Student Engagement

The Schoolroom Peace Plan, Part Five: Targeting Students

Getting to know your troubled students better can help them behave in the classroom.

November 4, 2008

This is the fifth part of a six-part entry. Start with the introduction.

When I refer to targeting students, I don't mean that I target them literally, of course, but you can fantasize about whatever you want. I do. Others have.

Z.Z. Packer wrote a chilling short story called "Our Lady of Peace" (found in the collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere) that I often think about: In it, an inexperienced young teacher struggles to get her high school students under control. She eventually gives up and goes on a violent rampage. I've been there (the young-and-inexperienced part), but I never did that (the violent-rampage part).

Although it was kind of therapeutic to read this story, there are ways to target students that don't involve a vehicle moving at very high speeds.

Some kids need specific behavior plans, which can include daily or weekly check-ins with a principal, a counselor, or a parent or guardian. Some respond to an incentive plan. Some might need referrals to counseling or a social worker. And some students might just need a larger dose of your positive attention and love.

Try this: In each of your classes, identify the one or two most challenging students. If you have a large group of challenging kids, decide on which ones possess the superhuman power to throw off the whole class or can exert the greatest influence on their peers.

Now, in the next two weeks, try to spend half an hour alone with each of those students, maybe during lunch or after school. Even better, invite each kid to lunch. Bring something to share.

When you extend the invitation, let the student know that you want to get to know her better. Try saying something like, "It seems like you're struggling in my class. Maybe we didn't start off the right way together. I want this to be a good year for you. I want to get to know you better and to hear about your experiences in school and in my class."

If the kid turns you down, chose another student -- but very few will turn you down.

At your lunch, ask a lot of questions: "What do you like to do outside of school? What kinds of music, movies, and television shows do you like?" At first, keep the questions nonthreatening and impersonal. Try to connect. Listen. Try to find something about the kid you can like.

At the end of your meeting, ask whether the student would like to do this again. Say, "I hope that some of the challenges we've been having might not be so bad if we get to know each other a little. I want you to succeed in my class. I want to serve your needs. But you also need to follow my rules. Would you like to have lunch again next week?"

You are on her side, right? You do want her to succeed, right? Let her know. Let her know that you care about her, but emphasize that some of her actions aren't acceptable. A little targeted work like this, especially at the beginning of the year, can go a long way.

And, again, check your assumptions: Why do you think that seventh grader is so hostile and angry and disruptive? Most of the secondary school kids I've known who have acted like this are scared little children. Though I don't have to tolerate their violence and disruption, it helps me to remember that it's not personal: There were many adults before me, both in and out of school, who didn't respect them. Although some kids may seem beyond reach, I have also found that most can hear, if only for a brief second, a message of "I care about you." For some, this makes a critical difference in the way they'll behave in your class.

I know that it's really, really hard to be in a place of love and compassion, day after day, when you have 150 students and you're exhausted and don't know what you're doing tomorrow and can't see your desk under the piles of paper and you didn't eat lunch. Do whatever you can to get yourself into that good place as often as possible. (This usually starts by sleeping, exercising, eating well, and doing things that are fun and relaxing and not school related.)

But you can't do this job (and you shouldn't) if you can't see the really challenging students as traumatized, damaged children and -- as corny as this sounds -- if you can't respond to them with love and kindness.

If you try any of these strategies, please report back! Let us know what's worked and what hasn't. And check back for the next part of this entry.

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