The kids who do well deserve the rewards. The best rewards one can give as a teacher are time and attention. The more attention a teacher gives to negative behaviors, the more reinforcement there is for negative behavior to continue. Aside from the psychology lesson, the bottom line is that educators can’t just ignore it when a student inaugurates them into the “a-hole club” or gives them a full scholarship to “Screw U” either. So what is the balance?
Having worked with at-risk youth for the better part of 18 years- from gang kids all the way down to the non-attenders, here are some techniques that have proved themselves successful.
Never argue with teenagers
They live for it, and they are better at it than you are because in their world, the arguments don’t have to be logical nor do they have to be backed up with evidence. In the teenage world, “because it sucks” is a good talking point. Some tricks to avoid arguing include the phrases, “I disagree”, “Even so”, and “Nevertheless”. Use these weapons to stop arguments before they start. For example,
“You told us that we didn’t have to turn that assignment in.”
“I told you it was due on Thursday.”
“No you didn’t, you said……..”
“We disagree on that.”
What is the student going to say at that point? “No we don’t disagree”?
Another example would be,
“I don’t think it’s fair that I got detention when everyone else was talking too.”
“Nevertheless (or “Even so”), you were talking and I chose to give you detention because of it. “
You will be amazed what happens when you use these tools. I do not, however, discourage kids from trying to form valid arguments for changes they would like to see, and I am careful to verbally tell them when they make a good argument, even if I am siding against it.
Praise publicly, correct privately
Another rule in the unwritten student handbook is that they must always save face in front of their peers. Being corrected harshly in front of the class will many times result in more defiance than would take place one on one. How many times in our careers have there been explosive situations that when allowed some time to cool turned out quite civil and productive. I have taken a few approaches in these cases. If a student just blatantly STOPS learning for the entire room, then I have to make sure kids see me give it the proper attention. I might ask the student to step outside until I come out to speak with them. This sends the message that the problem is going to be dealt with, but the schedule of education and learning takes precedence over the agenda of the obnoxious. It almost says, “I’ll get to you when it is convenient for me, because the people who are learning are more important than those who act this way.”
When going out to attend to the attitude, it can be effective to start off with “Why are you out here?” Sometimes kids don’t know. If they try to jump right into defending their actions, it can be effective to say, “I’ll give you a chance to explain yourself in a second, I just want to know if you understand why I sent you out here.” Knowing they will have a chance to argue or explain often calms them down. Get them to state the rule or violation of the rule so it’s clear and coming from them. Once that has been verbalized, then allow them to try to explain why they did what they did. You may find out there is a whole lot more going on in their lives than just your classroom. You can gain huge “street cred” just by allowing them to speak, asking good questions, and listening. If their explanation is lame, refer to rule one and avoid arguing, but allow them a chance to save face by re-entering if that is appropriate. If they have really blown it and need to go to the office, simply saying, ” I just wanted a chance to speak with you before you had to go to the office” can earn you respect in their mind when they reflect on it. ( and they do)
Only state the obvious
Riding the coattails of rule number one, this comes in handy to avoid students getting you off on tangents that have nothing to do with the original offense. Have you ever addressed a student about their behavior only to find yourself minutes later trying to defend yourself about why you don’t hate them, haven’t picked on them, or something related to the past? This is birdwalking and again, they are masters at it. Don’t go there. Identify the obvious. For example,
“You need to take your seat, Thad.”
“Why do you hate me so much? You are always picking on me and other people are out of their desks and you never say anything to them, only to me.”
For those of you who broke out in a cold sweat just reliving that all to often scenario, my apologies. But here is the rest of that conversation handled effectively.
“I saw you out of your seat and I addressed it. If you feel I’m treating you unfairly, let’s meet before or after school, or during lunch and we can discuss that.”
If the student gets up again, state the exact obvious. “
“This is the second time I’ve spoken to you about being out of your seat. We just had this discussion six minutes ago.”
This is like a verbal documentation if you will, and sometimes can alert a behavioral tendency to a kid who is otherwise so self-absorbed that they didn’t realize themselves how many times they caused disruption. The same holds true for disrupting others, yelling, etc. State what you observe and what is obvious to all.
Start from scratch every class period.
This is the hardest thing for teachers and students alike to do. If the teacher is the first to be able to do this, it will make it easier for the student to do it. If you have the same behavior kid for more than one class per day, make sure what they did in the morning doesn’t affect your treatment of them in the afternoon or even the next hour. Especially in this day and age of medications, the student may seem to be a completely different temperament at different times during the day. Not holding grudges with them will allow them to let go of things they might otherwise hang on to emotionally. It also sends the message that you are just focusing on behaviors, not targeting specific kids- even though we all know the same kids may exhibit those behaviors repeatedly.
Doing these four things will minimize the confrontations that have the potential to get out of control, and may even earn you an ally or two. It is also worth using humor and going to watch that student perform in some activity outside your class time.