an instructional and communicative tool, as well as concept learning by preschool-aged children.



Van Bergen copyPenny Van Bergen is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology in the School of Education, Macquarie University. Her research focuses on the development of children’s autobiographical memories and on the implications of these memories for emotion and self development. Her projects include examinations of: (i) school children’s recall of salient emotional events, such as schoolyard conflicts; (ii) the ways in which children’s socio-emotional skills, such as emotion understanding and perspective-taking ability, interact with memory systems; and (iii) the ways in which parent- and teacher-talk foster specific styles of remembering the past.


Walker copySue Walker is a Professor in the School of Early Childhood, Faculty of Education, QUT and a Researcher within the Children and Youth Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology. Dr Walker is also a senior researcher with the Excellence in Research in Early Years Education Collaborative Research Network (EREYE CRN) with Charles Sturt University and Monash University and a key researcher in the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Her teaching and research interests include epistemic beliefs and teachers’ practice; early childhood social development; child outcomes in relation to inclusive early childhood education programs; early intervention and the transition to school.


2015 National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour.

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