An engaging, carefully planned lesson can disarm a kid who comes to class with negative expectations.
We don't get to decide whether we have challenging students in our classes, but we can certainly decide how we respond to them. Although making that choice wisely isn't guaranteed to eliminate problems, it dramatically reduces them. More important, it positions a teacher to make a positive difference in the lives of those students who most need mentors, advocates, and champions.
Here are some insights that I've found helpful in dealing with students who test me.
Teach well! An engaging, carefully planned lesson that offers all students an opportunity to contribute—and to succeed—can disarm a kid who comes to class with negative expectations. Further, such lessons garner the attention of the majority of the class and make it less likely that a belligerent student will get an audience. Curriculum and instruction that are relevant to students, complement their intelligence, and fit their current level of proficiency can replace frustration with participation.
Show respect for every student. Actions and words that emanate from respect are more likely to be productive than those that stem from anger, frustration, or fear.
Find the student's redeeming characteristics. All human beings have them. Seeing the positives accomplishes at least two things. First, it helps teachers begin to like those students whose behaviors initially seem distasteful. Second, it gives teachers a store of positive messages to deliver to students whose world may feel largely negative.
Try to find out what's behind the negative behavior. Students generally act out in the classroom because something in their world is out of balance. Alex loudly refused to complete classwork. Turns out his parents were divorcing, and he concluded that if he created enough chaos at school, they'd have to get together to discuss his difficulties—and reconcile. John bullied other kids, liberally used expletives in school, and set fires outside of school. It was his way of expressing rage and pain from abuse. Damon alienated his classmates in a score of ways because he felt it was safer to alienate them than to endure more rejection. Angel played the class clown because she knew no other way to get attention.
Understanding what's behind destructive behavior doesn't result in an instant cure, but it does help teachers work toward solving problems rather than merely addressing symptoms.
Don't take it personally. Ms. Campbell tried persistently to establish a positive relationship with Andre, who regularly cut classes and berated her. His sense of humor suggested a clever mind. One day she overheard something funny Andre said and remarked, "You make me laugh, Andre. I like it when you're here." Without missing a beat, he responded, "Yeah, well, I hate your guts!" Keeping cool, she answered, "It takes a while for me to grow on people, but you'll learn to appreciate me."
"What he says isn't about me," Ms. Campbell reflected later. "It's about a bad life. I'll never reach him if I let him push me away."
Be a "warm demander."1
These teachers are half pit bull and half Mother Teresa. Their students are keenly aware that their teacher cares for them and has their best interests at heart—and also that he or she won't accept negative behaviors. In the classrooms of warm demanders, challenging students find the affirmation and structure that are typically missing in their lives.
Help the student learn to act on his or her own behalf. At 14, Brian was the kid all the other students hated to have in their group. He overwhelmed group members with loud, overeager attention. When his peers became snappish with him, he would lose his temper, often hurling materials on the floor or turning over desks. On occasion, he even pounded his head on the floor.
I talked privately with Brian about how it felt to him when a group setting went bad. He hated it and understood that his loss of control alienated his peers.
We worked together all year on three steps to help him succeed in a group. First, he practiced being more reserved in his talk and actions. Second, he learned to recognize the early signs of peer problems and to walk away from the group to a safe place in the room when he detected those signs. Third, he understood that I would also keep an eye out for impending difficulty and would give him a signal when he needed to go somewhere else in the room for a bit. In the course of the year, Brian progressed from dismantling group tasks within a matter of minutes, to being able to work with a group for most of a class period.
Ross Greene of Harvard Medical School reminds us that teachers often say of challenging kids, "He could do better if he just would."2
More often than not, Greene suggests, we have it backwards. Challenging students would do better if they could. Working with them from a perspective of respect, empathy, and a desire to help them learn the skills necessary for success is both more productive and more redemptive than a punitive approach. And it's real teaching.
Bondy, E., & Ross, D. (2008). The teacher as warm demander. Educational Leadership, 66(1), 54–58.
Greene, R. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author, with Marcia B. Imbeau, of Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2010); firstname.lastname@example.org.
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