How To Help Difficult Students Who Act Out Due To Emotional Turmoil

Many difficult students behave the way they do because they’ve experienced—and often continue to experience—emotional turmoil associated with a deplorable home life.

Verbal and physical abuse, poverty, neglect, drug and alcohol use in the home, and other sources of emotional pain and trauma can cause them to act out in school. The anger they feel, the loss of control, the unfairness, the confusion and frustration . . . these churning and roiling feelings they can’t outrun spill out in torrents of silliness, cruelty, defiance, and disrespect.

Sadly, when they walk into many classrooms, what they find makes matters worse. Without a solid understanding of effective classroom management, it’s only natural for teachers to fall into hurtful methods like yelling, scolding, and lecturing that only add to their internal chaos.

Throw in inconsistency, vague expectations, and a stressful room environment, and difficult students have precious little chance of improving their behavior or healing the scars they so demonstratively carry with them.

To reach them, your classroom must be a shelter in the midst of the storm. It must be a place that makes sense, that settles frayed and tattered nerves, that provides a sanctuary of grace, peace, and truth in an often ugly world.

It starts with a clean, organized room environment—which is a physical representation of the order and control so many difficult students don’t have at home. It has a calming effect that makes them feel safe and valued. Done right, their shoulders will drop when they enter your classroom, their very seat becoming a refuge.

To affect both academic and behavioral progress, building and maintaining rapport and a trusting relationship is key. Your steadfast refusal to take their misbehavior personally. Your pleasant demeanor and calm presence. Your humor, your smiles, and your decision to see only the best in them.

These simple actions tear down walls and cause them to want to please you and get to know you better, which in turn gives you powerful leverage to influence their behavior.

When they do act out you must be able to hold them accountable without causing friction or resentment. To that end, your classroom management plan must be your only source of accountability. Finger-wagging lectures, dressing downs, sarcastic remarks, and other signs of taking misbehavior personally only work against you and add to their emotional pain.

Letting your plan do its job, however, without your judging input, frees them to accept responsibility while allowing your relationship to remain strong—both of which have wonderful restorative value.

Sharp routines, smooth transitions, and clear expectations of every minute of the school day keep your classroom moving forward and your students engaged and busy fulfilling the tasks and challenges you place before them. It’s therapeutic to be lost in work, to have purpose thrumming throughout the day. And it’s comforting to always know what is expected.

Shoring up these few basics of effective classroom management isn’t difficult, for any teacher, and it will do wonders for you and your entire class. But for your most difficult students, sagging under the weight of a thousand hurts, it can be life changing.

Indeed, they may have great challenges at home. They may bring with them armloads of baggage. They may be sullen and angry and seemingly out of control. But they’re not a lost cause. They’re not just to be endured. They’re not to be battled, resented, or put under your thumb.

Rather, with the right classroom management approach, they can begin to heal. They can begin to see themselves and their future in a different light. They may still carry pain in their heart, but if you can be a constant source of stability, purpose, and harmony in their life, they will do better.

They will enrich your classroom.

And they will thrive.

Note: All of the strategies and topics discussed above are written about extensively and in great detail in our archive, as well as in the books, The Classroom Management Secret and Dream Class.

Also, I’ll be taking next week off to enjoy Thanksgiving with family, but will be back with a new article on December 7th.

Finally, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving classroom management articles like this one in your email box every week.

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7 Responses to How To Help Difficult Students Who Act Out Due To Emotional Turmoil

  1. Gregory Miyata November 23, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    Is there a way to get this vital article in Spanish? The school I am at is heavily populated with Spanish speaking parents…and as you well know, those kids are going to translate the article!!!


    • Michael Linsin November 24, 2013 at 8:15 am #

      Sorry Gregory. The article is only in English.


  2. Mike Monteleone November 24, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Use Google Translate. It translates more accurately every month.

  3. mary February 21, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

    Do you think a preschool kid should have to sit for 4 minutes of quiet time, even if it may take 25 minutes of resetting the timer (starting again at zero) to achieve this 4 minutes if the kid acts up during the time-out?

    • Michael Linsin February 22, 2014 at 8:26 am #

      Hi Mary,

      I’m not sure I understand your question. Could you please restate it with greater detail?


  4. Suzie September 21, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    Hi, I have a 7 year old in a multi class junior school setting. There are 8 children aged between 5 and 8. He comes from a Large, seemingly chaotic family, is always physically fighting with his siblings, both in school and on ‘fun’ outings, and also with mum, from what we can see, although she doesn’t seem to notice? He has huge emotional difficulties, throws screaming fits and wrecks the classroom whenever something doesn’t go his way, is too difficult (or requires some work even if essentially easy). Sometimes we get an outburst which is impossible to explain. He needs constant 1-1 help for classwork, if I as the teacher turn to help someone else that is the end of his engagement with the task. We are awaiting psychological assessments, but my instinct is to try to keep things as normal as possible and that rules apply to everyone. However because of his issues we are walking on eggshells around him, trying not to set him off, (plan in place with less/easier work, reward chart, time away from class with support teacher). I just feel, and find the other small people in my classroom are suffering, that he is taking advantage of the situation, knocking over other children’s toys, taking stuff, and I can’t say much or we get a massive tantrum. I have been told by my colleagues that the other children will just have to put up with it for a while, but I can see them beginning to copy him, crying loudly if they can’t have what they want, etc. It’s getting to the point I’m reconsidering my career, although that’s hard after 22 years of it!