Hoping to head misbehavior off before it starts, most teachers try to be proactive with difficult students.
Even before the bell rings on the first day of school, they peruse their new roster looking for those few whose reputation precedes them.
They chat up previous teachers. They scrutinize student files. They nervously begin conjuring up creative ways of dealing with them—all before they even set foot in the classroom.
And so when Anthony or Karla or whoever shows up for the first day of school, they can feel the bull’s-eye on their back. They can sense the proximity, the attention, and the intensity from their new teacher.
They can feel labeled right out of the gate.
And when students feel labeled, they’re pulled inexorably in its direction—fulfilling the prophecy it foretells.
To ensure this doesn’t happen on your watch, and to get your reputed difficult students headed in the right direction, it’s best to make them feel like just another member of your classroom.
1. Don’t seat them closest to you.
When a student with a difficult reputation walks in on the first day and is asked to sit closest to the teacher, she knows the score. She knows instantly that she won’t be able to leave the mistakes and failures of the previous year behind her. She thinks, “Here we go again . . . so I might as well give the teacher what he expects.”
2. Don’t spend more time with them.
Kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for. Sure, some may be two grade levels behind in reading, but they’ll pick up on nuances in your behavior like a primatologist. Your extra attention and frequent check-ins communicate loud and clear that you’ve got your eye on them, creating a distrustful relationship right from the get-go.
3. Don’t speak to them any differently.
It’s common for teachers to speak to difficult students differently than others—without even realizing it. They smile and gab with some as if they don’t have a care in the world. But in the next instant their face goes blank and their voice drops three octaves when they turn to speak to Anthony or Karla. It’s like saying, “I don’t want you in my class, I don’t believe in you, and I expect you to misbehave.”
4. Don’t bring up the previous year.
By way of warning, it’s a common tactic to let difficult students know—in no uncertain terms—that you’re aware of their previous behavior problems. But this undermines your ability to build rapport. It puts you at odds and in competition, and makes them want to push your buttons, get under your skin, and misbehave behind your back.
5. Don’t ignore their misbehavior.
Another common strategy, particularly in the beginning of the year, is to ignore less serious, less disruptive behavior from difficult students. But this is yet another obvious sign to them that they’re not like everybody else. Misbehavior, silliness, and distraction then become their identity rather than something they can control.
When you treat difficult students differently than their classmates, when you employ strategies, tactics, and teacher behaviors meant only for them, in effect you’re telling them that they’re incapable of behaving like a successful student.
It reinforces the message that misbehaving is who they are, like their eye color or shoe size, boxing them in and weighing them down by the label draped over their shoulders like a wet winter coat.
And when it happens the first week of school, when you make it clear that you’ve got your eye on them, you’re setting them up for failure. You’re setting them up for yet another frustrating, here-we-go-again school year.
They become the clown prince or princess of your classroom, sadly feigning to take nothing seriously and having no care for tomorrow.
Lasting change happens when we show students, when we prove to them, through our actions and our commitment to the same soaring standards as everyone else . . .
That we believe in them.
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