Why Difficult Students Need Responsibility

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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17 Responses to Why Difficult Students Need Responsibility

  1. Hannah March 26, 2013 at 1:55 am #

    Hi Michael,
    I was just wondering if you had any advice – I have a student in my class who does no work. He sits at his desk and does nothing. He was unable to work with other students, as he continually distracted them, so he now sits at his own desk. I am at a loss of how to get him to do work. One of our school rules is to ‘Be a Learner’, therefore this is part of our behaviour management system, however anytime he is given a consequence, such as completing the work at playtime or going to the support room he runs off into the school grounds and needs to have his parents called to collect him. I do not know what to do and was looking for some suggestions.
    Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin March 26, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

      Hi Hannah,

      That’s a big question that can’t be answered in the space I have here. However, it is a question I’d like to answer. I’ll put it on the list of future topics.

      Michael

  2. Sherry July 16, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    Michael as a new teacher I would like to know how you answered Hannah’s question.

    Hannah March 26, 2013 at 1:55 am

    Hi Michael,
    I was just wondering if you had any advice – I have a student in my class who does no work. He sits at his desk and does nothing. He was unable to work with other students, as he continually distracted them, so he now sits at his own desk. I am at a loss of how to get him to do work. One of our school rules is to ‘Be a Learner’, therefore this is part of our behaviour management system, however anytime he is given a consequence, such as completing the work at playtime or going to the support room he runs off into the school grounds and needs to have his parents called to collect him. I do not know what to do and was looking for some suggestions.
    Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin July 16, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      Hi Sherry,

      Honestly I can’t remember specifically. However, this is a topic I plan on writing about in the future. Stay tuned!

      :)Michael

  3. Claudia Barrios September 1, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    Muy interesante saber que la RESPONSABILIDAD es el mejor regalo que podemos dar a los niños y adolescentes que tienen un mal comportamiento dentro del aula ya que los motiva e incentiva a ser partícipes dentro de la misma y con ello lograríamos tener su atención siempre.

    • Michael Linsin September 2, 2013 at 7:47 am #

      Sí, siempre que la responsabilidad sea real y significativa.

      :)Michael

  4. vidya November 6, 2014 at 2:17 am #

    I have a student in my class who does no work. He just sits there and passes comments about other students in the class which distracts the whole class .As a result some of the easily distracted students also join him which makes me impossible to teach in a satisfactory manner. As a teacher I am totally disheartened. I sometimes feel that I am not worth for the job,which makes me unhappy.All these changes ,in the students I started noticing for the past two years.They take everything for granted and is not at all bothered about their studies.Is the problem with the teacher or the students.Do modern gadgets have any role in this behavioural changes ? Until a year back I was so happy as a teacher,but now I feel I am a worthless teacher.What is the reason for all these changes? What technics should be done ? I am hopeless,please do help me.

    • Michael Linsin November 6, 2014 at 7:07 am #

      Hi Vidya,

      I think you’ve come to the right place. We have nearly 300 articles addressing many of the topics you’ve mentioned. I recommend starting in the Classroom Management Plan category and going from there. I think you’ll feel refreshed and more prepared to manage your classroom. If after reading you have specific questions, email me. I’m happy to help!

      Michael

  5. Gary August 11, 2016 at 1:00 am #

    Hi Micheal,

    I always organize my high school students into groups to foster independence and help me focus on teaching content (I explain this to the class), I give each group a class duty.

    One group will write the lesson content on the board before class begins from prepared writing I give them on paper. Another group will turn on the smart TV while another will put spare handouts in a document pouch for absent students to find the next day…and so on.

    Do you think it’s a good idea for me to simply assign the jobs to students, with me choosing which group does which duty (which could mean that students may not like the job duty they have and perform poorly at it) or forget assigning groups and ask for pairs of students to volunteer for jobs, so they are more likely to enjoy their duties and be motivated to do their jobs well because they want to do them?

    The problem with the second one of course, is there may not be enough volunteers or many pairs may want the same few jobs.

    I have been doing the former (assigning the duties myself) and have found that it has lightened my load enough to help me teach better and helped me to be more calmer and focused( this of course assists in an increase in student learning ) in class, with most students performing their tasks efficiently.

    My doubts though are caused by one or two educators claiming it’s not good for morale to give students no choice regarding class duties.

    What is your take on this?

    Do you assign class duties to your high school students? How do you go about assigning them?

    Do you think it’s not good to give students no choice when assigning class duties? Why?

    Thanks for your clear and practical advice

    • Michael Linsin August 11, 2016 at 10:46 am #

      Hi Gary,

      I think choice is good when it works/makes sense. In this case, think you’re better off assigning jobs. As long as your students like and respect you, it’s unlikely to affect morale in the least.

      Michael

      • Gary August 11, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

        Thanks Michael.

        This is important to me. I don’t want to make wrong choices that will have a negative effect on my students. September’s coming and I want everything to be as well as it can be.

        Could you please elaborate a bit on what you mean when you say “I think choice is good when it works/makes sense”?

        Much appreciated

        • Michael Linsin August 11, 2016 at 8:46 pm #

          Hi Gary,

          Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or space here to elaborate, but I’ll be sure and include it in a future article. Thanks for understanding.

          Michael

  6. Gary August 20, 2016 at 10:19 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    Do you give consequences to students who fail to even attempt to fulfill their classroom duty on ocassion?

    This is after the duty has been established long enough for a student to not be able to claim forgetfulness or ignorance of not knowing how to carry out the duty, and they were unable to give a good reason why they did not carry it out.

    Thank you,

    • Michael Linsin August 21, 2016 at 7:29 am #

      Hi Gary,

      If you’re referring to the article above, only when they break a rule (misbehave). If they choose not to help when requested, then no.

      Michael

      • Gary August 22, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

        Hi Michael,

        I’m refering to a regular class duty that a student has been assigned to do, daily, like clear the blackboard after class or turn on the smart TV before class.

        I actually assign tasks like this to groups of students (about 3 or 4 in each group) and tell them to organize rotas. Imagine they have been trained in what to do and know it’s their duty and have been doing the task daily for a considerable amount of time. I’m asking about a situation where on occasion, the group simply makes no attempt to carry out the duty without good reason.

        In the above scenario you would not issue a consequence?

        Thanks,

        • Michael Linsin August 23, 2016 at 7:17 am #

          Hi Gary,

          I understand what you’re saying, but I would have to speak with you and get more information about the student’s behavior before I can reliably say that it’s best to enforce a consequence.

          Michael

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