Introduction: Children frequently enter elementary school unprepared for its academic and socioemotional challenges. Many of these students exhibit challenging behaviors that negatively impact their educational experience, put them at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD), and impact their relationships with teachers. Despite a large research base on student behavior little is known about teacher attributions, or what teachers see as the source and rationale, for challenging student behavior. This is critical, as attributions can impact both teacher responses to challenging student behavior as well as teacher implementation of interventions. The purpose of this mixed-methods study was to explore teacher attributions for challenging behavior using a newly adapted quantitative measure and semi-structured teacher interviews.
Methods: The study used a convergent mixed-methods design to examine teacher attributions for challenging student behavior. In the quantitative phase, 26 teachers completed an attribution measure related to the behavior of 44 students with or at-risk for EBD in grades K-3. Adapted from the Preschool Teaching Attribution measure, the elementary measure asked teachers to recall the challenging behavior of specific students. For each behavior, the teacher rated statements aligning with dimensions of attribution theory (e.g. “The student was noncompliant mainly to annoy me.”) on a scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 6 (Strongly Agree). Aggregated results revealed subscale scores for each attributional dimension (purposefulness, globality, stability, motivation, locus, blame, negative intent, controllability). In the qualitative phase, teachers (n = 6) were asked semi-structured interview questions related to attributions (e.g. “How much control do you feel you have over the behavior of the students in your classroom?”). Using a grounded theory approach, the teacher interviews will be transcribed and open coded, followed by continuous development of themes until saturated.
Results: Preliminary analysis of the quantitative measure highlights differences in teacher attributions along the dimensions, from low (negative intent; M = 2.5, SD = 1.31) to high (locus; M = 4.3; SD = 1.14). Themes identified in the qualitative phase of the study will be merged with quantitative outcomes to help explain these differences.
Conclusion: Once identified, variables related to positive or negative shifts in attributions for challenging behavior can be targeted through teacher feedback (i.e., coaching). Such feedback may be critical in helping teachers implement interventions that improve relationships with students, their use of practices in the classroom, and the longer-term trajectories of student behavior.