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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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Kater328's picture

This is a great article! I'm a social worker at a middle school with over 50% of our student population receiving free and reduced lunch. Subsequently, many of the students I see are facing an enormous amount of stress outside of school on top of daily academic demands. I have a particularly challenging group of students this year and your article was a nice reminder to keep persevering. Thanks!

Robin Ann's picture

I've learned that most difficult students are crying out or testing you to see how much you'll take before sending them to the office. Life is much easier I've found if I take the time to let such students know I value them and form a relationship in class which allows me to get under their negative behavior and find out about their lives, reaching out to fill the area in which they're lacking. Sometimes all it takes is discovering a student is frustrated in chemistry class, for example, and going with that student to conference with the chemistry teacher on how to make the subject clearer for the student (like a parent would do). Sometimes you have to really search, but finding a meaningful compliment for a troubled student shows them at least one person in their life sees a positive trait.

coachenglish's picture

And what is the advice when 95% of your kids in all of your classes are the tough kids because you teach the regular class and are given all the kids other teachers can't or won't teach? Out of my 130 students, over half have been suspended at least once this year, 75% have been to in school suspension on a regular basis, and a greater majority don't care about their own self enough to want to be educated.

Cheryl Miller Andrews's picture

I am currently teaching self-contained classes of Emotionally Disabled students, most of whom have suffered trauma of some sort. I would like to add one more idea for how to deal with the difficult kids: Start each day anew. Even if you've had a serious problem with a student the day before, start each day with a fresh slate. Never hold a grudge because the student has yelled at you or even cussed you out. Understand that you were just a handy target for their anger. It probably had nothing to do with you. I had a very difficult student who once threatened to throw a desk at me. So I really worked at making a connection with him and never holding a grudge. Last week, he came to my room, gave me a hug, and told me his grades were all As and Bs. He wanted me to know how much he had turned himself around.

Cheryl Miller Andrews's picture

If you believe this was intentional to make you fail, about your only option may be to look for a new job. I hate to say this, but this happened to me. I was new to the district, and realized that I was caught up in a political battle between the English and Special Education departments and the school's principal. I was hired by the principal, then set up to fail by the chairs of the two departments. I cut my losses, learned my lesson, and returned to my old district.

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.

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

Sometimes these kids are finding ways of self-challenging when they find school boring and unchallenging. One of my favorite students in particular would either self-challenge in negative ways (like spray painting obscenities on the building) or in good ways (like independently investigating his "namesake", a famous mathematician). By ramping up the expectations, I was able to derail his negative behaviors. In a fairly short time, I found my most challenging student not only meeting the higher expectations but learning how to self challenge in positive and more constructive ways. This was also helpful in that the other challenging students looked to him as a leader and when his behavior became more positive, so did theirs.

Swms's picture

I have a couple to add. First, praise when possible. These kids get used, sometimes rightfully so, to hearing only negative comments from others; however, if can praise than for things they do right, the tone of our relationship changes for the better. Another suggestion us to make a positive contact with parents prior to calling with bad news. Get them on your side by letting them know that you aren't always going to be negative with their child. Lastly, on c we you have contacted parents with bad news, follow up with positives if at all possible.

Jodie S Brown's picture

As a former teacher of at-risk students in a continuation school for several years, I can confirm these ideas. These are not bad kids--they are just kids looking to find their way. Making connections with these kids and having clear expectations for behavior often (though sadly not always) allowed me to reach them in ways other teachers they had were not able to do.

Barb Serianni's picture
Barb Serianni
Engaging Students with Technology

Powerful suggestions, right on target...most are documented by research evidence! Remember that each student may respond differently to your attempts to connect, don't give up on the ones that don't respond to your initial attempt to build a relationship. Use student interests (preferences) to connect when your initial approach fails. The behavioral strategy is called "pairing" when you associate yourself with something your student likes. For example, a child hooked on Star Wars may respond to you when you relate Star Wars characters to a something you are trying to teach, or you add a Darth Vader figurine to your desk. The secret to connecting with the toughest of the tough is figuring out what they love and using it to connect.

Christine S's picture

I LOVE that you view each "tough kid" as an opportunity for a positive experience. In my role as a substitute teacher, I relish the chance to connect with kids that I see on a semi-regular basis. It's discouraging to be told by staff "Don't waste your time. That's not our job." when it comes to reaching out to students. I've attended student's basketball games and been told by parents they've never seen a teacher there before. It's refreshing to hear from other educators who see these kids the same way I do!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

Hi Candice! How is he doing with all of the end-of-year rituals? Some kids back slide when it's time to say goodbye, others seem to be driven to finish strong. If he's doing okay (and not showing an increase in the tough behaviors), you might ask him to do a bit of reflection on the year. Him write (or video blog) a set of instructions for a kid coming in later next year. What advice would he give that student? What does he want to make sure he remembers for next year, himself? What advice would he give you?

I'd also encourage you to take good care of yourself. When I used to lead hiking trips (roughly 10,000 years ago), I was always surprised at the number of injuries we had in the last 24 hours. Apparently hikers get distracted by the end of the trip and start slacking on their routines and good habits, leading to more falls, dehydration, etc. The same happens in school I think- kids and teachers get focused on summer and start to pay less attention to the rituals and systems that kept everyone safe all year. (Case in point: I'm home today with a sick kid who I think stopped worrying too much about the hand sanitizer once the weather warmed up.) Be extra attentive to those systems all the way through the year- you'll be glad you did!

Good luck!

Mike Treanor's picture
Mike Treanor
High School Science Teacher

This is so well written! So many times I have found the students who act out the most are missing something in their lives. If I can give them something close to what they are missing, they understand that I care about them and their future.

The home lives of most students aren't like a perfect sitcom family. They all have difficulties. Some of them have horrible situations that nobody should have to live through.

For some kids, teachers MAY be the only people in their lives for 10 years or more who show these kids that they are important and valued.

There is always the argument, as Tammy said, that some of these things are the 'parents' jobs' and not the responsibility of teachers. I look at it another way: If I have volunteered to be with these children every day, perhaps spending more time with them than any other adult for a year of their lives, I have also signed up for the responsibility of being a mentor to them. It is an important responsibility.

This has freed me from some frustration and enriched my life in the process. I do not have to sit around and whine about how someone else isn't doing the job of raising the kids. Those are facts that I cannot change. What I can do is take on my responsibility and do my best.

And I notice a difference every single day.

Etta Bowden's picture

You shared some very meaningful tips. Several that stood out the most for me were, "teachers must have thick skin, establishing trust, and acknowledging that mistakes can happen." I teach in a small district and building those relationships really make a difference. As teachers, those relationships provide them with hope for a better tomorrow. Thanks for sharing.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

These points are all right on - coming from my perspective as a teacher at a school comprised entirely of "tough kids." One thing I would caution is for teachers to be careful about the mentorship piece. Yes, kids absolutely need someone to talk to and to help them - but role clarity is equally important. Rather than delving too deep yourself, you can do some great stuff by connecting students to more appropriate resources, like counseling, legal help, social services, etc. Be consistent and caring in YOUR role, and help your student find others to create a network of support.

Tammy - 760066's picture

I believe in these words with all of my heart. It really doesn't matter the content you cover in the year if you are sacrificing relationships with your students to "cover the curriculum". Sometimes it is really hard to find a connection with a student, especially if over time, they have "seen" that others perhaps don't cultivate a relationship with them or have preconceptions of who they are based on their reputation. Relationship can conquer anything - I firmly believe that.


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