There are some things we just never forget!

The phrase “mistakes, mischief, and mayhem” turned out to be one of those things for me. I first saw it in Jane Nelsen’s book, Positive Discipline (1981, 2006), twelve years ago, and it made such an impression on me that it has become a part of my management paradigm, a kind of beacon that, combined with choice theory, helps to point me in the right direction.


Nelsen felt that classroom behaviors can be categorized as either mistakes, mischief, or mayhem, and that our management strategies need to keep these levels of behaviors in mind. For the sake of clarity, the following definitions will help –

Mistakes – misbehaviors that are just that, mistakes. It is easy for us to forget how complex a classroom can be. There are so many expectations regarding how students relate to one another, how they relate to things, how they relate to places, and how they relate to time. Additionally, each of them comes from unique backgrounds that differ greatly. Most of the “misbehavior” in classrooms fit into the mistakes category.

Mischief – misbehavior that has an element of intentionality. It may not have a meanness element to it, however it is distracting, probably draining to the teacher if not corrected, and takes away from the learning environment.

Mayhem – misbehavior that breaks a rule and crosses the line of civility and respect, whether the behavior is directed at fellow students, teacher, or things within the classroom. Mayhem behaviors involve disrespect, disobedience, and/or destruction. These are serious misbehaviors that require a student response, maybe in the form of an action plan to prevent the misbehavior in the future, which also may involve steps to restore what their misbehavior harmed (e.g. – relationship, trust, broken object).

It becomes plain that misbehaviors are not all equal and that a mistake is vastly different than mayhem. Treating each of these misbehaviors on the level they deserve can greatly affect the learning atmosphere of the classroom, and will allow teachers to head home each day without a pit of worry and tension in their stomach.


One common mistake for teachers is to treat any and all misbehavior as mayhem. Teachers may not know about the concept of Procedures or have forgotten about their value and treat all behavior, or lack thereof, on the level of Rules. A student forgets to walk into the classroom after recess – Bam! – he broke a rule; a student leaves her desk and gets a drink during a teacher presentation – Bam! – she broke a Rule. Treating everything like mayhem creates a controlling, tension-filled space that foments rebellion in all kinds of forms.

It is freeing to teachers when they acknowledge that most misbehaviors are simply mistakes that can be prevented or corrected through the use of Procedures. Mistakes don’t have to be about getting in trouble or being punished. Procedures are taught, reviewed, and rehearsed, and when students forget a Procedure they are reminded of it and probably asked to rehearse it correctly.

Harry Wong emphasizes that the first two weeks of school should focus on learning Procedures. Once students “get” the idea of Procedures and know the Procedures needed to get the school year started the classroom environment is then ready for students to “soar!”

Using Procedures to provide helpful classroom structure will prevent most of the usual behavioral issues, although there may still be students who are mischievious in class in a way that distracts from the learning. It is common for mischief to include clowning and various forms of pranks. Mischief can be reduced and eliminated by 1) consistently implementing the Procedures, and 2) creating a need-satisfying classroom. By need-satisfying I mean a classroom where the teacher is intentional about helping students meet their need for purpose, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. In other words, planning activities, events, and opportunities for students with a high need for power to meet that need, and students with a high need for fun to meet that need, and so forth. As teachers we don’t just hope this happens or merely allow it to happen, we plan for it to happen.


Lastly, we hope that mayhem behaviors never occur in our classroom, but inevitably they do. Kids sometimes behave poorly, sometimes very poorly, and when they do we must confront the behavior and assist them toward forming better behaviors. It is important that teachers convey compassion to the student being confronted, but this compassionate spirit should not prevent dealing with such behaviors decisively. Mayhem behaviors (e.g.- defiance of the teacher, attacking another student verbally or physically, willful destruction of school property) may involve a time out or in-school suspension and may involve the student developing a plan to restore what was broken and prevent further incidences in the future. As the teacher I need to have a sense that the student understands the importance of kind and safe behavior and that s/he can make a commitment to kindness, respect, and cooperation. We can’t expect perfection, however we can expect a willingness and a desire to grow in these areas.

And so the 3Ms of classroom behavior are Mistakes, Mischief, and Mayhem. Treating each of them for what they are will go a long way toward student success this year!


Chris Kinney, who teaches at Lower Lake High School, and who was featured in the August 20, 2013, blog (Good Morning, Mr. Kinney) right here in The Better Plan, invited me to come and talk to people at his school about the new Glasser biography and about choice theory in general. So, I will be doing just that tomorrow evening, September 11, from 6:00-7:00 pm. He put together the following flyer, which is really well done. I would love it if local choice theorists could attend this event!



The quickest and cheapest way to access William Glasser: Champion of Choice is to purchase the eBook version at the following link –

Now priced at $17.73 on Amazon; 16 reviews have been submitted. (We've been stuck on 16 for a while.)

Now priced at $17.73 on Amazon; 16 reviews have been submitted. (We’ve been stuck on 16 for a while.)