When a teacher at my school asked Joey, a student with a long history of disciplinary issues stemming from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and a history of trauma, to sit down for class, he began to argue. Because he was loud and disrespectful, he was sent to visit me, the dean of students. Joey and I had a talk, and he understood his role in being sent out of the room. However, he was back in class for less than 10 minutes before being asked to leave again.
This happens in a thousand schools every day. Several important factors are at play, and there are ways to overcome them. I use a method I call simply “Welcome Back,” and for me it’s an essential part of any removal situation.
The Reasoning Behind Welcoming a Student Back
Students who act out in a way that results in their removal have literally alienated themselves from the classroom community, so it’s no wonder that they feel alienated.
I’ve interviewed thousands of students across grades K to 12 who were asked to leave class, and I always begin by asking, “What happened?” They always say at first, “My teacher hates me.” This isn’t an excuse and it’s not a lie—they are trying to express that feeling of alienation they are experiencing.
When Joey went back to class, for example, his teacher didn’t want to revisit the discomfort of their last interaction—she was still a little angry. Instead of greeting him, she allowed him to come in and sit down without a word. Joey felt that she hated him, and he was primed to look for evidence of that—which then resulted in his second removal from class.
It’s a good idea for teachers to try to dispel that feeling: When Joey reentered the classroom, the teacher could have greeted him by saying something like, “Welcome back, Joey,” and then quickly explaining what the class was doing at that point.
What the Welcome Back Looks Like
As a general classroom management rule, if a student is off task, the first thing a teacher should do is check for understanding—it’s likely that the student is not doing the assignment because he or she doesn't understand how to do it. When Joey came back to class, we know that he did not understand the teacher’s expectations because he hadn't been in the room to get the instructions. He had no idea what to do, and no one explained the work to him. He was already feeling alienated and resentful, and his negative feelings were compounded rather than alleviated, setting him up for further failure.
Yes, students do need to learn self-advocacy—and self-control—but it’s our job to promote these skills. Imagine the teacher greeting Joey, welcoming him back, and then quickly and efficiently making sure he understood what he had missed and the new expectations: “Welcome back, Joey. We’re working on the packet we started yesterday, and while you were out, I went over this with the class. Get started, and raise your hand if you need help.” Now Joey not only knows what to do—he knows that help is available.
Despite the setback of being removed from class, Joey has a path to success. He may not be capable of taking it, but at least he can see the path.
One day when Joey was sent to me from a different class—with his favorite teacher—I escorted him back to the room after we talked. I watched the teacher give instructions to the class to get them working and then casually make his way over to Joey to repeat everything, taking the time to clarify some points and give Joey specific, actionable instructions—he kept Joey on task with calm, nonjudgmental redirection. Once Joey had a real understanding of the task, he was eager to comply.
Every positive interaction reinforces to Joey that he belongs in school, that he is welcomed and cared for and safe.
Keep It Positive
Here are some more phrases that can help a student truly rejoin the class community after removal:
- “Joey, even after that rough start, I love how you came back to class ready to work and show us your best self.”
- “I love when you ask questions, Joey—I like how your mind works.”
- “I love to see you working.”
Students generally don’t act out because they can get away with it or because they just feel like it. When students act out, they are often trying, poorly, to communicate to us that something is wrong. They act out because they really, honestly don’t know how to communicate those feelings in a better, more socially acceptable way.
It’s our job to teach them a better way. Let’s not say, “He should know better.” The evidence is right in front of our faces that some students do not know better. Who doesn’t make their own life easier if they know how? By illustrating the positive, we teach students how to make themselves feel better and be part of a school community.
Joey’s teachers and I developed a plan that involved a warm welcome back after removal. When he realized that he was wanted in the classroom, he was able to think about the feelings of others and quietly apologize for arguing. Over time, he was able to self-advocate, but until then, we did for him what he could not do for himself.