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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Illo of a profile silhouette of a girl with a heart in her head

Even though your toughest students are just kids at the mercy of emotions they don't understand or can't control, it can be hard for a teacher to stay calm and not take these ongoing behavioral problems personally. My advice: it's time to hit the reset button!

Tough kids are usually covering a ton of hurt. They defend against feeling pain by erecting walls of protection through rejection. Efforts to penetrate those walls by caring adults are generally met with stronger resistance expressed through emotional withdrawal and/or offensive language, gestures, and actions. Like a crying baby unable to articulate the source of its discomfort, these kids desperately need patient, determined, and affectionate adults with thick skin who refuse to take offensive behavior personally. Here are some ways to connect or reconnect with students who make themselves hard to like.

1. Express gratitude to your difficult students.

At a seminar that I gave at a school in Houston, one of the teachers talked about the turn-around in a boy from her class the year before who had been driving her crazy. She was determined to "love him even more" as her primary intervention. She initiated an "I need a hug" ritual by telling him that since she had no son at home to hug, she needed a "little boy hug" every day to get her day started in a happy way. She asked him to take the job, and every day, "little boy hugger" performed his function. Although challenges remained, mostly due to this child's very unpredictable home situation, his classroom behavior showed substantial improvement.

Since hugging isn't always appropriate, consider this strategy. For two weeks, try expressing something positive every day to each of your difficult students. Hard as it might be, make your first interaction each day something welcoming. For example, when a chronically late and uninterested student arrives, fight the temptation to ignore, tersely request a viable excuse, or hand out a late slip. Instead, make your first comment an expression of appreciation for coming. For example:

Carson, I was hoping you'd show up -- and you did. Welcome! By the way, we're on page 62.

Wait until there is no audience around before you express concern and/or give a consequence for the student's behavior:

Carson, I am concerned that you continue to fall behind because you're often missing part or all of class. Here's your late slip, but much more important to me is knowing how I might help you get here on time. What's going on?'

2. Use encouraging statements every day.

Words of encouragement get and keep students connected and motivated. Below are a dozen examples. Find an excuse to share at least a few of these every day.

  • You really hung in there by _______.
  • That was really cool.
  • Wow, you pushed yourself today, and it really worked out.
  • I was so impressed today when you _______.
  • It was awesome to see you _______.
  • That took some special effort.
  • I hope you feel proud about _______, because you should.
  • Thanks for putting a smile on my face when you _______.
  • It's not easy to _______, but you are making it happen.
  • Your cooperation is really appreciated. Thanks.
  • That was flat-out good!
  • Congratulations! (And then be specific about what you are congratulating.)

3. Act toward your worst student the way you act toward your best student.

Who is your best-behaved or most motivated student? When you think about that student, what adjectives come to mind? When you interact, what comments come naturally? When the student makes a mistake, how do you usually react? For one week, try acting toward your worst-behaved or least-motivated student in the same way, and see what happens.

A teacher at an elementary school that I recently visited told me about Ken, a fifth grade student who had developed a bad reputation but was making an effort to turn things around. Transitions were especially difficult. Knowing there was going to be a substitute teacher the next day, Ms. Silver told Ken, "Tomorrow a sub is going to be here. I expect responsible behavior, and there'll be consequences if I hear otherwise." The sub reported that Ken was awful. When Ms. Silver returned, she told him that she was stuck between a rock and a hard place because, although she was proud of his overall progress, she was very disappointed with his recent behavior. When she asked him what he thought would be a fair consequence he said, "If I was a good kid in this school, what would you do?" She said that she would probably ask the student to explain what happened, why it happened, and what he thought a good consequence would be. Ken looked her straight in the eye and said, "Well, then that is what you should do to me."

4. Send the parents a "positive postcard."

Prepare an email or note home that briefly describes positive behavior or an achievement that you've recently observed. Show it to the student before sending it. If you haven't seen positive behavior that you can genuinely acknowledge, write a positive note or email as if a behavior you are seeking has already happened. Show it to the student. Ask him or her to tell you when it would be a good time to send it.

How do you hit the reset button or make a fresh start with hard-to-like students? As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome and appreciated.

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Spencer's picture

I really like these ideas. I did have the thought that some difficult students might find extra attention strange and in some cases resist it. But I think it's worth trying with each, but sometimes it might be that they want something different than attention, like maybe just quiet respect or something. As with everything, it's a case-by-case thing.

judyd123's picture

I think the idea to treat misbehaving student like one of your good students is food for thought. Teachers are only human and some students can try your patience to the point of no return. Often times teachers react without looking at the situation as the misbehaving child does. These children can see a difference in way they are treated as opposed to the good students. They need that little extra something. As a teacher, I am going to start looking at the misbehaving child like any other. Smile and march forward.

Rebekah Price's picture

At this point in the school year, we all have a couple of students that enjoy driving us to our breaking points. Maybe they do not mean to but it is happening :)

This entry gave me some strategies to finish out my year strong.

Joel's picture

I think it was a great analogy because teachers are professionals just like doctors and we are both expected to improve the lives of others. Part of our job will always entail working with kids that have significant challenges in our school setting (for whatever reason.) That is what we all signed up for when we went into education. I was recently in the ICU for a family member and I witnessed a doctor managing 20 rooms for patients with different physical conditions, many family members grieving and praying, and immediate assistance needed for different rooms simultaneously. The doctor was flawless in his job and the great doctors do it everyday...just like great teachers that I witness doing it everyday. The best teachers I know use every interaction with students as an opportunity to build positive relationships. It doesn't matter if it's 1-1 or 30 students in the room. The best teachers do it every day. This article is great in that it gives us some ways that we can use it in the classroom right away. Thanks for sharing it and I already shared with my staff!

Gustavo Ontiveros's picture

Hey,
My name is Gustavo Ontiveros and I am currently a college student who shadows a high school teacher. I've always been curious about how teachers reach students as the ones mentioned, I know at first it can be awkward or a bit hard to break the ice with those particular students because sometimes the do not like to congregate with the rest or share heir thought and opinions? What are some methods or pointers on how to engage these students?

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Gustavo - In addition to Alex's suggestion, check out other blog posts by myself and Rick Curwin. You could also find many practical strategies in the short books, CONNECTING WITH STUDENTS and MOTIVATING STUDENTS WHO DON'T CARE.

Craig Howat's picture
Craig Howat
Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration Facilitator

Compliment theses students in public and critique them in private... all good leaders, managers, teachers, etc... know how to diffuse an emotional situation by building them up.

Sandi Roam's picture

I love this article. It is so nice to read so many positives in a difficult situation.
I would like to add something to these ideas. I watched an Oprah segment some years ago featuring Toni Morrison: she talked about raising kids. Something she stressed (and I agree with because I do it) was: does your face light up when the child walks into the room? As educators, we not only have to play the part-we have to look and feel it too.
"Hard as it might be, make your first interaction each day something welcoming." People sense when you do not like them. When the children enter the room, I always wear an "I am so happy you are here today" smile on my face along with the positive comments.
"Efforts to penetrate those walls by caring adults are generally met with stronger resistance expressed through emotional withdrawal and/or offensive language..."
They build these walls for a reason. Even if I do not think I am getting through, I never give up. I feel my efforts will resonate just as much as if I would have completely knocked down the walls. At least I was not another person who let them down.
That little boy hugger story is inspiring. All people need a function in life. They need to feel a sense of self worth. Giving him a task helps him feel important, and that he is able to contribute to his environment.
If I look hard enough, I can find something I like in everyone. I use that to create a bond. By all means, I always remember that they are the way they are because of circumstances beyond their control.
I don't care what anyone says, I think kids like structure and the idea of learning and someone caring enough about them to help them be more successful. I think they all secretly crave it.
"Ken looked her straight in the eye and said, "Well, then that is what you should do to me." "(The poster child for fairness) It is amazing how much we learn from them.

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