Why Difficult Students Need Your Unconditional Acceptance

Effective classroom management requires you to hold difficult students accountable beyond just the four walls of your classroom.

Washing your hands of misbehavior that “technically” doesn’t happen on your watch—at recess or with the art teacher, for example—sends the message that you don’t really care so long as they don’t disrupt your peaceful classroom.

Which, ironically, causes less peace and more misbehavior.

You see, if you’re reluctant to get involved in misbehavior that happens outside of your presence, then you’ll limit your authority and influence with difficult students and thus ability to manage their behavior inside your classroom.

As much as possible, you want to be there, taking an active role—even if the principal or art teacher is taking the lead.

This is standard classroom management practice, and it is indeed the right approach. But there is a downside to being omniscient. There is a downside to being involved and aware and quick to get to the bottom of it.

The Curse Of Performancism

Difficult students are accustomed to being under the microscope.

Everyone on campus knows who they are and are quick to point out their transgressions. Aides, volunteers, parents, administrators, other teachers, and even fellow students are always there, watching and waiting for them to slip up.

Even when they have good intentions, difficult students are accused of sinister wrongdoing. They bump someone by accident. They take too long at the drinking fountain. They stop to help a fallen friend and are late for class.

Add to it your looming, all-knowing presence and it can feel like their every move is scrutinized; their every motive questioned—which, in turn, can cause them to begin focusing obsessively on their performance.

And living your life, hour after hour and day after day, based on how you’re doing is exhausting.

Thinking too much, too often, and too critically about one’s performance can cause unrelenting stress and anxiety. It causes athletes to freeze up, salespeople to fumble their presentations, and teachers to dread the chiming of the morning bell.

For difficult students, the constant burden to try harder and do better can cause them to throw in the towel. It can cause an outright rejection of you and a rebellion of your rules and all the people who watch and judge and report their every move.

It can cause the belief that misbehavior is who they are and the only thing they’re good at. It builds frustration upon frustration, provokes lashing out and sullen irritability, and results in even more angry, disruptive, and disrespectful behavior.

Easing The Performance Burden

An important part of your job is to ensure your students are held accountable for every true and legitimate act of misbehavior—which sometimes entails investigating, involving yourself with, and getting to the bottom of incidents you don’t personally witness.

This can never change, regardless of the student. For the drumbeat of every-single-time accountability from you, the classroom teacher, forms one half of an overall strategy to turn around difficult students.

The other half is where so many teachers go wrong, why accountability alone isn’t enough to change behavior, and why difficult students falter under the overwhelming pressure of performancism.

Too often, teachers react to yet another incident from Paula or Jake or whoever with a roll of the eyes, a fierce lecture, a sarcastic remark, or a not-again sigh.

They take it personally, and in so doing heap more disappointment onto a child who already acutely feels the failure of her (or his) performance. She doesn’t need you to pile on. She doesn’t need you to question, scold, or force explanations from her.

Simply following your classroom management plan is enough for her to understand that she made a mistake. It’s enough for her to know that she alone is accountable for her actions. And it’s enough for her to begin reflecting on her poor decisions.

What she needs now more than anything is to know that, despite her misbehavior, misbehavior isn’t who she is. She needs to know that her mistakes don’t define her and that even if she were to mess up every single day, you would still be in her corner and on her side.

Your most difficult students need not your red-faced lectures or your bitter disappointment, but your forgiveness, your grace, and your unconditional acceptance.

When you make it known through your true and loving words, gestures, and body language that you believe in them and are with them to the end, no matter what, then the pressure of a 1000 grand pianos will slide off their back.

Their shoulders will release and slacken into freedom.

And the fierce wind of determination to be a valued, contributing member of your classroom will roar to life.

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13 Responses to Why Difficult Students Need Your Unconditional Acceptance

  1. Anne May 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Michael, What do I do when I have students who don’t behave for the PE teacher? Do I give them the consequences from me? My question how do they learn to respect him if he gives not consequences for bad behavior with him?

    • Michael Linsin May 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

      Hi Anne,

      This is a question that deserves a more thorough response than I can give here. I’ll be sure and write about how to extend your influence beyond your classroom walls so that your students don’t act up with the art, music, or PE teacher. I’ll also address how to handle it when it does happen. Stay tuned!


  2. Nikki Zimmerman May 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    Ever read any of Alfie Kohn’s essays? He addresses performance driven learning and behavior versus rewarding willingness and developing intrinsic motivation to excel not for the sake of the teacher’s approval or applause. Good stuff!

    • Michael Linsin May 18, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

      Hi Nikki,

      I haven’t, but it sounds interesting.


  3. Anne May 19, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Thank you, Michael. When I go to PE with them, I lose a prep period, but they behave. I’ve been worrying about why the good behavior I can have in the classroom, doesn’t necessarily trasfer with them when they are out of my sight. (music, pe, recess)

  4. Lucy August 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    Hi! I’m determined to follow your classroom management plan this year (my first year teaching) because it really resonates with me, but I have a few concerns. One is that I am an art teacher and thinking about thoroughly teaching all the procedures that are involved in art class, six times a day, five days a week, gives me pause. I don’t know if I can handle the repetitiveness of it! I have a low tolerance for boredom and repetition as it is. And my second concern is that my school district has a very high percentage of students with IEPs for behavior disorders and the special ed teachers are always mandating incentive programs for them (I know this because I’ve subbed in the district). Have you dealt with this before, because it seems to undermine a lot of what you suggest? Thanks! (ps I have both your books – love them!).

    • Michael Linsin August 10, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

      Hi Lucy,

      Having spent much of my career teaching PE, I completely understand your concerns. The good news is that because you see each class and hour or less at a time, there are far fewer routines. You’ll definitely want to teach how to enter the room, how to listen to your instruction, how to manage materials, how to clean up, etc. But they all don’t necessarily have to be done on the first day. Teach your routines only as they come up. As for your second concern, the wonderful thing about teaching art is that art itself is an incentive–or it should be. This is your great advantage and you must, must, must use it to your advantage. Specialist teachers like yourself who don’t create an experience students look forward to often struggle mightily with behavior. Done right, I think you’ll find that few if any of your special education students will need extra incentives. After all, what can be better than creating your own art? If, however, you come across a special ed. student who does need some added incentive, then it’s a good idea to discuss with the special ed. teacher what incentives work best with that particular child. Again, though, I think you’ll find this a rarity.


  5. Clarissa October 28, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    Hi Michael,
    I appreciate all your advice. I’m new to a class of misfits of varying ages and levels. They are classified as “unmanageable”, “scary”, and “horrible”. The students disrespect each other as much as the teacher, and there is no hint of them ever having been proper students. The advice I have from admin is to have incentive programs and give a lot of praise. However, personal I feel that praise needs to be deserved and incentives only work on decent students (I was a rebellious student myself). There is only one way of punishing students in the school, and it is to send then to the principals office, but I find that the students are not bothered by this method and I have only used it once. I don’t mind continuing the incentive system, but I feel that accountability has to be enforced with a punishment. I cannot give detention, time away from lunch, or assign “busy work”. I have done time outs before, but I am genuinely concerned that if I gave one person a time out and they refuse to leave, I won’t be able to make them. Also, there might be several people deserving a time out (perhaps 5?) and I have no where to send them. I’m really at a loss as to how I can hold these students accountable for breaking the rules we set up.

    • Michael Linsin October 28, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

      Hi Clarissa,

      All of your questions and concerns have been covered extensively on this website. I encourage you to spend time in our archive as well as availing yourself of the search function (top, right-hand corner).


  6. melissa sokol March 25, 2016 at 6:31 am #

    This is the heart of the matter. But I honestly think that it takes more to spread this good word. It takes administrators and teachers and parents together. It is what I call asset based discipline or empowering not controlling primarily. Io hope there are lots of schools that are responding as a school to your approach. Thank you for developing it and making it easy to access!


    • Michael Linsin March 25, 2016 at 7:09 am #

      You’re welcome, Melissa. Many are, with more and more coming on board every day.


  7. Anne December 6, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

    PLEASE do not call the students difficult…you are re-enforcing the very point you are trying to make…they are not difficult but their behaviours can be and therefore it is not the student who you are trying to change but the behaviour which will of course change the way the student relates etc.

    • Michael Linsin December 6, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

      Hi Anne,

      I use the term for the sake of brevity. My readers are adults, not students, and I’m certain they understand what I mean.