Problem students, problem classes

Polarization, differentiation and language about disruptive student behaviour in Hungarian primary schools


  • Eszter Neumann Centre for Social Sciences, Budapest

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anti-school culture, classroom disruption, Hungary, internal selection, problem student, school discipline


While the effects of social and ethnic segregation in schools have been thoroughly studied, much less attention has been paid to the internal, more subtle forms of classification, selection, and exclusion at work in Hungarian primary schools. This paper focuses on the characteristic features of the language about classroom disruption and norm-breaking behaviour in socially mixed primary schools and how internal grouping structures frame this language and teachers’ perceptions of disruptive student behaviour. In the empirical analysis, two key notions by which teachers conceptualize norm-breaking behaviour emerged: the ‘problem student’ and the ‘problem class’. While the notion of the ‘problem student’ dominated the behaviour-related narratives of both schools, the notion of the ‘problem class’ was more prevalent and influential in one school, and specifically in those cohorts who attended a rigid, selective internal grouping structure. The in-depth analysis explores the discursive construction of the ‘problem class’ and the ways in which students identified as ‘problematic’ narrated their engagement in an anti-school student culture in the latter school. The findings suggest that inflexible internal grouping structures facilitated pathologizing language about ‘problem classes’ and these two factors together contributed to the polarization of student attitudes and to the development of an anti-school culture, and ultimately played a powerful role in the naturalization of classed educational trajectories.