The High Cost of Disruptive Behavior at School

school_disciplineby James A. Bacon

It seems intuitively obvious that allowing students to “act out” in the classroom disrupts teaching for the students who want to learn. But it’s impossible to tell from anecdotal information what effect the disruption has on student achievement and graduation rates, much less upon future earnings.

In “The Long-Run Effects of Disruptive Peers” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Scott E. Carrell, Mark Hoekstra and Elira Kuka have tapped longitudinal data from Alachua County, Fla., to demonstrate that the negative effects of disruptive behavior in elementary school is measurable and long lasting.

“With respect to college attendance, our findings indicate that one year of exposure to a disruptive boy peer reduces college enrollment by 0.2 percentage points,” the authors write. “We estimate that one year of exposure to a disruptive peer in elementary school reduces the present discounted value of classmates’ future earnings by around $100,000.”

While not as important as teacher quality in explaining differential outcomes, the authors argue, the presence of disruptive students is nevertheless a significant factor, accounting for 5% to 6% of the rich-poor earnings gap. “Our estimates imply that with respect to college enrollment, a year of exposure to a disruptive male peer is equivalent to a 7 to 11 percent increase in class size for one year, a 2 percent reduction in Head Start participation, or a one-fourth standard deviation reduction in teacher quality.”

And that’s just exposure to one bad actor for one year. In some schools the earnest students are subjected to the disruption of multiple kids with disciplinary problems over many years.

Bacon’s bottom line: The researchers do not measure the impact of disruptive students directly. They use a proxy, children from households experiencing domestic violence, on the logic that there is a strong correlation between children experiencing or witnessing violence at home and their tendency to disrupt classrooms at school. It is not a perfect proxy, of course. Not all children from families experiencing domestic violence create disorder at school; likewise, some disruptive students come from non-violent families. The negative impact of students known to be disruptive arguably would be even stronger.

Acknowledging this impact does not tell us what to do about it. It does not tell us how to discipline or isolate disruptive students. But it does reinforce a point that I have made frequently on this blog: that disruptive pupils cause harm to pupils who come to school prepared to learn. If a teacher focuses his or her attention on the disruptive student, he spends less time teaching students who are behaving themselves. The effects are cumulative and long lasting, hurting academic performance, high school graduation rates, college attendance rates and future income.

The disciplinary issue has been politicized in recent years by American Civil Liberties Association and U.S. Justice Department insistence that school disciplinary action in Henrico County and other jurisdictions disproportionately affect minority students, especially blacks. Such a focus ignores the fact that the victims of disruptive behavior are also disproportionately minorities and blacks attending the same schools and classes.

The breakdown in school discipline has other effects not captured in this study. I chatted this weekend with a young woman who taught students at a Richmond-area middle school where there were a large number of disruptive students. She described to me how she went home after school and cried every day. Finally, she transferred to a new middle school in Henrico County where the students were well behaved. She is very happy with her job now. (Race and ethnicity never entered the discussion. Her problem was the behavior, not the racial identity, of the disruptive kids.) The well-known problem of teachers fleeing schools with disciplinary problems makes it more difficult for those institutions to recruit and retain good teachers, which arguably has a secondary negative impact on the motivated students.

I’m not saying that we should shunt all the disruptive kids off to reform school. But I am suggesting that we should be cognizant of the long-lasting impact of their behavior on other students. We cannot let their rights to a decent education be trumped by our concern for the troubled kids.

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5 responses to “The High Cost of Disruptive Behavior at School

  1. Another consequence of disruptive classroom behavior (albeit anecdotal and not research-based) is the emotional distress to other children. Imagine being in a workplace where one (or two or three) of your co-workers are unpredictable and prone to outbursts, verbal or physical. That’s what children, even the very young early elementary age, experience every day. Not only do disruptive students get more than their fair share of a teacher’s attention (while derailing the flow of learning), they can cause stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions in other students that don’t just go away at the end of a school day.

  2. Truth be known – many actual teachers will tell you that “classroom management” is an essential skill because if you cannot handle one kid – many others will start to also act up -and you’re done as a teacher.

    Still -even for skilled teachers – a kid acting up – disrupts everything until they can be delt with and many teachers have a “toolbox” of different techniques depending on the kid that can range from the “eye” to sending the kid to the principle to sending him/her home.

    However – the idea that disruptive kids only come from broken families is hilarious… and having NBER do a “study” to that end – makes me curious if they actually had a “control” group or if their study was replicated by others.

    disruptive kids come from all walks of life – some are classified as ADHD … some want attention… some have been “taught” some really bad habits by adults … etc….. and more than a few come from Mom/Dad-together type families… where Mom will show up for a teach conference to confess that she just cannot do a thing with Johnny – who has learned to manipulate both Mom and Dad and pitches a fit when the teacher ain’t buying it.

    the continuing Conservative “narrative” that single parent families are the cause of many of society’s ills is a fairy tale.

    Imagine for instance, the offspring of Bob and Maureen McDonnell and what those kids have “learned” from their parents…… even if Mom/Dad don’t go to prison… those kids are going to grow up with some real problems of their own I bet.

    • “The idea that disruptive kids only come from broken families is hilarious.”

      Of course, neither the NBER report said such a thing, nor did I in my brief summary of it. In fact, what I said was this: “Not all children from families experiencing domestic violence create disorder at school; likewise, some disruptive students come from non-violent families.”

      But there is a strong correlation between children who come from homes with domestic violence and children who disrupt their classes at school. If you disagree with that statement, then I would like to see your data showing otherwise.

      • how about we see the data that correlates domestic violence with disruptive behavior ?

        where do we get such data ?

      • yes – and THEN you said THIS:

        “The disciplinary issue has been politicized in recent years by American Civil Liberties Association and U.S. Justice Department insistence that school disciplinary action in Henrico County and other jurisdictions disproportionately affect minority students, especially blacks. Such a focus ignores the fact that the victims of disruptive behavior are also disproportionately minorities and blacks attending the same schools and classes.”

        so why did you tie this article to race in the first place?

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