Why You Need To Draw A Line In The Sand With Difficult Students

There are students who have learned from an early age that if they misbehave enough, if they disrupt, interfere, and otherwise make life miserable for everyone around them, then they can get the adults in their life to give in and give them what they want.

They develop and refine their technique at home first, then bring it with them to school.

In response most teachers try to hold them accountable—in the beginning anyway. They lecture and admonish. They take away recess. They call home. But this particular brand of difficult student isn’t so easily deterred.

For he (or she) knows from experience that if he ratchets up his misbehavior, making it more frequent or more outrageous, the teacher will begin treating him differently.

You see, in an effort to shield the other students, as well as herself, from such craziness and disruption, she (the teacher) will begin walking on eggshells around him and ignoring his less disruptive behaviors.

Which is the first step on the slipperiest of slippery slopes.

Before long, she’ll be offering praise, prizes, and special privileges (see behavior contracts) for not disrupting the class—playing into his hands.

The student in turn will see himself as special, as though the normal rules of society don’t apply. He’ll brazenly leave his seat and wander the room when he feels like it. He’ll side-talk when the teacher talks. He’ll do what he pleases, following directions only when it suits him.

All because he’s got his teacher over a barrel.

All because his teacher would rather make a deal with the devil than endure one of his temper tantrums. All because she knows his behavior could get worse, perhaps much worse, if she doesn’t play his humiliating game.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Alternative

One of the traits that separate great teachers and classroom managers from the rest is that somewhere along the line they’ve decided not to participate in this game. They’ve decided that the integrity of their classroom will not be purchased for any price.

An Orangutan escapee from the Bronx Zoo could show up on their roster, but he would have to follow the same rules as everyone else.

He may be swinging from the ceiling lights and long-calling at the top of his lungs, but until he does his time-out and proves he can live up the teacher’s standards, he won’t participate as a regular member of the class.

And here’s the interesting thing, the salient point.

Teachers who take this stand, those who decide that nothing and no one will cause them to relax their behavior standards—which they know are best for their students—are rewarded for it.

You see, when a teacher makes this stand—which is nothing more than a personal, internal decision—somehow, some way . . . the students know.

They just know.

Maybe it’s the empowerment the teacher carries with her like talisman. Maybe it’s her presence or charisma or leadership that fills every room she enters.

Maybe it’s her vibe sending out a clear communiqué to every student that there are no negotiations, no arguments, and no games-playing. The rules are the rules. That’s just the way it is.

When your students know that you’ll never participate in unspoken deals, bribes, or quid pro quos, then almost magically their behavior changes. (After all, what’s the point in crying and blubbering loudly to interrupt a lesson if there is nothing in it for them?)

Now when you first make this decision—or whenever you have a new class or a new group of students—you may still be tested. You may still get a fit of anger, a loud outburst, a brazen challenge.

Despite your new vibe and solemn promise to follow your classroom management plan as it’s written, there are students whose bristly reactions to being told they can’t do whatever they want are so ingrained that they’ll put you to the test.

They’ll leave their seats and pester other students. They’ll yell and pound their desk if you don’t put them in the group they want. They’ll hum or sing or cry while in time-out.

But if you stick to your guns, if you hold them accountable for every act of misbehavior, if you make them prove themselves before enjoying the privilege of being a member of your class, it will stop.

The bottom line is that when you draw a line in the sand and decide that nothing on earth will get you to move it, every student within the four walls of your classroom will be changed because of it.

The Flip Side

Alas, there is a flip side. Most teachers haven’t drawn this line—and never will. Although they may have a classroom management plan, although they may have specific rules and defined consequences, they are in fact open to manipulation and deal making.

And somehow, some way . . . the students know.

They know that a tantrum or a dramatic stomping out of the classroom early in the year will soften the teacher up and pay dividends the rest of the way.

They know that henceforth the mere threat of a tantrum will afford them special privileges. They know they can get a little breathing room because they have in their back pocket the ability to spoil a lesson, disrupt an afternoon, or ruin the teacher’s day.

So they get up from their seat when the mood strikes. They tap their pencil and sigh loudly through your most inspiring lessons. They talk to their neighbors instead of doing their work.

They do it because they can. They do it because they know you’ll look the other way in the face of these relatively minor misbehaviors. They do it because of the unspoken deal between you.

And although you may warn, remind, and pull aside the student for a talking-to, he knows they are nothing more than suggestions.

It’s a disheartening, powerless way to teach.

Sing A New Song

The only way off this tilt-o-world ride is to begin singing a new song.

The only way to end the wink-wink dealmaking in your classroom, and transform your most difficult students into valued, productive citizens, is to pull the trump card out of your back pocket.

There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to lose

Go ahead. Pull out the card. Now lean over and reach all the way down . . .

And draw a line in the sand.

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29 Responses to Why You Need To Draw A Line In The Sand With Difficult Students

  1. MaryAnn October 20, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    MIchael- I’m enjoying your articles very very much and have been for the last 6 months or so. I’ve learned a lot from you. This one couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m on the slippery slope and it’s so slippery I literally slid off on Friday. One of my “explosive” 2nd grade students physically attacked me yesterday when I didn’t pull his name in an every other week raffle for behavior prizes that I do with the whole class. He was infuriated. I remained calm and tried to get the other students safely out of the room (it was the end of the day), but the student charged me and began hitting, kicking, spitting, trying to bite me and shoving. I’m a fairly big strong woman, but if it were not for the teacher next door stepping in I don’t know what would have happened. Between the 2 of us we had our hands full. The boy was snarling, screaming, and extremely strong. This is not the first time he’s behaved in this way and his behavior is escalating. There were no administrators on campus and I was too upset to stick around. Beginning on Monday my plan is to do exactly as you advise and “not negotiate with terrorists” (to paraphrase). I know it’s the right thing, the ONLY thing to do. I’ve let him get away with too much already. He was like this last year too. A few weeks ago he kicked my sub in the groin, choked him with his tie, and the poor sub could not get him off of him. I’m worried about him attacking me again, or especially one of my students. I teach in LAUSD. And advice you have for dealing with physically aggressive students who attack would be so appreciated. I’m desperate and not sure what to do. My school is not good at enforcing consequences. So far I plan to tell the principal on Monday that the child cannot return to my class until I have met with her, the parent, and the boy in question. But what then?

  2. MaryAnn October 20, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    I meant to add that I have read “How To Handle Temper Tantrums, Emotional Outbursts, And Other Outrageously Immature Behavior”. I’m wondering if you have something specifically about physically combative students.
    I also have your book and will look in there.
    thank you!

    • Michael Linsin October 21, 2012 at 11:25 am #

      Hi MaryAnn,

      You did the right thing in protecting your students, and certainly you must always do what you need to do to protect yourself. But this is an administrative issue. If a student attacks anyone, student or teacher alike, he or she should be removed from the classroom and suspended immediately–no hesitation about it. And like MC said above, document everything and be sure your administrator refers the student to a district psychologist. There must be some assurance of your safety and the safety of your students before the child is allowed to return to class.


  3. Lauren October 20, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    This is an interesting post- there are many things I agree with and think do establish a well managed classroom.

    How do you deal with violent behaviours in students where confrontation/following up on infringements often leads to situations which put other students and yourself at risk?

    Do you work differently with students who have been ascertained with multiple difficulties (ie. Oppositional Defiance Disorder /Social Emotional disorder /Mild Intellectual Impairment)?

  4. Azadeh October 21, 2012 at 2:22 am #

    thanks a lot. A very illuminating post. I did love it.

  5. mc October 21, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Mary Ann,
    I’ll be curious to see what Michael has to say, but my advice would be to document everything in writing and get this info to you school psychologist pronto…

  6. Marcie October 24, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

    Thank you for your posts! They have been so helpful to me!

    • Michael Linsin October 25, 2012 at 6:34 am #

      Great! You’re welcome, Marcie!


  7. Rebecca Nelson February 23, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    Michael, I am a music teacher at an urban school with many special education students, and I have an entire school full of these children. The particular ones I’m talking about are not the students with an IEP, but the ones who see that students who act “special” get more attention, so they mimic the same behaviors (i.e. screaming, running around the room, slamming the door repeatedly when they don’t get their way, etc.) My problem is that I obviously can’t continue with my class with a student acting this way, but I also have no way to force them into compliance with my management system (sitting in time out until they are ready to re-join the class). Usually for these students, I have to call the office. About ten minutes later, they come back from the office with the promise from an administrator that they will earn an extra reward if they can behave for the rest of class. Many students also have behavior contracts, and the promise of additional rewards from their classroom teachers if they behave. Some even come into my room asking me “What am I going to get if I sit in my spot on the carpet?” which I usually respond to by telling them what they will learn today. (I don’t give out additional rewards for merely meeting my expectations). If my answer doesn’t seem good enough for them, the process will begin over again until they can go to the office and get what they want. Reward systems at my school are WAY out of control. Do you have any suggestions for what I could do to handle this in my classroom?

    • Michael Linsin February 23, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      Hi Rebecca,

      There is nothing you (personally) can do about your school-wide or classroom reward systems, but you also don’t have to. Once your students understand how things work in your classroom, they’ll adjust. The key, though, is that you give them a compelling reason to want to come to your music class (i.e., they must look forward to it) AND that you thoroughly teach, model, etc. what you expect–from the moment they walk in to the moment they leave. It’s the only formula guaranteed to work regardless of circumstances.


  8. Leigh March 20, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    I am guilty of not drawing the line and giving looks and threats trying to be the understanding/nice teacher (I came in as a new teacher mid year). I work at a school with 60% population on free lunch programs. It is an older school with a lot of “behavior” kids. I have read that you say not to send kids to the office unless it is a physical altercation…so can you recommend what I can do to start drawing the line in the sand. I would say about 40% of each class are kids with behavior issues. I really try to make each lesson hands on and engaging but because of all the behaviors, it makes hands on math and games really difficult. A handful of kids in each class talk constantly, are rude, say comments under their breath, and could care less about their grades since (they have to fail two classes each semester before anything is done from administration). Letters home are a stretch when most phone calls home result in parents saying they see the same things at home and can’t offer any suggestions to help within the classroom. I am desperate for help and have been ready to give me two week notice for weeks now after only being here two months. Also, I teach math in a science classroom, at tables, because of limited classroom space. Thank you so much for any suggestions you can offer.

    • Michael Linsin March 20, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

      Hi Leigh,

      In order to draw a line in the sand you need a classroom management plan. I recommend reading through the Classroom Management Plan and Rules & Consequences categories of the archive. Put your plan in place, teach and model it thoroughly, then stick to it no matter what.


  9. Stephenville June 16, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    Your post sucks. Mines better! ..lol. Just kidding.
    Just getting into this blogging thing myself, though I don’t think anyone actually reads my posts. Does it come easier with time?

    • Michael Linsin June 16, 2013 at 11:26 am #

      Hi Stephenville,

      Writing a blog is always hard work, no way around it. 🙂


  10. linkedin.com June 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    My wife and three daughters have lived in dexter mo zip code for around 10 years
    and have lived in the area!

  11. Carolyn July 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    Hi Michael, I have just started reading “The Classroom Management Secret,” and you state one exception for a Classroom Management Plan, and that is for students who are on an IEP for behaviour. So, if I have students who have accommodations for behaviour (I am a rotary teacher) as outlined by the IEP, how do I explain this to my other students, when they don’t see those students receiving the same consequences? For example, one little girl I can think of has it written in her IEP that she can go for a walk around the school hallway with a partner when she needs a break.

    • Michael Linsin July 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

      Hi Carolyn,

      It depends on your class. In most circumstances, you don’t have to say a word. Your students will just know. If, however, a student approaches you to ask why he or she gets to do this or that, be honest and tell them that that particular student is still learning. No need to explain any further. As long as you’re consistent with her/him and everyone else, it won’t be a problem. Also, just because a student has an IEP for behavior doesn’t mean that an accommodation has to be made to your plan.


  12. Carolyn July 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond! I’m finding your book to be so helpful and encouraging. It’s really everything I’ve always believed, but with the glut of other “empowering,” “restorative” (insert other edu-babble here) ideas about discipline, finding your website and book has really given me the confidence to lead my classroom the way I’ve always believed it should be led. Now, I know I will have some autistic students who will disrupt the class by making noises (I will have one who has a very high-pitched scream). I’m assuming that I won’t need to say anything about these students, as well? The kids do know they are “different,” but I don’t know if they know anything about autism. Do you ever think it is necessary to explain autism to other students?

    • Michael Linsin July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

      You’re welcome, Carolyn! To answer your question, there isn’t a hard and fast rule, but generally no. In most circumstances and grade levels it isn’t necessary to explain.


  13. Debbi Gindele September 13, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    Well I’ve completed a week with my new management plan in place. So far so good. (I know it’s only been a week). Today my 8th graders started getting just a little unruly and I reminded them that I’m living up to my part of the bargain and expected the same from them. Instantly they got to their seats and started working. Great way to end the week!

    • Michael Linsin September 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      Awesome. Way to go, Debbie!


  14. sam October 23, 2013 at 10:22 am #

    In your classroom management plan, you suggest 3 steps for consequences. I have several boys in my class that are not malicious, challenging me, etc. They just like to say what’s on their mind. They like to blurt out things while myself or others are talking. I went through all 3 steps, but the problem did not stop. What is the next step in enforcing the rules. Is it to separate them from the rest of the class?

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. It provides a lot of insight.

    • Michael Linsin October 23, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      Hi Sam,

      In all but the rarest cases, it’s your overall program (i.e. what this site is about) that needs tightening up. However, for that one in a hundred student, please read the article series, How To Turn Around Difficult Students.


  15. Kelly Williams June 12, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

    I have a very structured and consistent classroom management system. The new students know every year that I don’t do chaos. I do draw the line. For a majority of classes, this works fairly well. The problems I see are due to the parents not being supportive of behavior management. When you have a large majority of parents demanding that their child be allowed to talk, curse, not do assignments neatly, correctly, and on time, as instructed, you have a whole new battle that becomes your big stress. For most classes, after a few weeks, the students know classroom expectations and follow them. When you have a group like I had last year, it never worked. If I had been a first year teacher, I don’t know if I would have survived. For all of your ideas to work, you have to also have administrative and parental support.

    • Karen Rogers July 3, 2016 at 1:18 pm #

      Hi Kelly and Michael-
      This year was my first year teaching at the secondary level. My last class of the day fit Kelly’s description. In all of my performance meetings and meetings with my building mentors and teaching partner I consistently was told that I had excellent procedures in place, an organized/welcoming classroom, and clear expectations & consequences. Unfortunately all of my classroom management plans were undermined by a colleague beginning on the first day of school. This person, a popular spiritual leader for the local community, came into my class on the first day of school and proceeded to gather half of the students around him, telling them they didn’t have to follow my directions. He persisted in interacting with my students, despite all of my efforts to gain my students’ attention. He ignored my quiet requests that he leave. I later discovered that he pulled the same disrespectful behavior with every other female science teacher, as well as several of the female ELA/SS teachers. Despite this man’s continuing unprofessional behavior I finally discovered a curriculum and management system that worked with this particular group of students. Thank you Mike…after discovering your blog I decided to focus on those students who wanted to cooperate in their own learning while serving as an impartial referee enforcing the rules for the other half of the class. I literally divided the class in half, with the active learners sitting in front and the disengaged students sitting in the back. I used stations-based activities, with students allowed to work with partners or independently. Students who refused to work earned the natural consequence of not learning the material and low grades without impacting the learning of those students who were engaged. The lack of an audience, and failure to engage my focused attention gradually convinced the disrespectful students to put their effort into actually doing the lessons. By early March every student in this class was actively engaged in every lesson. My principal’s response was to take this class away from me and assign it to the colleague who had tried to bully me all year. These students’ annual test scores, therefore, are now listed under my colleagues’ account rather than mine. I’ve been told that these scores are the highest that this title 1 middle school has ever had. I decided to respond to this situation “with my feet”. I elected to not seek renewal of my contract. I’m currently searching for a new placement.
      So, my questions for you Mike are, how can I ensure that, should I be offered a new teaching position, my new administrators will support a firm classroom management plan. 2) What else could be done in situations in which the administration, and/or colleagues actively undermine this type of classroom management system?
      Thanks for all the help,

      • Michael Linsin July 3, 2016 at 4:22 pm #

        Hi Karen,

        I’d need to know more about the system you used and why the principal took the class away from you. I also would have many questions for you before I could give you reliable advice. I know there is a cost involved, but personal coaching is the only way we could unpack your concerns and ensure you’re prepared to succeed at your next school.


  16. Joy September 8, 2016 at 5:52 am #

    Hello Michael,

    I am currently teaching in China, the classroom size is nothing to compare to a regular classroom, there are usually about 44 students in each classroom. Many times I come across students who misbehave, they just walk in the class as they desire. Last time I had to be too firm and serious and ask my class to respect the rules or stay out of the classroom, but the dilemma is not easing up. How to deal with ESL students?

    thank you,

    • Michael Linsin September 8, 2016 at 7:55 am #

      Hi Joy,

      I’m not sure I understand the question. If you could email me and be more specific, I’ll do my best to help.


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