It’s not uncommon for teachers to give their most challenging students classroom jobs and other mild responsibilities.
The reasoning is that it keeps them busy, feeling useful, and preoccupied with something other than misbehaving. There is nothing wrong with this strategy, and it can indeed calm a restless spirit in the moment.
But it doesn’t change behavior.
To change behavior there must be higher stakes involved. In other words, to make the strategy effective in helping to transform your most difficult students into contributing and well-behaved members of your classroom, failure must be a possibility.
There must be a sense of, “I can’t believe my teacher is trusting me with this.” Because if there is no weightiness to the responsibility, then it won’t make an impression. It won’t affect how they see themselves and what they’re capable of.
“Building up” self-esteem is often cited as a key to helping difficult students. But the idea as it’s commonly interpreted and used—mainly, in the form of false praise and external rewards—is a misnomer, because self-esteem isn’t something that can be handed out, granted, or created from the outside.
It must come from within.
It must be a naturally occurring result of true and honest accomplishment. Practically, your most difficult students will begin regarding themselves as capable—capable of learning, of being trusted, of overcoming difficulties, of caring for the welfare of others, and of being valued members of your classroom.
This produces a real and lasting form of self-worth, one undergirded with a deep root system that isn’t so easily discouraged, selfishly proud, or knocked askew by bumps in the road.
The only way to convince these often over-praised but underappreciated students that they’re capable is to challenge them with responsibilities that matter and come with the very real possibility of failure.
Indeed, there is risk involved using this strategy. Asking them to lead the science experiment or be the designated speaker could end in disaster. But the surprising truth is, when the stakes are high, there is less chance they’ll mess it up.
When your most difficult students see that you trust them with something their previous teachers would never consider, when it dawns on them that you’re giving them responsibilities typically reserved for only top students, they’ll take it very seriously.
And if they fail?
Follow your classroom management plan, hold them accountable, and then get them right back up on the horse.
Because, if you don’t continually challenge your students, if you don’t let them fail, if instead you write them off as incapable, praise them for common expectations, and set limits on their accomplishments, then you reinforce the message—many have been receiving for years—that they’re not good enough.
And coming from an authoritative source like a teacher, this is a powerful and difficult label to overcome—exposing fully the detrimental notion of using false praise and drummed up awards to build self-esteem.
Giving them a chance to do something they didn’t know they could do, on the other hand, is a prescription for bona fide, long-term change in behavior and a healthy belief in their abilities.
So test your students—the perfectly behaved, the straight-A, and the difficult alike. Look them in the eye and challenge them. Lay it on the line. Provide them the opportunity to show you, their classmates, and themselves what they’re capable of.
You’ll be amazed at what they can do.
Note: Choosing the right level of responsibility to give individual students is an art rather than a science, and it’s okay to ratchet up challenge over time.
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