Improving the classroom management of tough cases can be a long, long process.
Sometimes you'll find the key to changing behavior quickly, but most often it will take a long stretch of classroom interventions and dedicated effort.
Frankly, sometimes you will never really figure it out to the level that you hope for. You may figure out how to alter the classroom behavior somewhat for the better, but never truly resolve it. Alternately, you may figure out what the student needs, but not truly be able to provide it.
An example, from one of the case studies below, would be a kid who really just needs his father around, but dad is in prison. And you can't be dad.
Whatever classroom discipline plan or approach you decide on, it will be unique to each individual student. So unique, in fact, that I can't really categorize a particular approach for a particular set of circumstances. Instead, I'll provide some case studies and together we'll see what response patterns emerge.
Classroom Discipline Case Studies
I don't shy away from details in these case studies. The names have been changed but the circumstances are fully explained… including my assessment of my own impact (or lack thereof). I'm leaving out a few details, like how many times they went to the office; based on the behavior I was dealing with, you can fill in those blanks easily enough.
These are in order from less to more challenging.
Tamara: my budding gang member
On the first day of school, no one could tell if Tamara was a boy or a girl. She showed up new to our school dressed as tiny little nine year old gang member: baseball hat, puffy coat, mean expression. A few private get-to-know-you conversations convinced me it was all an act… an act that needed to be cut off before it became the real thing.
I pretty much told her repeatedly to “knock it off.”
“Tamara, why are you using such a mean voice? Knock it off! You have a beautiful voice when you choose to use it.”
“Tamara, you know we can’t wear hats in school, so quit bringing it. It just hides your pretty hair anyway.”
I didn’t let her get away with any of her faux gang behavior and it didn’t take long for her to give in. She needed permission to be a little girl who didn’t have to be tough to make up for her small size.
When she learned that my classroom was an open and accepting place, not a gang where status had to be earned, she made a dramatic switch from puffy hooded coats to pink jackets with sparkles.
- Time to resolution: 3 weeks
Jake: self-labeling as a failure
Jake was overweight and had been retained once in the past, so he was one year older and much taller than others. He was used to failure and often told me, “I’m no good.” He was disrespectful and taken to muttering in the background, counteracting any instructions I gave to the class.
I started by separating him from any table grouping (but close to my desk) to keep him from drawing other kids off task. I then made him my helper in ways that took advantage of his size and height. For example, I made it a point to ask him to assist with things that took a “big man:”
“Jake, can you get the fire escape door closed for me? It’s sticking.”
“Jake, please get that tub off the top shelf and bring it to me.”
“Jake, I’d really like it if you could push that science kit out into the hallway for me.”
This helped him feel like his size was a benefit to the classroom, not something to be embarrassed about.
I also noticed that he had a knack for explaining math problems slightly differently than I did during instruction. I capitalized on this by asking him to work one-on-one with kids who were struggling in math. His confidence allowed his math scores to skyrocket along with the students he peer-coached!
Jake quickly got himself under control and was reintegrated with a table group.
- Time to resolution: 3 weeks
Brandon: knives, fighting and violence
Brandon came with a history of violence from the preceding year. I was warned by his former teacher that he was the worst in the school: brandishing knives, serious aggression, repeated suspensions, etc. My first belief is that a teacher should never let history set a kid up for failure before you get to know him, so we started with a clean slate.
But a clean slate doesn’t mean that the behavior won’t continue. Brandon was very smart – smart enough to be stealthy in his actions. He chose kids who were barely making it with their own behavior and schoolwork and pulled them off task with whispering or spit wads from a distance.
I told Brandon that he needed to be an island to learn how to meet expectations. I taped a piece of paper with some palm trees drawn on it to the side of his desk and put him right up against my own desk. Together we were “The Island.”
I developed a relationship with Brandon day by day, engaging in short conversations about topics that interested him and reinforcing any good work he accomplished. He got to the point where he would do anything for me and I even heard him defending me to anyone who complained that I was too hard or mean:
“She wouldn’t have to be mean if you’d get your work done!”
He chose to remain by my desk for several weeks because he began enjoying being successful and not spending time in the office. Together we decided when it was time to go back to sit with the rest of the class and I asked him to choose his table partners. Knowing he could not stay on task with certain other boys, he chose correctly.
He had his disciplinary ups and downs in my classroom for the remainder of the year and I had to move him to different table groups more than once, but he stayed on task sufficiently to make academic progress – and to not impede the progress of others.
- Time to resolution: 6 weeks… with ongoing management for the remainder of the year.
Rolando: angry and explosive
Rolando was a broken little boy. He was angry and had an extremely explosive temper, throwing chairs, shoving desks, then isolating himself under a table and refusing to come out until his dad arrived at school.
He had been homeless on the streets in Arizona with his mom and sister until his father came to take him back to our state. Although his mom had a diagnosed mental illness, his father was helpful and supportive of my efforts.
Rolando was very smart and capable of doing all schoolwork. What he needed was a stable person he could trust and lots of guidance on how to interact with other kids.
I dealt with the crisis moments by giving him choices. This started with choices that were very easy for him to make, but reinforced that he could choose how to behave For example:
“You have a choice: you can stay under the table to wait for your dad or sit in the office to wait.”
Gradually, this became:
“Rolando, you can choose to take a moment to calm down and stay in the room with us, or be angry in the hallway until I come talk to you.”
Rolando was very self-aware and slowly he became able to discuss upcoming potential problems with me:
“OK Rolando, what do you think is the best choice for when I’m gone tomorrow? Can you stay in the room with an option of going to Ms. Smith's room if you get angry, or should you just start there?”
Throughout this process I repeatedly told him that I cared and wanted to help him. Slowly he came to believe that and was willing to take my advice on how to avoid exploding when frustrated. When I could see him about to blow, I would walk by and whisper, “Do you need some time?” as a cue for him to apply self control. He understood that this meant taking time to walk, talk or just breath.
- Time to resolution: 5 months. By February he was solid in his self-management. The following year he continued to do well in another classroom.
Taylor: pulling others off task
An engaging child with diagnosed ADHD that was un-medicated, he was constantly out of his chair, off task and pulling others off task 90% of the time.
I kept track a few days and found that I was redirecting him over fifty times a day. Without that redirecting, Taylor did absolutely no work on any subject. With one-on-one oversight all day long – and I mean the teacher standing right by his desk – he was barely capable of learning.
But what teacher can devote 100% of her time to one student, ignoring all the rest?
Parents were no help in this situation and the home environment was the major problem. His mother wouldn't take the time to follow up on filling prescriptions and had her own medical issues which she put first. The family was heading for declaring bankruptcy, dad was in and out of the picture, etc. He idolized his older brother, a high school student who was suspended as often as he was in school.
I seated him separately from the rest of the class to keep him from pulling other kids off task. I arranged for a volunteer math tutor once a week and for volunteers to read with him. In addition, I used every method I knew for engaging ADHD kids:
- using technology (laptops, Smart board)
- delivering instruction in very short chunks
- giving him room to move around away from other students
In the end, I simply could not get Taylor to care about learning. His skills never rose to grade level in spite of my efforts and I worked with my administration to obtain an IEP. By the end of the year, in addition to the methods I employed, he was also receiving extra attention in the Special Education room.
I continued to give him chances to engage constructively with other kids in the classroom, but after three warnings, which always occurred within 30 minutes, he had to be separated to allow others to learn.
I would put three sticky notes on his desk. Each time he drew other students off task, I quietly walked by and took one. When the last one was gone, he had to move his desk next to mine.
- Time to resolution: 9 months and counting. This case I count as a failure and feel inadequate when I consider it. You must never stop trying, but that’s the reality sometimes.
Andreas: death threats and sexual harassment
Andreas threatened to kill me twice. His harassment of girls in the class included telling them the sexual fantasies he enjoyed while masturbating (and worse). He fondled himself in class. He fought and he stole things. His father was in prison on drug-dealing charges.
There was no help coming from home for this child. Andreas (a fourth grader) had a very strong desire to run with a gang and in fact had previously run drugs for his dad. According to the police, his mom was known to shelter wanted felons in their home.
Andreas was a Special Education student; he loved to write but struggled with all other subject areas.
The first step was to keep other kids safe from him. He spent most of the year with his desk right by my desk, where I did my best to build a relationship through conversations. I also began logging his inappropriate behavior – in this instance, I had to use this log to convince my principal that actions needed to be taken for the safety of other children.
I granted him a favor of having his own tub in which to keep several books he liked so he wouldn’t have to feel like he needed to “steal” them from the other kids (this was only slightly effective). I occasionally gave him a chance to rejoin a group, and his ability to interact appropriately gradually increased… but never to the point where he did not require constant oversight to avoid inappropriate behavior.
- Time to resolution: 7 months… if you count “resolution” as not being sent home or suspended at least once a week.
Trey: weapons, hitting, and stealing
Another very difficult home situation (gangs, drugs, absent father) with no support from either parent for anything occurring at school.
Trey was fascinated by weapons and once threatened me with a ruler that he had sharpened into a knife. He hit other kids and took their personal possessions, ruining them before giving them back. Trey also practiced self-mutilation, scraping his arms with pens and rulers until they were raw or bleeding and picking at any resulting scabs.
Initially, moving Trey to an isolated desk near me allowed him to function well and get his urges under control. After a couple months, he was able to move back with a table group. Unfortunately, his home life further deteriorated and he had to be isolated near me again.
This situation continued for several months until he ultimately qualified for a local, in-resident, clinic-based behavior management program. He came back a different kid.
At this six-week program, he was given glasses to help his vision and medication to address his diagnosis of OCD and depression. When he returned he had calmed down dramatically. He was not angry anymore, just a little “rough around the edges.”
Frankly, I wondered if he was overmedicated, but trusted that his physician would continue to work on appropriate dosages as he grew older and larger. In any event, it was significant that he was no longer harming himself or others.
- Time to resolution: 8 months. In this case, “resolution” meant achieving a state of non-violence that would hopefully equate to academic advancement in future grades.
Lessons Learned from Handling Tough Cases
1. You are either going to get a handle on the classroom behavior in a month or you will be in it for the long haul
This raises the next point…
2. As you should be able to tell from this website, I absolutely do not believe in giving up on any child
This is not to imply that simply being dedicated will always bring results; rather, you should be prepared to not give up on your classroom discipline plan for a full nine months, no matter what.
Throwing up your hands and isolating the child at the back of the room for months, or sending her to the office every morning as soon as she makes a peep (I've see both methods in action) is not up to the standard of commitment that I expect from the teaching profession.
Another reason to not give up: Consider that you are working with rapidly-growing kids who change a lot during a school year as they physically and mentally mature. Even if the classroom interventions and approaches that you settle upon are only minimally effective, keep at it – sometimes the child's own growth will bring him to a position where your efforts become more effective even if those efforts have not changed.
The child's family and social environment may also change, thereby altering the student's reaction to your ongoing classroom management discipline efforts.
3. Desk location is very important
But there is a right way and many wrong ways to make kids “islands.” I discuss it in greater detail on this seating page.
In summary, no matter why it is done, isolating kids from other students must bring the child closer into your sphere of influence so that you can more efficiently provide additional guidance and build stronger student-teacher relationships. It can never be simply punitive.
4. Giving choices is important
This is true even if the choices are not really different, as in:
“You can choose to do your worksheet at the desk in the corner or in Mrs. Jenkins' room, but you can't rejoin the class until it is done and you can offer an apology to the group.”
In spite of the almost non-choice nature of this “choice,” it provides the child an “out” where he feels he can control his own destiny a bit – and in so doing, you are slowly reinforcing that he can always make choices about how he acts.
5. Your tolerance for extreme misbehavior must be flexible
There are events that require immediate action, but you simply cannot send a tough case to the office every single time he has an angry explosion, or swears, or is defiant. If you do, you are giving up your ability to use that teachable moment to slowly bring the behavior in line.
However, the rest of the class must be fully informed of what is happening, understand why it is fair and be on your side in helping. (See below.)
6. And last but not least: Parents are critical for classroom discipline
Especially if a kid has a diagnosis, to be truly successful the parents must cooperate to some extent. If you do not have parent support, you will not be fully successful in altering extreme behaviors. This is not surprising – parents are supposed to be the major influence in a child's life; it just means that you will have to work even harder.
Involving the classroom community
When it comes to tough discipline cases, your classroom community needs to be kept informed of what is happening.
The kids will know something is going on anyway because you are constantly explaining classroom behavior expectations and it is obvious that someone is not meeting them. It is not necessary to have a class discussion on every discipline issue, but if you can tell that you are undertaking a long term behavior modification project, then let everyone know what is going on.
Next, let the tough behavior case know that you'll be letting the class in on what is happening so that they can help him meet expectations.
Never sell a kid out
Don't using language that piles blame on them in front of their peers. You know and I know that it is the child who must step up and learn how to act, but it does not need to be stated outright. Instead, use words like this:
“Everyone, James is having trouble meeting expectations so he's being moved over here by my desk so he can get his work done. You are going to see me working one-on-one with him a lot.
“Remember, just like we've talked about, no one can control whether they have red hair or need glasses. Well, sometimes a person has difficulty controlling certain behaviors. It is my job as a teacher to teach exemplary behavior, too. So I'm going to be working extra with James to help him learn how to meet expectations.”
Kids don't want to be made fun of for some unique issue they may have, so they will accept that no one should be making fun of James for his behavior issue. Also, since you take the time to give every child individual attention at least once a week, they will not mind that you spend extra time with James.
Let them know how they can help
“You can help James by asking him politely to be quiet when he talks at the wrong times. And you can also notice when he is working well with your group and thank him.”
As always, model the behavior that you want if you haven't done so before. Show the kids how to quietly put a finger on their lips and “shush” – they'll follow your lead in this rather than telling each other to “shut up.” Also, give them the words to use when asking someone to stop doing an inappropriate classroom discipline behavior.
The classroom community in action
I once had two boys who were able to control themselves in class but could not keep it together on the playground – tackling, pushing, arguing. Every day after lunch it took ten minutes for the class to complain and to sort out who had done what – and it always came down to something started by Jimmy or Ken.
“JK” were well liked when they were in class and were frustrated by what happened outside. Every day I tried to talk through how they could make better choices, to no avail.
Finally, someone in the class suggested that every day, someone needed to take turns reminding them to stay out of trouble. The whole class liked this idea, including Jimmy and Ken, so I established a roster for “JK duty.” Every recess, someone stuck right by them and pulled them into four-square or wall-ball games, or just talked to them, or simply reminded them that they didn't need to start pushing during a soccer game.
I was a little surprised that it worked. It certainly would not be a solution that would work in every class, but it does show what a classroom community is capable of achieving when they value the close-knit group you have built.
You'll find that kids are eager to help with classroom discipline when you take the time to get them on your team.