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5 Tips for Teaching the Tough Kids

Josh Work

Middle School Teacher, Maryland
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Every teacher remembers his or her first "tough kid" experience. Maybe the student ignored your directions or laughed at your attempts to utilize the classroom discipline steps. We all have at least one story to share, and for some teachers, teaching a tough kid is a daily challenge. It seems that no matter what teaching techniques you try to pull out of your educator hat, nothing changes their behavior.

I've had the privilege of teaching some tough kids. I say "privilege" for a reason. Teaching these students pushed me to be a better educator and a more compassionate person. I've detailed below five methods that have reduced misbehavior in my classroom and, better still, helped transform these students into leaders among their peers.

1. Set the Tone

I firmly believe that a student's misbehavior in the past does not necessarily equate to future indiscretions. At the beginning of the school year, I would walk down to the sixth grade teachers with my new class lists and ask questions. I would inquire about who works well together, who probably should not sit next to each other, and who caused them the most grief. Not surprisingly, teachers would share the names of the same students that were their "tough kids." If I had the privilege of having any of these students in my class, I looked forward to it instead of dreading it.

Usually during the first week of school, I would try to have individual conferences with these tough kids. I'd take this as an opportunity to clear the air and wipe the slate clean. Often, these students can feel disrespected because their teachers already have preconceived ideas about how they are the troublemakers. Explain that you respect them and have high expectations for them this year. Lay the foundation for the student's understanding that you believe in him or her, because you might be the only one who genuinely does.

2. Be a Mentor

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that some of the toughest kids to teach come from very difficult home situations. Inconsistent housing, absentee parent(s), lack of resources, and violence are only a few examples of what some of these students have to face every day. Kids that are neglected at home can act out in school to receive attention, good or bad. They want someone to notice them and take an interest in their lives.

Don’t forget how important you are in helping your students develop not just academically, but also socially. Make an effort to show you care about them, not just their grades. Be proactive instead of reactive. The key to being a good mentor is to be positive, available, and trustworthy. One year with a great mentor can have a lasting, positive impact on a tough kid's life.

3. Make Connections

Part of being a great mentor is your ability to make connections with these tough kids. Since these students sometimes don't have anyone encouraging them or taking an interest in their lives, have a real conversation about their future or dreams. If they have nothing to share, start talking about their interests -- sports, music, movies, food, clothing, friends, siblings, etc. Find a way to connect so that they can relate to you. Start off small and show a genuine interest in what they have to say. Once you've made a positive connection and the student can trust you, you'd be surprised how fast they might open up to talking about their hopes, fears, home life, etc. This is when you need to exercise professional discretion and be prepared for what the student might bring up. Explain that you do not want to violate his or her trust but that, as an educator, you are required by law to report certain things.

4. Take it Personally (In a Good Way)

Teachers need to have thick skin. Students may say things in an attempt to bruise your ego or question your teaching abilities. Remember, we are working with young children and developing adults. I'm sure you said some hurtful things that you didn't mean when you were growing up. Students can say things out of frustration or boredom, or that are triggered by problems spilling over from outside of your classroom. Try to deal with their misbehavior in the classroom -- they might not take you seriously if you just send them to the office every time they act out. These are the moments when they need a positive mentor the most.

Once trust has been established, remind these students that you believe in them even if they make a mistake. I've vouched for kids during grade team meetings only to have them get into a fight at lunch the same day. They make mistakes, just like we all do. It's how we respond to their slip-ups that will determine if they'll continue to trust us. Explain that you're disappointed in their actions and that you know they can do better. Don't write them off. Tough kids are used to being dismissed as hopeless. Instead, show them that you care and are willing to work with them. Helping a tough kid overcome personal issues isn't something that happens overnight, but it is a worthwhile investment in his or her future.

5. Expect Anything and Everything!

All of our students come from a variety of cultures, nationalities, and home environments, and these five techniques that have worked for me might barely scratch the surface of how you interact with the tough kids in your classroom. If you have another method that has helped you reach out and connect to a tough kid, please share it below in the comments section.

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AmyH's picture

Our tough kids are often "in charge" when they are at home because of the lack of parental support or presence. This makes it difficult for them to give up control when they are at school which creates much of the power struggle we encounter with them. Finding ways for them to have places of control in school helps to build relationships and trust between the school and the child.

Julipearl's picture

Amy, I can't tell you how much your insight means to me at this point in time. I would appreciate any further information you might want to share. Thank You!

AllisonN's picture

I was recently thrown into a 6th grade classroom, mid-year, as a long-term substitute. The teacher is out on maternity leave and left me to my own devices after a vague and confusing rundown of the class and my duties. The other teachers have tried and mean well but are not much help, and my room is full of tough kids! I try to start each day anew and show that I care and believe in them, but each day is a struggle since I am a new teacher. I know the district is testing me, so I want to prove I can hold my own and get a permanent position.

Leonard Brown's picture

I'm a varying exceptionalities resource teacher currently teaching at an elementary school, providing support facilitation services to special need students in inclusion classrooms. The school district that I work this school year consider to no longer place Emotionally Disabled students into self-contained classes when there are staffed into the ESE program, these students are now placed into the general education classroom. The teachers are experiencing constant problems with these students being defiant, disruptive, fighting, and throwing objects in the classroom requiring them having to be remove from the classroom. I like the tips that you give in the blog and I use each of them when I work with the Emotionally Disabled students in my school. I also in working with the teachers of these students, discuss with them what I do in working the students and I teach them how to use the strategies/tips. They have come to discover over time in using the strategies/tips it makes their lives in dealing with the students easier and they now have a better relationship with the students. The students have told me that they like their teachers and they want to do good to have their teachers and me to be proud of them. I always tell them that I'm always proud of them when they do well and that I only get upset with them when they don't do what is expected of them, for I always expect for them to do and give their best. The students know this and they do give us their best, whenever they mess up they know how we will feel about it, they will often admit to what they did and will try to do better.

khalm's picture

I just shared this on my FB page. I've been a social studies teacher since 1994 and I've learned a lot during my time at the "chalkboard." One thing rings true: making connections early in the school year goes a long way with any student. IF they know you care they will be eager to be in your class and learn from you.

ReneeMaynard's picture

Thank you for such a well written article. Like you, I look forward to the "challenge" of a tough student. Your five points that you make are some of the most specific and accurate that I have read. The one that I find makes the biggest difference in these tough kids lives is just making a connection. It starts small and you have to keep digging and keep trying, but as soon as that student knows that you have learned something about them, they feel respected and valuable. Making a connection and building that relationship with a student is one of the most valuable and important steps in helping these students get past the tough kid label. It has been my experience that once they know you care, they are more likely to care about your class. As you mentioned in your blog, sometimes these students do not have anyone outside of the school walls that has any interest in what they are doing. Thank you for giving such valid points and ideas about how to reach these students.

Kamie Spain's picture

Despite how frustrating it can be, the tough kids end up being my favorites. It's a challenge to me to find out how to get them to behave and work in my class. One thing that works great is positive reinforcement. I had a kid in my class who was a notorious "bad kid" and he gave me a lot of trouble at first. But after talking to his mom, he got a little better. So instead of nitpicking every move he made, I bragged on his behavior to his mom. He acted like he didn't care but later he lost his temper in my class and walked out. He later brought me a letter of apology that he had hand written. No one made him do it because I had not discussed it with anyone. He explained why he did it and said that his behavior was still unacceptable. I didn't even punish him and never had another problem from him. These kids are beat down so much, they need people to acknowledge what they do right. And if you think you have all tough kids because you're not teaching advanced courses then maybe you should look into something else. I've never taught advanced courses. I've always had the SPED, 504, ESL kids and they are awesome. You just have to believe in them.

Wayne Jones's picture
Wayne Jones
A semi-retired middle school principal

These solid suggestions will help not only "tough" kids - but any kids you have in the classroom. I personally believe that making connections can be the most effective - connection with the student and their parent(s) as well as connections among kids within the class. I firmly believe in groupwork and team projects that are carefully managed.

Josh Work's picture
Josh Work
Middle School Teacher, Maryland

Kamie thank you sharing your personal account. I love your last sentence, "believing in them" is so important.

Josh Work's picture
Josh Work
Middle School Teacher, Maryland

Wayne, connections and building rapport can sometimes be one of the most effective classroom techniques for teaches to utilize with students.

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