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How to Deal with a Problem Student

Learn how to deal with a problem student from education consultant Grace Dearborn in this Howcast video.


How to deal with a problem student. Oftentimes, when a single student is being really problematic, for us as teachers, there is something in the way of that student feeling safe or feeling comfortable in the classroom, and that might have nothing to do with you and have everything to do with their home life or their experiences in classrooms so far, but we've inherited that student and that behavior and it is our job to try and work with them towards being more productive in the classroom.

Let's start with the assumption that that student wants to do better, that that student wants to be appropriate, wants to behave, wants to be engaged, but there's something in the way of them being able to do that and let's help them move through that. The number one thing we can do for students like this, besides trying to connect with them personally or trying to create rapport with them, which then we can parlay into better behavior in the classroom, is to get super structured and clear with them about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.

If you have a student who is constantly breaking the same kinds of rules over and over, a chronic misbehavior, then we move to something really deeply structured, like breaking the cycle of misbehavior, which is something we talk about a lot in our book on conscious classroom management. Breaking the cycle of misbehavior means that you have a student who can't seem to stop doing the same repetitive negative behavior over and over again and oftentimes we address students like that by saying, "Sally, just stop doing that. Just do this instead. Just stop being that way." But they can't. A learned, chronic behavior is more complex than that. It's more difficult to break than just saying stop doing that.

If you've ever battled an addiction or if you've ever had a chronic behavior you tried to break, when I was younger, I was incredibly sarcastic. All the time, sarcastic, and I didn't know it, because that's just the way I grew up and, when I was in college, one of my older friends pulled me aside at a party one day and said, "Gracie, nobody likes it when you are sarcastic. It is ugly and people don't like you." And I was devastated. I was devastated and, after I got over my devastation and I thought about it some more, I realized, wow, I am sarcastic all the time. I don't want to be that way. I don't want people to not want to be around me, so I'm going to stop and I woke up the next day and I was never sarcastic again.

No, that's not even possible, but I wanted to wake up the next day. I wanted to never be sarcastic again, but it's not that easy to break a chronic or habitual behavior and it's not easy for our students either. So, when we're working with them, we want to use something structured. Generally, this has five steps. Step one, they've got to want to change. Now, this sounds more difficult than it is because if I pull Sally aside and I say, "Sally, do you want to keep getting in trouble for doing this particular behavior?" What if she says, "Yes," or, "I don't care." Then, I would say, "You know what, Sally? I hear you saying you don't care but let's work together as if you do care and see what happens." Assume the best. Everybody wants to do better.

The second step is Sally has to know how to change, right? So, I have to go over with her what the correct behavior is and then, step three, she has to practice the change. So, if the problem behavior is that Sally is always the last person to get from her table group to the carpet, then we're going to practice that together. Not during class, but at recess or at lunch or after school, so she can feel what success feels like inside of that, and then we can practice that in class as well.

The fourth thing is that she has to be aware of roadblocks to success. So, we have to have a conversation. "Sally, why is it that you're always the last person to be on the carpet when it's time to transition?" "I don't know." Okay, well, let's think about it and work towards figuring out getting her to say things like sometimes I don't hear when it's time to go. Sometimes, I'm distracted by my tablemates, so that we can work towards solutions towards those things.

Step five, the last step of this breaking the cycle of misbehavior, is Sally needs to receive support for the change, when she's trying it in the classroom, in real time and I want to provide the least amount of support possible that absolutely ensures her success. With the transitioning to the carpet, the least amount of support that might ensure her success the first time might be me holding her hand and walking her to the carpet and sitting her down on her carpet spot, but she has to succeed the first time and I can maybe walk with her for a week or for a few days, and then, for a few days or for a week, I walk with her but I don't hold her hand. Then, maybe for a week, I don't walk with her but when she gets to her spot, she's got to give me a thumbs up so I'm kind of still in the mix or I'm still part of supporting her to get there. This is really labor intensive. This could take a month of support, slowly removing my support as she becomes more autonomous with the behavior but the more slowly that we remove our support, the more likely it is that she will actually reach autonomy with breaking that misbehavior a month later. So, those are a few ways to deal with a problem student.

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