Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

A teacher named Kerri recently emailed me to ask:

What do you do for that student that continually chooses to misbehave? We have tried everything but nothing fazes him and it’s sending a message to to the other students in my class that I have a different standard of behavior for him. I feel like I argue and nag all day with him and that isn’t the type of teacher I usually am.

If you can relate to Kerri, here are a few things to consider.

1) Don’t take the behavior personally

Unfortunately, there’s a kid like this in almost every classroom. Unless the student only misbehaves in your classroom, the problem is probably not with you. Don’t take it personally, and don’t feel like you are the cause of this child’s issues. The way you choose to interact with this child certainly impacts him and influences his behavior, but you cannot control him.

Remind yourself: I am not responsible for any choices but my own. I am not responsible for the root of his issues and refuse to blame myself for them. I will not waste my time and energy trying to control another person. I will focus on my actions and reactions, and being the type of teacher I want to be.

Kerri’s observation that she isn’t acting like the type of teacher she usually is? That feeling is what tends to be our undoing as teachers. We allow kids with extreme behavioral or socio-emotional issues to turn us into people we don’t want to be. We watch ourselves become the type of teacher who screams at a student, who shames them, who punishes out of desperation and frustration. We hate the person who we’ve become, and we blame the child for making us that way.

But we are responsible for our own choices. No one can make us think or feel in a way that we don’t to. We can choose to love kids when they act in unloving ways. We can make a conscious choice to act from a place of love even when students do not.

Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

2) Don’t let the student bait you into reacting

Remind yourself that the kids who need love the most will often ask for it in the most unloving ways. Use that thought to stir up the patience you need to respond to misbehavior in constructive ways that don’t just stop the behavior, but pro-actively prevent it from happening again by meeting kids’ underlying needs.

Most of time, you can catch more flies with honey. If you aim to be a calm, empathetic, unshakeable role mode for your students, you will get better results than if you teach kids to fear you or fear punishment from you. Fear is a strong motivator in the short term, but it doesn’t produce the results we want long term. Don’t make tough love your default reaction. Be the mature adult in the midst of tense, emotionally-charged situations instead of letting kids bait you into reacting to them.

Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

3) Don’t be quick to assume you’ve really tried everything

When you have students that are unresponsive to any type of intervention, the most important thing is to be consistent, calm, and give the strategies you’re trying some time to work.

Everyone THINKS they do this, but most of the time, we really aren’t doing that at all.

I remember sitting in a Child Study meeting fighting back tears and feeling like I wanted to scream because the student was so disruptive in my classroom that I literally could not teach for 2 minutes without an interruption. I was trying desperately to get the child evaluated and was so angry that no one was doing anything and my entire class’ education was suffering because of it.

I was sitting in this meeting and the team asked me what interventions I’d tried. I told them, “Oh, I’ve tried everything! I did this and that and this and that, and none of it worked. See, look, here’s the data to prove it!” And I gleefully laid out all of the documentation that I had resentfully spent so many hours recording.

It was my moment of triumph. I was sure that I had conclusively proved that this kid could not function in the general ed classroom and needed either a one-on-one aide or to be moved to a different setting. You can’t refute data, right? Finally, this kid was going to get the help he needed and I was going to be able to teach the rest of the class.

And the psychologist looked over all of my paperwork very carefully, and then she said to me, “This is very impressive, Angela. You’ve certainly tried a lot of different strategies, and they’re very good. I’m wondering how you were able it implement all of this, considering it’s only the end of September?”

And I froze as the reality of what she said hit me. Because every minute I spent with that child felt like an eternity, and every minute of implementing some intervention felt like a week. The amount of stress I was under had caused me to completely lose perspective and decide this kid was incapable of growth and improvement after just 6 weeks of trying.

Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

4) Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by counting on a “silver bullet” solution

What I described above is the behavior of a desperate teacher. I was looking for a silver bullet that would cure a lifetime of issues in a child overnight. I tried a new strategy for a couple of days, didn’t see an improvement, and so I’d adjust it and try something else. It’s good to be constantly monitoring and adapting a set of interventions, but I realized that day in the meeting that you can’t implement a new behavior plan on Monday and decide it didn’t work when the kid is behaving the same way on Friday.

Who knows what happened to the child at home that particular week that threw the results off. And who knows what will happen if you stick with the plan, and keep doggedly going back in the classroom each day determined to be patient and loving toward that child. Kids with extreme behaviors tend to have a lot of inconsistency in their lives, and finding out they had a new behavior plan every week is generally not very helpful for them.

What these kids often need more than anything is someone who is willing to stick with them and not get frustrated.

Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

5) Don’t wallow in self-pity and assume YOU are the only one who’s overwhelmed

When you are feeling desperate, remember that the child is feeling desperate, too. Nobody WANTS to bang their head on a table, throw desks, and be ostracized from a room full of people who think they’re weird. Nobody wants to sit alone because they’re incapable of getting along with their peers for 30 seconds. Nobody wants to be lectured and nagged and shamed and punished and questioned and disciplined over and over again. If the kid was capable of making choices that resulted in a better life and better school experience, she or he would do it!

And we have proof of that, because we see those little moments of breakthroughs. We observe as that child is able to be successful for a few minutes at a time in class, and think, why can’t they be like this all the time?

But those few minutes are proof that when the child is in a stable emotional state, she or he chooses to work, chooses to interact socially with peers, and chooses to be successful. When she or he hits a wall or something triggers an issue deep inside, the child isn’t able to be successful any more in that moment. That out-of-control state might be the default, but it’s not what the child really wants. Of course deep down the child would rather fit in and be part of the group and excel in school.

And so our job is to help the child get in that mental state more often.

Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

6) Don’t confuse a problem with a person

When you feel yourself getting really, really frustrated, remind yourself that the behavior is meeting some need of the child’s and it makes sense within the context of his or her reality. Kids have their own inner struggles we know nothing about.

Try the 2×10 strategy where you talk to the student about anything she or he wants for 2 minutes a day, 10 school days in a row. Focus not on fixing the kid, but on understanding him or her.

Stop worrying about finding the perfect intervention and start listening, start empathizing, start trying to get to know the student beyond just as a problem for you to fix but as a person for you to learn with and from.

Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

7) Don’t assume that dealing with student misbehavior should be easier for you

We have to help our troubled students feel better. And in the process of doing so, we have to get real about how much hard work is involved with that. Everything I suggested that you do is going to be HARD. It’s going to require a great deal of self-control and energy.

But the more you view the child as a real person, a person you can get to know and maybe even actually like, the less you will resent having him or her in the classroom.

Don’t think for a moment that students don’t sense our feelings toward them. Change your attitude and the rest WILL follow, I promise.  You can do this! It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

Next week: How to beat the October blues and regain your enthusiasm for teaching

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go!  A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Extreme student behavior: 7 traps to avoid when NOTHING seems to work

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karma not Berry October 6, 2015 at 9:40 pm

i like your article on behavior. One strategy that I love is asking the student what they are doing? Wait for reply, then ask what they should be doing? It shifts the responsibility back on the student and off of me;) works often and like a charm!

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2 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:45 pm

Yes! “What should you be doing right now?” is one of my favorite questions to ask kids!

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3 Amy October 7, 2015 at 7:47 am

This is exactly what I needed to be reminded of today. Started my Tuesday with a surprise parent conference in a class that is supposed to honors and yet riddled with disrespectful student. Thanks for the reminder that I can control only me!

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4 Liz October 10, 2015 at 7:06 am

Wow! Thank you for this! It’s been a rough year with our youngest students and this blog entry is being share with my admin today! It’s so timely as I’ve been losing sleep thinking about what more I can do. How else can I help my kids? We are understaffed, overwhelmed, and starting to take it out on each other. I needed this today. Thank you!

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5 Angela October 10, 2015 at 9:31 am

Love this. It puts things in perspective.

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6 Carla October 10, 2015 at 8:25 pm

Hi Angela!
I use the podcast app on my iPhone to listen to your episodes and this week’s episode keeps giving me an error stating “it is temporarily unavailable via Truth for Teachers.” This was such a good episode I wanted to hear it again on my podcast app. Thanks for checking on the possible issue.

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7 Angela Watson October 10, 2015 at 11:44 pm

Must be a temporary error–the feed is working okay for me. :)

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8 Carla October 13, 2015 at 7:54 am

Okay, thank you! :)

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9 Lisa October 11, 2015 at 3:32 pm

what about the child who behaves so badly that you truly no matter how hard you try just don’t like him.

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10 Beth October 11, 2015 at 7:44 pm

Or if it’s an entire class, and the two or three students behaving well are the outliers?

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11 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:48 pm

Lisa, I think the key with that one kid that you just can’t seem to like is to get to know him or her as a person. Once you start to make a personal connection, you find traits that ARE likeable. See if this helps: http://thecornerstoneforteachers.com/2014/10/the-2×10-strategy-a-miraculous-solution-for-behavior-issues.html

Beth, if the entire class is out of control, that’s a different situation. I’d go back to re-teaching procedures, routines, and expectations. Most students WANT to be successful–they just may need more/different support than we originally assumed in order to BE successful. Feel free to ask specific questions and I’ll try to help. :)

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12 Annette October 11, 2015 at 11:57 pm

I agree with your article. But what can I do as a substitute when a student continually misbehaves in class? I am there usually only one day.

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13 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:49 pm

It’s tough when you’re only there one day. I’d advise you to pick your battles, don’t take the misbehavior personally, and don’t get drawn into confrontation. Do what needs to be done in order to maintain a calm learning environment for the rest of the class, and don’t attempt to fix deeply-rooted behavioral issues on your own in a single day. :)

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14 Maritza Pira October 12, 2015 at 2:09 pm

Hello
I’ m first grade teacher and there are here a boy that all time is disturbing my class, looking for a fight with your classmates, but the worse is that it is too aggressive, make my rude signs, grimacing and your vocabulary is filthy , he had kicking me and I got angry , so turned worse the situation.
The principal decided get him away of the school but I ‘m incapable to accept it without doing more. Please I need your help.

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15 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:49 pm

Is this child still in your class, Maritza?

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16 Diane Whichard October 13, 2015 at 11:24 am

Love it. I work with teachers that sometimes have these problems. This is perfect. I will be sharing this with them Thanks a bunch.

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17 Jenny Carrow October 13, 2015 at 7:56 pm

Thanks for sharing. I certainly have a challenging class this year and need all the suggestions I can get.

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18 Sherry Smith October 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm

I really appreciate the School Board being mindful and teaching awareness of Trauma and how it relates to students who have experienced it. Or are currently going through trauma. Listening to children is one of the most powerful tools one can possess. But this takes lovingkindness, patience and hope. When students know you really care for them and are consistent and treat them right the process of their healing can begin.

Also, when children are experiencing trauma or have experienced Trauma education in the way we know it becomes secondary (as it should) and the situation at hand must be addressed.

Having an open ear and possible resolution by providing or directing them to the help they need lets them know that they matter and are cared for.

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19 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Well said. Thanks for commenting.

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20 Jennifer March 18, 2016 at 1:36 pm

Soooo true…Why don’t teachers get it that you DON’T make a child do better by making them feel worse??
Do you have any quick handouts on this topic for teachers to hand out?

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21 Kayla March 27, 2016 at 3:35 am

I really needed to read this now. About a month ago I had a student with severe ADHD moved into my room. The whole classroom climate has changed and I feel like I cannot get any teaching done. This child is constantly disrupting class and I’ve found myself turning into THAT teacher! :-( You gave some great tips to try.

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22 Angela Watson April 3, 2016 at 2:41 pm

Hang in there my friend! You can do ANYTHING for 2 more months! :)

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23 layne May 11, 2016 at 8:39 pm

I know there are mixed reviews on the word love, and thusly it’s overusage, but please tell students you love them. Not talking about what they do, or how they do it for that matter. “I love you, and I am so happy you are here.” It will not prevent extreme behaviors, but after a blow, it makes them helps them to understand that you really do love them, and are glad they are here.

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24 Angela Watson May 12, 2016 at 8:44 pm

I agree 100% with everything you said. Thank you for sharing that.

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25 Deb Brenner June 13, 2016 at 7:55 am

I agree with the teacher who tells her students she loves them. Kids who feel loved are much more invested in trying to be a part of the class then those who don’t feel loved. I teach a group of very profoundly handicapped and medically fragile young children. Love and compassion are the only way to go with the kids and their families.

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26 T.Mokua October 3, 2016 at 2:17 pm

Dear Angela, your article on 7 traps to avoid is to the point. I have personally applied your ideas although not in 7 point format and indeed the results are resoundingly promising. It is a hard road to travel for most of us. Most adults, teachers included feel insulted and disobeyed if teenager answers rudely or is apparently not taking directions as expected. I my idea is that i need to be patient and try to communicate with out seemingly looking angry. Many times most of what i do is lost and child walks away disappointingly rude or does not respond the way i expected. Your ideas arising from your experiences during your practice are truly practical and to the point.

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