A typical morning in a 5th grade class is just beginning. Students enter the classroom chatting as they hang up coats and turn in homework. The mood is pleasant and relaxed—until Caley enters the room, already wearing a scowl.
Caley turns on Jenny: "Why do you always wear mismatched socks? That's so stupid!" Jon is the next target: "You're talking about baseball again? Why do you always talk about baseball? Baseball's stupid!" The positive energy drains out of the classroom. I feel my stomach churn. I know Caley's difficult (and routine) morning behavior is just the beginning.
The rest of the day holds much of the same. "I don't wanna learn how to do this dumb math. Just give me the answers!" Caley shouts as I try to coach her through tough fraction problems. "Why do you always read books about horses?" she hisses at Maria during reading workshop. "You're never gonna get one, you know." At lunch, she barks at Rico, "You can't sit here!"
Whether a student has a condition like Oppositional Defiant Disorder or whether the disruptive, disrespectful behavior stems from other factors, one child like Caley can generate incredible amounts of stress for teachers. It's hard to know what to do when students present challenging behaviors. We know that yelling, punishing, bribing, and other common responses aren't effective. If it were as simple as promising a reward or threatening a detention, we'd all have worked this issue out long ago.
It's also easy to resent the time and energy difficult students require. Teachers work hard to create engaging lessons, and we want to help students learn and grow. The behavior of our most defiant students often obstructs our plans. How can we make sure one child's behavior doesn't drain energy from our class—and from ourselves?
Shift Your Mind-Set
One way to approach our toughest kids is to picture ourselves in hard situations with them and view those painful encounters as an important part of teaching. When we envision ourselves teaching, we likely see ourselves teaching a dynamic lesson, with students in rapt attention. Or we may picture ourselves facilitating a lively discussion about a great book with a small group or coaching an eager learner through a new skill, feeling the rush of satisfaction as she lights up with understanding.
Chances are, we don't envision ourselves being sworn at or spat on, or struggling with a kid who's throwing things. We may believe that handling extreme behaviors shouldn't be part of a teacher's job—or even that kids who show such behaviors shouldn't be in our classes. If we hold these attitudes, even in the back of our minds, we'll probably just avoid thinking about situations like a student throwing a tantrum—and hope such scenarios won't arise.
But as a colleague of mine says, "Hope is not a classroom management strategy." Students who display challenging behaviors will be a part of our lives and, I daresay, an important part. After all, who needs us most: students who are easy to teach, get along with others, and always do their work, or those who struggle to meet requirements and stay civil throughout the day?
Let's stop picturing our ideal class as problem-free. Instead of dreading challenging students, what if we embraced them? What if we relished the challenges they present and viewed our work with them as some of our most important teaching? Think how this might change the way we view stressful student encounters.
Changing my mind-set made a difference with Caley. Instead of seeing her as someone who was intentionally disruptive, I tried to see things from her perspective. I realized that she didn't feel a strong sense of belonging with the other students, so I helped her make positive connections with other students by pairing her carefully during reading conferences and math games. I also set Caley up as a reading buddy for a younger student in the school. It was incredible to see how caring and gentle she could be when she served as a mentor.
One 7th grade teacher I know begs his principal to assign him the kids who struggle the most, behaviorally and academically, because he loves the challenge of engaging reluctant learners. He recognizes the sense of accomplishment that comes from succeeding with kids who most need his positive energy and good teaching.
Regulate Your Emotions
How do we keep our positive energy high enough that we can draw on it in dreadful moments? One thing we can do is to be more aware of our own emotional states in these situations. Think back to a particularly stressful classroom interaction. Perhaps it was the day Mark threw a book across the room screaming, "I hate reading!" Or perhaps it was last Tuesday when Laticia slumped at her desk, refusing to participate in the chemistry lab. Consider what you felt at that moment. You probably felt anger, resentment, fear, and frustration (or a combination of these) wash through your system. It's worth asking yourself, Why do behaviors like this get me so riled up?
It may be that you're a bit of a control freak, and these situations make you feel out of control. You may be fearful that your principal, colleagues, or parents will view you as incompetent. You're probably under incredible pressure to cover an unrealistic amount of content, and when a student is jumping from his seat or threatening someone, it's harder to complete lessons. Perhaps you spent a lot of time crafting an engaging lesson, and you're resentful that this student's behavior is ruining it for everyone.
Whatever the reason, acknowledging the emotions you're feeling can help you stay calm. Once you say to yourself, "I'm feeling angry (or frustrated or scared)," then you can move toward handling your own feelings appropriately in the moment. Instead of reacting to the student's behavior by yelling or making a sarcastic comment, start by taking care of your own emotions. Take a deep breath and count to 10, or say calmly to the student, "Mark, head next door for a minute. We'll talk about this when we're both calm."
When teachers acknowledge their own feelings and manage them, we're less likely to exacerbate a tense situation with a response that fuels the fire. The other students in the room will also benefit from a teacher who tempers emotional reactions. When a teacher loses his or her cool, students may become upset themselves and have a harder time focusing on schoolwork. As we respond, we're modeling for students how to react to stressful interactions. We should seize the opportunity to model empathy, poise, and calm assertion.
Care for Yourself
Another way teachers can maintain energy is to take care of their physical and emotional health. Too often, educators spend so much time taking care of others that we don't take care of ourselves. Have you noticed how much harder it is to stay calm through a student meltdown when you're short on sleep or working on an empty stomach? How many times have you caught yourself promising to catch up on sleep over the weekend or during vacation—knowing full well that you won't? When teachers burn out, it's harder to handle "difficult" students in respectful and humane ways. And ultimately, it's not fun to lose our cool. It diminishes our sense of competence as teachers, which makes it even harder to help a student who needs our best energy.
I've consulted with teachers about staying healthy and balanced. I've asked teachers to identify their strategies for relieving their stress when school becomes pressured. Ironically, the activities many teachers point to as those that keep them healthy—exercising, spending time with family, reconnecting with nature, and getting adequate sleep—are the same things that they report not doing enough of in times of pressure. Teachers need to start viewing exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, nurturing our spirits, and other self-care strategies as part of our job.
It would be self-defeating to strive to help the most behaviorally challenging students without making a plan for what you'll do when challenges arise. Good teachers know the importance of planning in other areas of teaching. We plan lessons and units of study carefully, considering multiple ways to reach different learners. Teachers rarely do the same diligent preparation, however, when it comes to helping students who are struggling with serious behavioral problems.
There are specific strategies that work with challenging students. The following practices have helped me, both as a consultant and a teacher; in fact, they helped me improve things with Caley.
Collaborate on a Plan
Find a time to confer with the student when things are going well and you're both calm. Have the student help you develop a plan for what to do the next time the student's behavior or emotional state slides into dangerous territory. This will help you both feel more in control when it happens.
I developed a plan with Caley and our school counselor. Caley checked in with our counselor each morning when she got off the bus. If she was having an especially tough morning, she'd stay in the counseling office to get her cool back before coming down to the classroom. I gave Caley permission to leave class and visit the counselor without asking me, so that if she felt an explosion on the way, she could exit before it happened.
There's a myth floating around (sometimes perpetuated by principals who praise teachers for never sending students to the office) that good teachers should be able to handle student meltdowns by themselves. No way. Would a good surgeon refuse to ask for help if a patient started hemorrhaging on the operating table? We need to know that a few colleagues nearby can help us out when we need it, by either providing a quiet spot where the student can sit until they're calm or by watching our class while we get an administrator.
I drew on the patience of a good friend and colleague to help Caley. She taught down the hall, and Caley enjoyed being with her. Several times during the year, Caley got to be a guest learner in her class, which gave Caley and me a break from each other. These breaks enabled me to better maintain my composure.
It's hard to stay calm in the heat of the moment. If a student is being disruptive, our best intentions of using a measured, respectful tone of voice can go right out the window. Practicing what we want to say can have a huge impact. It may feel awkward, but in your commute to and from school, spend a few minutes practicing the tone and language you'll use the next time your Caley says, "I'm not doing it, and you can't make me!" I remember rehearsing over and over the phrase "Caley, you can either do the work now or head to the counseling room and finish the work later."
Honor Small Successes
These strategies helped make my year teaching Caley more positive. I also made sure to stick with my morning swimming routine. Exercise gave me a way to center myself for each day and begin it with positive energy.
I can't say Caley's behavior was always pleasant and respectful by the end of our school year. There were still snarly mornings, and math class continued to be especially rocky. I can say she had more pleasant interactions with adults and peers than at the year's beginning and that my reactions to her behavior improved.
And that's my last piece of advice about working with challenging students. Success needs to be measured in bite-sized, realistic ways. Celebrate a good math class even if the rest of the day wasn't great. One good day a week might be progress. Even the fact that we remained calm as our student didn't is something to feel good about as we reflect on a tough day. Honoring small accomplishments helps us hang in there with students who need us the most.
Mike Anderson is a Responsive Classroom program developer for Northeast Foundation for Children in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, and was a classroom teacher for 15 years. His most recent book is The Well-Balanced Teacher (ASCD, 2010).
Click on keywords to see similar products: