How do I teach students to ignore a misbehaving classmate?


I have a 3rd grade student who is demonstrating increasingly 
disruptive behaviors. I have all kinds 
of support with him – my principal, school counselor, 
behavioral specialist – we’re all involved, every day. This boy can work elsewhere when he can’t manage in the classroom. My question is this: How do I 
teach the other students that it’s better for them to 
ignore this student’s behavior than to be an audience or worse yet, play along? I need some “choice 
words” to really explain it and underscore the importance of this.

They did a great job today and I complimented 
them on doing so after the student had been removed from the room. A couple of them asked me individually why that student wasn’t with us and I told them that when behaviors interrupt everyone’s learning time, it can’t be permitted to go on and that the student was with the principal. Any advice/good words to use?


For situations like this, I find a discussion centered around the understandings 
of Marvin Marshall’s Discipline Without Stress HIERARCHY to be invaluable. Even 
though you may not be familiar with Marshall’s approach, I think I could explain 
the basics of it enough for you to be able to use it in your current situation. You wanted some “choice” words to use. One of 
the principles that forms the basis of this approach is helping kids understand that all personal behavior is a choice.

In a nutshell, Marshall’s approach fosters SELF-discipline. This is exactly what I 
imagine you are hoping your students will develop with respect to managing 
their own behavior when faced with a classmate who is 
displaying very little self-discipline.

Marshall’s Hierarchy has four levels of personal/social development: 
Levels A, B, C, D.

Levels A (Anarchy) and B (Bossing/Bullying) describe unacceptable behavior in 
any situation.

Just as an example, 
currently your disruptive student is often choosing to operate (either consciously or non-consciously,) at these lower levels of A 
and B. In other words, he is not in control of himself and relies 
on an adult to take control of his behavior most of the time. Just as you 
explained to students in your class, whenever a person can’t manage their 
own behavior in an acceptable manner, then the adult has to take over and 
manage their behavior for them. In your case, the adults in the school have sometimes 
found it necessary to remove this child from the room in order to preserve the 
learning environment for all the other students. It’s only fair that the other 
students have the opportunity to learn in an orderly, safe classroom.

Here’s an important point from Marshall’s program for students to 

All behavior is a personal CHOICE. If any of them were to follow along and 
misbehave–by copying a disruptive student or even by just giving encouragement as an appreciative audience–they too would be CHOOSING to 
operate at a lower level than acceptable.

In discussing the situation, you would also talk about the other two levels, C 
(Cooperation) and D (Democracy), which describe HIGHER levels of 
personal and social development. Level C is acceptable. But then there is Level 
D, which describes something even higher than acceptable. You might think of 
it as exceptional, although Marshall doesn’t use that exact description in his program.

DwStress teachers use the Hierarchy to help students understand self-discipline. The key to the approach is to explain ALL the levels to students but focus 
especially on some important understandings related to the highest two levels, 
C and D.

The difference between Level C and D (that is, between acceptable and 
exceptional behavior), can be explained in terms of motivation:

At Level C, a student is motivated EXTERNALLY to behave themselves by 
cooperating, and by willingly conforming to the expectations of the adult—AS 
LONG AS THE ADULT IS PRESENT. In your situation, this would describe 
students who can manage themselves appropriately in the classroom (even 
though one child is being incredibly disruptive in front of them,) whenever they 
notice the teacher is nearby or directly looking their way.

This level is higher than Level B because (at least when the teacher is present 
and is watching,) the child operating at Level C is self-disciplined enough to do 
the right thing. Their motivation is external however. They are motivated to do the right 
thing, perhaps to please their teacher or because they realize that to do 
anything disruptive would only lead to getting into trouble themselves.

Level C is the expected level of behaviour in the classroom in Marshall’s system 
of discipline. It is the level of obedience. In all other discipline systems 
that I’ve seen, this level is considered the highest level of behavior, but not so 
in Marshall’s approach. Having a higher-than-acceptable level is what makes 
Discipline Without Stress unique.


Level D is the level of taking responsibility for yourself. It is the level of SELF-
discipline. It is the level of doing the right thing simply because it is the right 
thing to do. In other words, students operating at Level D think for themselves. 
They consciously make CHOICES for themselves with the understanding that all 
behavior is a personal choice.

You might think of Level D as the level of following your own conscience. When 
operating from this highest level, a student does the right thing regardless of 
whether or not an adult is present. In your situation, this describes a student who 
notices that a fellow student has chosen to behave in inappropriate ways and yet 
is not influenced to follow along–whether the teacher is watching or not.

They decide for themselves that following along or giving encouragement to the 
disruptive student would only mean that their own behaviour was no better off 
than that of the disruptive student–they would no longer be in control of 

When you complimented your class on being able to manage themselves when 
one student was losing control, you were actually acknowledging that they were 
either on Level C or D of Marshall’s Hierarchy. The interesting thing is that Level 
C and D behaviour usually looks identical to anyone watching. The only 
difference between these two levels is in WHY the person is MOTIVATED to act 

Some of your students would have been on Level C—they were motivated to act 
appropriately because your presence motivated them 
(externally) to behave themselves. This is acceptable but it’s not the highest 
level of behaviour.

Some would likely have been operating on the higher level, Level D. They simply 
knew inside themselves that to follow or encourage the disruptive student would 
be inappropriate. In other words they were INTERNALLY motivated.They 
wouldn’t have followed along with or acted inappropriately–even if they 
were all alone in the room with him.

Here’s the conversation I have had with 
previous classes in similar situations.

Just as you did, when it came up, I would be quite candid in discussing that ____ is sometimes working elsewhere in the school. Just as you did, I would 
explain that his behavior is out of control at the moment and that he is 
showing little self-discipline. I would ask someone in the class to identify the 
Hierarchy level of this type of disruptive behavior. Any child in the class would 
be able to correctly identify it as either Level A or B. Then I would ask them to 
tell me what happens when someone chooses to operate at an unacceptable 
level–to the point where it interferes with other people’s learning. Someone 
would say that when a student continually operates at Level B, a teacher has to 
take over. A teacher has to be the boss and tell the person what to do.

I would agree and say that yes, that is what the current situation is. ____ 
has such little self-discipline at the moment, that the adults have decided that 
he needs to work somewhere else in the school so that others can still learn and 
he can be helped to learn some self-discipline. Hopefully, with some help, ____ 
will soon learn to control himself enough to be able to rejoin the class in an 
acceptable manner. Then he too, will be able to move forward in his schooling.

Then I would initiate a discussion about the behavior of EVERYONE ELSE in this 
situation. I would talk about how we all have a personal choice in how we 
respond to ____ and his lack of self-discipline. I would ask them to imagine 
some scenarios.

For example, I would say:

What if someone chose to follow along and copy ____? What level would that 
be? (B)

What if someone chose to encourage ____ by laughing or making other 
comments (B)

Would a person who chose to encourage ____, or be influenced into following ____, be self-disciplinedthemselves?

I would talk about how some people in this situation might follow or encourage 
____, thinking that it was ____’S FAULT that they were misbehaving. I would 
make sure that everyone understood that ____’s behaviour can only influence 
our own, if we allow that and if we have no self-discipline ourselves.

Then I would move to discussing higher level behavior, Level C and D. I would 
first get them to describe behavior at each of these levels. They would explain that at Level C, a student watching ____ and 
his antics, wouldn’t follow or encourage ____ because they see the teacher in 
the room and know that it wouldn’t be a good idea to act like ____ because then 
they’d be in trouble too.

I’d say, yes, that’s true. Level C is acceptable behaviour. They would be able to 
manage their own response to ____ because they’d be smart enough not to do 
something inappropriate themselves WITH A TEACHER WATCHING. We’d talk 
about how they were doing the right thing, but that they were relying on the 
presence of the teacher to influence them in how they chose to behave. The 
result would be that classroom atmosphere would remain fairly calm and we’d 
be helping ____ too because he would see what self-discipline looks like in the 
rest of us.

Then I’d remind them that both Level C and D are acceptable and I would ask 
them this:

If Level C is acceptable, how is Level D higher?

Then some child would be able to explain in their own words that Level D is 
higher because the person at Level D wouldn’t be influenced by ____’s antics–
EVEN IF THE TEACHER WASN’T WATCHING or even if the teacher wasn’t in the 
room at all. Regardless of whether the teacher was in the room or not, they 
wouldn’t follow or encourage misbehavior, simply because they know that that’s the 
right thing to do. They wouldn’t want to encourage ____ to act up because they 
would know that wasn’t helping ____. They wouldn’t follow ____because 
they wouldn’t want to sink to Level B behavior themselves.

Then we’d talk about the benefits of being self-disciplined and being internally 
motivated to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do in the 
situation. We’d talk about HOW GOOD IT FEELS to be in control of yourself. 
We’d talk about how people who are self-disciplined can respect themselves. 
When people often operate at a high level, they understand that to sink down to 
a lower level and follow someone else’s misbehavior means that they would be part of the 
problem. What self-respecting person wants to think of themselves as a 
problem! It FEELS GOOD to respect yourself and think highly of your own 
behavior. Operating at Level D allows you to take great pride in yourself.

As I said, I have had this exact same discussion with my own class in previous 
years and I have many similar discussions EVERY DAY about the benefits of 
operating at a high level; about exactly what it looks like to operate on a high 
level in ordinary everyday situations.

Although this might sound as if it would be above the heads of primary 
students, it isn’t at all. I teach Kindergarten and grade one. I simply 
use vocabulary that young children will understand to get the points across.

Although this way of thinking about behavior and self-discipline is very new to 
most teachers, I sense from your question that you are already thinking along these 
same lines. I hope my own experiences with fostering self-discipline through 
Marvin Marshall’s Discipline Without Stress will be of value to you!