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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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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.

sycabelanger's picture

Having structure and routine is important for tough students who live in chaos at home. They know what to expect each day and in how lessons are presented. The structure also helps establish the tone / expectations. Nice article.

outsideroninside's picture

AllisonN
I commend you for your willingness to take on a tough job. I understand how difficult your situation is and can relate to the frustrating experiences you are probably a part of. This is a situation which you can not depend on others to fix. Sure, some input from others can be useful in formulating a strategy, so continue the communications with your peers but don't expect that they will be able to fix the situation for you. You have stepped up to the challenge, now you must do your best to create a better environment in your classroom - turn it around. What I would caution you on is to determine why you have accepted the position to begin with. If it's to ultimately enhance your own welfare (to get a permanent position) than I think you stand less chance of being successful. This situation requires that you deal with it from the heart. Consider taking one for the Gipper when required. Be the bigger person showing kindness, sincerity and respect about wanting to help each individual student. And remember, most importantly, it's gotta come straight from the heart. You gotta be there because you clearly want to help them. Good luck!

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

As I work in schools or visit schools, I too often hear teachers referring to students as "my behavior kid." To me, this signals that the teacher has a particular expectation for that student. It is probably unconscious, but our unconscious beliefs about students come out in the ways we treat them. (Think "Pygmalion" and the self-fulfilling prophesy.) In my experience as an educator and administrator, students with tough reputations need positive encouragement (not empty praise or rewards) from people who treat them like they matter. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort, like the ideas listed here, but we can find something likable about each of those tough students. We have to see past the reputation or the symptomatic behaviors. Yes, we have to believe -- truly, deep down, believe in them!

Ann Weiss's picture

Great suggestions! I will share these suggestions with my intern teachers in the Alternative Certification Department.

Steve Schoenbaechler's picture

I find talks like this something like a love/hate relationship. First, I do believe we should do all we can to reach the kids, to get them motivated to participate. However, that doesn't necessarily mean we "will succeed". That means exactly what I stated, that "we should do all we can".

At some point in time, the student has to decide to pick up their pencil and write their name, to open up their book and read, to open up their mind and learn. We can't do those things for them.

Wanda Nieves's picture

I would start off the year telling them that I didn' t listen to gossip about them from other teachers and I didn't list to gossip from them about other teachers. We are all human and make mistakes. So before entering my class they could leave their problems outside and pick them up when they left (I would put an old table by the door and a trash can- where when they left they could throw out their baggage), and that I would not take out on them the problems of the class before them. I always greeted them outside the door an when we would come in they would ask if I was ok. I'd tell them everything was outside. This is not to say everything was perfect but it was better than for other teachers.

The kids would come to me just to talk. Now I will see them as adults when they bring their kids to see me they will say something like "she taught me to leave my problems outside". I have also had students come back and appoligize as adults for things they did.

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