Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Compassionate Discipline: Dealing with Difficult Students

Magazine article AMLE Magazine

Compassionate Discipline: Dealing with Difficult Students

Article excerpt

If you are tired of dealing with negative student behaviors day in and day out, you are not alone- in fact, you are firmly in the center of the average teacher's experience. Still, managing difficult student behaviors eventually sucks the energy from most teachers, no matter how talented or experienced.

Teachers who make it long term and still love teaching 15 or 20 years later have certain qualities in common. For example, they:

* Have, and know how to use many effective tools for intervening with student misbehavior.

* Empathize with the rotten experiences kids must be dealing with outside the classroom if they are acting out inside the classroom.

* Don't let it get to them down when they intermittently have bad days or bad moments with kids.

* Don't see themselves as failures when a student doesn't succeed or change his or her behavior.

So how can we help our most challenging students without completely depleting ourselves?

First, consider this: The students in our classrooms who are the most disruptive and who consistently make poor behavior choices have learned that adults are not trustworthy. They believe that in the end, all adults will eventually abandon or abuse them. This abandonment or abuse might be emotional rather than physical, but to these students it is a hard-learned truth.

Still, deep down, they hope there's an exception- an adult who will treat them with respect, hold them accountable firmly but gently, and never give up on them, no matter what awful things they do or say. So they test us by acting out in class. By doing so, they are collecting evidence, watching, noting how we respond. We redirect their behavior in a calm, safe, and structured way-we pass the test!

But they've been down this road before. Any adult can pass one test. So they test again. And we pass again. But they know better. They've met lots of adults who can hold out, passing these tests for months, but in the end will always disappoint. So students act out even more and worse. They have to break us before we break them. And often, they do.

We are only human, and in the face of such a protracted onslaught of negative behaviors that gets worse over time no matter how safe, structured, and consistent we are, no matter what consequences we use, we eventually give up. Eventually we get exhausted. And because we get nothing back from the student, and therefore have nothing to show for all our effort, we begin to resent the student. Then we throw up our hands and say "He can't be reached" or "She has to meet me half way" or "I led him to water, but it's up to him to drink." These are all the equivalent of giving up, of abandonment, and the student knows it.

Maybe we still go through the motions with them, but our hearts aren't in it. We don't truly believe they can change or even that they want to change. At the end of the year, they will become somebody else's problem. And now we are just another statistic in their growing body of evidence against adults.

Compassionate Accountability

When we try all year but aren't able to reach or help a particular student, that isn't failure. Failure is when we stop caring about students and stop trying to help them.

Most of us routinely invest huge amounts of energy into our most challenging students, more than is healthy or sustainable. The thing is, we don't have to exhaust ourselves in order to keep caring or trying to reach a student. We just have to believe in them, want to help them, and keep offering them the choice to do better. And we have to communicate to them in some way that we will be there for them, no matter what choices they make, because we care more about them than about their academic progress.

At the same time, we don't let them slide. We keep holding them accountable for their behavior. Even consequences for non-compliance or defiance can be given from a place of internal empathy, while being firm and consistent. …

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