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How to Handle Difficult Students in Your Classroom

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Show Notes:

I know what it feels like to have a student in your class who is out of control or who seems unreachable – who just doesn’t seem to care about anything in the classroom, no matter what.

It was my second year of teaching when I had a student in my class who we will call Tyler, and Tyler reminded me of Linus from Charlie Brown. He had dirty clothes, he was overweight, and he had holes in his shoes. He never paid attention. In fact, he looked a little like a zombie most of the time... he never listened and when he was given consequences, he would EXPLODE.

One of his favorite pastimes was to take everything out of his desk and throw it onto the floor and then refuse to clean it up. I resorted to not letting him go home after school until it was all cleaned up, which meant that I too had to stay at school. And man, he was stubborn. Sometimes we were there for an hour after school when I really didn’t need to be there. I didn’t know what to do with him.

I felt incredibly unprepared to know what to do or how to help him. I tried all of my usual tricks but he had this temper… and he was incredibly strong for a 2nd grade student.

And then one day, it happened - he threw his desk across the room.
I'm not kidding.

As we were waiting for the police to arrive with my entire class huddled on one side of the room behind me, he stood between us and the door, I was trying to talk to him but he looked like he was about to rip our entire classroom apart. My kids were terrified, and so was I.

It was then that I heard his name spoken in a tiny voice from the door to our classroom… and I realized that it was our custodian, Mary. He turned and immediately softened. We were all shocked.

She came in quietly and asked him to come out with her, and he nodded and followed behind her. 

The police arrived and took Tyler to our great relief, but I could still not believe how Tyler had responded to Mary.

Why had he listened to her?

Later, I talked to Mary and found out what had been happening, quietly in the background, without any of us even knowing what was going on.

It turns out that after school, Tyler hung out in the back playground for as long as he could, even in the bitter cold of a Canadian winter, because for some reason, he didn’t want to go home. Mary had let him come inside and warm up, and eventually, she started letting him use the shower in the boys locker room and provided soap and some clean clothes for him before he went home. She had found some shoes that fit him at a garage sale that didn’t have holes in them. And, she kept him company and walked him out the school each day, giving him something to eat before he went home.

I learned that day that we have angels among us. Can you imagine what that must have done for Tyler? (Now I can’t imagine, sadly, the legal ramifications today of letting a child shower in your school after hours, but that was a different time, clearly...)

But here’s what our amazing custodian Mary taught me about Tyler, and about these kinds of kids in general: these are the kids who, despite continually pushing us away, are the ones who need us the most.

She reminded me that we can catch more flies with honey – there’s a reason that expression has withstood the test of time. And, she taught me that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, even though it’s what feels like is in shorter and shorter supply with our never-ending to-do list.

But here’s the thing. It’s on trend to say that kids are different these days. That they are entitled and disrespectful. I hear it in staff rooms all of the time.

And yet, this happened in my classroom more than 20 years ago, and Tyler certainly wasn’t my only student who had these kinds of challenges, and we lived in a pretty affluent neighborhood at the time. We had all of the dentists’ kids (yes, those completely entitled kids whose parents asked me to apologize when I caught their child stealing), and our school also bordered on a trailer park, so we had a pretty diverse socioeconomic population at our school.

The point is that these kinds of behaviors aren’t new, and what I’m about to share with you is probably going to blow your mind – it certainly blew my mind when I read it:

This is a quote from a thinker named Hesiod in the 8th Century B.C. that comes from the text Child Development Thinking Theories, and it reads:

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

Or how about this one, attributed to Socrates of ancient Greece:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

When we say things like “I can’t believe kids these days,” or “Kids are nothing like we were,” we might want to think again. I know that it’s on trend to talk about how awful or how disrespectful kids are these days, but is it possible that they are no different than they were 20 years ago?

Is it possible that they are no different than we were?

Part of the reason that I ask this is because there are also wonderful, wonderful parents who are raising incredible kids. One of my best friends in the whole world, Catherine Montes, is such a fabulous mom and she is raising four incredible kids. Kids who are held accountable, who are loved and disciplined, who are celebrated and corrected, and who feel safe in the balance of well-adjusted parents. I’m sure you have some of those kids in your classroom, too.

And, in the same neighborhood are those parents who make you just shake your head in wonder of their poor judgement and neglect and too often, suspected abuse. But none of this is new. We may have new challenges with each generation, but the generation of the 60s and 70s had parents who thought it was completely normal and fine to do acid and live in a state of free love. THAT was my parents’ generation. And yet, somehow I was able to grow up somewhat normal and get an education and contribute to society.

So I guess what I want to ask is this: If you were that child who was being neglected or abused – whether it be from parents who have a lot of money and unrealistically high expectations or parents who have to work three jobs just to put food on the table and who you rarely ever see, and you came to school each day, having come from an environment that was less than stable, less than ideal, what would work for you?

Who would you listen to?

What would you look forward to?

What would make you sit up and pay attention?

What would get you to care about anything that’s going on at school?

That’s the answer to the question, “What should I be doing inside my own classroom with these students?”

And, that will look and feel very different for each one of you, depending on your circumstances and your personality, your gifts and your teaching style.

I think we too often disrespect or ignore what we intuitively already know inside our own hearts and minds, what makes sense, and we too quickly look outside of ourselves for answers to what our next steps should be with a child or with a situation inside our own classrooms. But, the reality is that you know those children the best. You likely spend more time with those kids each day than even their parents do.

So, instead of searching the internet for five steps to what to when xyz happens in your classroom, sometimes, the answer is to take a breath, get quiet, and ask yourself:

What does this child need?
What are my natural next steps?
What would I respond to if I came to school with bigger challenges than anyone could ever imagine for a child?

I know that sometimes it can be hard to trust yourself for guidance when you feel overwhelmed and defeated, but often, the answer can be so simple. Once I saw what Mary, our custodian, was doing for Tyler, I realized that what he needed most, and the reason he listened to her and not to me, was because I simply resented him for his behavior in my classroom (because I made it all about me and what I wanted, when his behavior really had very little to do with me and whatever I was doing), and so without even realizing it, I wasn’t giving him the time or the attention that he most needed.

The truth is, (even though we’re not supposed to admit that we’re human and that we have human emotions as teachers), I really started to not like him that much and so the last thing I wanted to do was to give him more attention.

But that was exactly what he needed. My time. My attention. And my belief in him. Tyler needed me to see in him what nobody else had seen in him yet.

After learning from amazing Mary, our custodian, I committed to spending a little bit of time with Tyler each day from that day forward. Now, some of you may have heard or read about the 2 x 10 strategy – which means spending 2 minutes each day for 10 days with a student who has challenging behaviors, and during that two minutes each day, which you need to schedule into your planner and actually stick to, talk about things outside of school. Start to get to know that child. Find something that you have in common, and build on that.

So, when you have those kiddos in your classroom, and you will, every year, the answer is not to treat them just like everyone else and expect that they will follow the rules and procedures you’ve set up in your classroom just like everyone else, because likely where they’ve come from that morning is not just like everyone else.

What they’re dealing with may be adult problems, and they just may need a soft place to fall with you. What I learned from Mary all of those years ago is that she became that soft place to fall for Tyler, and I can only imagine the long-term impact she made on his life.

So, I’ll come full circle now and ask you, because you probably already know the answer:

What would work for you at school if you weren’t getting enough love at home?
Enough attention? Enough boundaries?

What would make the biggest impact for you?
Who HAS made the biggest impact in your life, and why did they make that impact?
And, how can you be more like that person in dealing with these kiddos who are challenging you?

The reality is that there will be no shortage of kids like Tyler in your life as a teacher. You can’t control who comes into your classroom or what their background is.

However, and this is something I think we are all here to learn – the only person I can ever control is me. The only person you can ever control is you.

So, what will be your response to this situation? What will you do, in your ongoing development as a teacher, as an amazing human being, to build relationship and care and love and positivity into your own classroom, into that special universe that you have created and need to protect?

Maybe you want to try the 2 X 10 strategy. Maybe you want to start an after-school club. Maybe you want to create special jobs or give the best jobs in your classroom to the kids who need the self-esteem boost the most.

Often, the right thing to do is the thing that you least want to do or that feels contrary to what is logical. But, when you close your door and in the silence of that beautiful space, you listen to your own knowing, the question is simple:

What can you do to bring more light into what feels like an otherwise dark moment?

The most important thing is to not let that student control you. To not let that student or those students determine your happiness or your worthiness or your talent and developing skills as an educator.

Their actions say more about how they have been hurt by other adults in their life than about anything to do with you. No matter how dark or how hard it might feel to you, what you don’t realize is that you may already be the highlight in that child’s day.

Tyler and I ended up working pretty well together that year. The change certainly wasn’t instant, in part because I was pretty much terrified of him for a little while after that desk-throwing incident – we all were. It took about a half-dozen visits from our school counselor to help us all process what had happened that day, but once we all gained a little more understanding about what Tyler was going through at home, that led to compassion, and that led to kindness and generosity of time and attention towards him. Not only from me, but from his classmates who, prior to that incident, had avoided him even more than I had.

And – because I made him my special desk monitor who was now in charge of checking to make sure that everyone else’s desk was clean at the end of each day, and he got to award the person with the cleanest desk with a Special Person Award, he became the model for a clean desk. And of course, I also gave him a Special Person Award quite often for being a role model each week for his classmates. What a change in him – and all because I decided to see in him what nobody else had yet.

Even though it’s trendy to say that this current generation has its own brand of problems, and they do, just as every generation has, we have always had these children in our classrooms, and I think it’s safe to say that we always will, and the reality is that they are more like our generation was when they were our age than we even realize. However, our power is in who we choose to be in response to that behavior.

πŸ’› Lori

P.S. Is differentiation getting you down? If you're struggling with trying to figure out how to differentiate learning in your classroom, grab your FREE copy of my Differentiation Teacher Cheat Sheet by clicking below:

Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.

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