Why You Shouldn’t Respond When A Difficult Student Has A Good Day

why you should never respond when a difficult student has a good dayWhen a difficult student has a good day it’s normal to want to reward them for it.

You’ve just witnessed behavior you’ve been hoping and praying for all year, and you want to seize the moment.

You want to make it special and memorable.

You want them to feel good about their accomplishment and start believing that they really can do it, that they really are capable of following your class rules.

So you rifle through your cabinets looking for an award or certificate you can present them. You dig into your prize box. You rush to their side and excitedly share how happy and proud of them you are and how wonderful they behaved that day.

And it all feels so good and so right.

But the truth is, the best response you can offer a difficult student after a good day is no response at all.

Here’s why:

Good behavior is its own reward.

When you reward students for good behavior they become externally motivated. They begin to view anything and everything positive they do as work they deserve to be paid for. They become blinded to the truth that good behavior is a reward unto itself.

It’s an expectation that is beneficial to them and to the community they’re a part of. For difficult students in particular, this healthy perspective is hidden from view in a forest of excessive praise and ginned-up awards.

It’s a “do this and get that” economy that is manipulative and hurtful to their long-term success.

It’s empowering.

Real and lasting change only happens when difficult students are intrinsically motivated to behave. In other words, when it comes of their own volition, and not because they are offered—implicitly or explicitly—something in return.

When difficult students are allowed to experience success without it being purchased, the quiet satisfaction vibrates deep within their internal motivational engine.

It gives them the warm feeling of being a regular and valued member of your classroom, rather than an outcast who needs bribes and special attention just to get through the day.

A True Reward

Although they may smile, they may even be excited to receive a cool pencil or toy or special recognition, if you look closely you’ll find sadness behind the eyes. Because it cheapens their good day. It puts a price tag on the priceless.

It replaces the intrinsic with the extrinsic.

That isn’t to say that you should shun or ignore difficult students after a good day. You’ll just treat them like everyone else. You’ll joke with them, smile at them, and enjoy their company.

You’ll support the wonderful feeling of being a regular student—just one of the girls or boys. You’ll allow them to experience a reward that is honest and abiding and can’t be purchased for any price.

You’ll restore their self-respect. You’ll remove the labels they carry with them like so many overstuffed backpacks. You’ll pave the way for the rest of your class to see them in a new light.

But most important, you’ll empower them to start seeing themselves differently.

Instead of a weak constitution, tossed about, manipulated, and cheaply bought, they can begin envisioning their future. They can see possibilities where before there were none. They can feel their dreams power up and surge like a tidal wave.

Maybe a day or so later you’ll catch them looking at you—knowingly, appreciatively. No words need to be exchanged. No explanations offered or needed. For how do you describe the view from the summit of Mount Everest?

But you want to acknowledge the start of something special, of true improvement in behavior.

So you approach and reach out your hand.

And they reach back and shake it.

Note: For more on intrinsic motivation, please see The Classroom Management Secret. Also, 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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15 Responses to Why You Shouldn’t Respond When A Difficult Student Has A Good Day

  1. Vince January 27, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    Michael, what would you say to a difficult student that fishes for compliments? I have a student that, every time he has a good day, says something along the lines of, “Did I do good today, mister?”

    • Michael Linsin January 27, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

      Hi Vince,

      If the student is referring to behavior, which is an expectation, just be honest. “You did fine today, Chris.” And leave it at that.


  2. Stephen February 3, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I’m a first year teacher who just discovered this site, and it’s changed the way I look at classroom management! Today (Monday) I used many of your techniques to tremendous success. I got stricter on the rules I made at the beginning of the year and enforced them impeccably, and in the process came across two questions.

    First, I teach first grade in a small private school. I have 12 students. By the end of the day, all but three of them were in time-out all day with the promise I would let their parents know in their agendas (I didn’t want to freak parents out with a form letter until I could explain it). Most of these infractions were from otherwise well-behaved students forgetting to raise their hands. I felt like I was doing something wrong (you mentioned this shouldn’t happen more than 7-8 times a year), but I couldn’t go back on my word in the middle of school day. Did I miss something?

    Second, a student who regularly gets disciplined had a warning, first time out and all-day time out by 11:00am. I had told all the students that goofing off in time out would lead to them missing Friday free time. By noon, he was disrupting other students while in time-out, and I told him he’d had to miss that free time. He realized I didn’t have anything left to mete out and continued with misbehavior. What you advise in that situation?

    I’m setting aside some money this month to buy Dream Class, so apologies if the answers are there. Thanks for all your wonderful suggestions here on the site!


    • Michael Linsin February 3, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

      Hi Stephen,

      I definitely recommend The Classroom Management Secret. It should answer all your questions. In the meantime, if you’re new to teaching, using a classroom management plan in earnest for the first time, or teaching kindergarten or first grade I recommend two warnings before time-out instead of one–at least for the first few weeks. As for your second question, it happens to be the topic for the next article. Stay tuned!


  3. Mary March 19, 2014 at 2:57 am #

    Hi, We use a school wide PBIS clip chart system. I am constantly clipping kids up and down for all kinds of things. On top of that we have a school wide ticket system which is like money that can be exchanged for items or privilages once a month. I see that after 2 years my students won’t do anything without rewards. What are your thoughts on the clip chart?

    • Michael Linsin March 19, 2014 at 6:27 am #

      Hi Mary,

      It’s not something we would ever endorse or recommend.


  4. Natalie May 21, 2014 at 8:14 pm #

    Hello Michael,

    I have 3 questions for you. First, some background information. I teach high school students grades 9-12. I have a pretty good classroom management system in place with a warning, a lunch detention, a letter home, then an office referral. It works pretty well, honestly.

    However, I found your blog yesterday when I googled “what to do about disrespectful students” because I was at my wits end yesterday!!! My first question is about the management plan- you talk about giving students “time outs” after they have been given a warning, do you recommend this for high school students also? if not, how could I adapt this step to a teenager?

    My second question is, What do I do when students back-talk me after a warning? I’ll walk over to the board and write their name and remind them what rule they broke and then they’ll say something like “I didn’t even do anything! This is so dumb. etc.” *Sigh loudly and *roll eyes and *huff and puff and *now sit slouched in seat with arms crossed giving the death stare. Should this constitute as disrespect and should they be taken to stage 2 of my consequences? The talking back just irritates me so much!

    And thirdly, at my school, we have to monitor the hallways in between class changes. I see so much rule-breaking, but I’m not sure how to approach it. When I ask the kids to stop kissing, texting, wearing hats, etc. they either do it for a second until they pass me and go back to rule-breaking or they argue with me. It is getting so bad at the end of the year and I’m almost to the point of giving up. Which is so unlike me! Do you have any hallway discipline suggestions?

    Thank you for your time. I just ordered the “Dream Class” book to read over the summer. I’m looking forward to it 🙂


    • Michael Linsin May 22, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

      Hi Natalie,

      1. This is a big question we don’t have the time or space for here. I hope to address it, however, in a future guidebook or ebook for high school teachers.

      2. Yes, definitely move to the next step in consequences–only, wait until the student calms down before delivering the news.

      3. The behavior you describe will continue unless or until you have consequences to back up your rules. Otherwise, they’re just suggestions that carry little meaning for students.


  5. Amy May 21, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    I will start my first teaching job in August (second grade). Could you go more in-depth or direct me on your site the issues with the clip chart? I see all teachers using them with no success.


    • Michael Linsin May 22, 2014 at 6:21 am #

      Hi Amy,

      I haven’t written specifically about clip charts (I will), but for information on what I recommend check out this article: A Classroom Management . . . as well as the rest of the Classroom Management Plan category of the archive. The truth is, clip charts are neither good nor bad. Their effectiveness, or lack thereof, is all in the way they’re used.


  6. Sara November 3, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    I disagree somewhat. Although a huge celebration for a difficult student who has a good day is extreme, I feel that noticing their efforts when they have really tried is beneficial. Sometimes ignoring them can backfire because they feel like you don’t notice that they even tried.

  7. Margaret February 7, 2015 at 10:27 am #

    I agree with the above. If a child has made a supreme effort to behave appropriately, it should be acknowledged – eg ‘ yes, Chris, I noticed how you really tried to XYZ. Not every day, and no tangible rewards or prizes, but an acknowledgement that this child has needed to and tried to work harder at behaving appropriately than others. He has to feel all that extra effort was worthwhile. He may need support until he sees himself that all the effort to behave appropriately pays off in increased learning.

  8. Dana Fears November 15, 2016 at 12:19 am #

    This is what is wrong with our education system. Please read The Difficult Child Heart Nurtured Approach. As a child and family therapist I promise you, you ABSOLUTElY should and must celebrate good days and moments in your classroom. It’s not that I am saying you need to treat this child like everyone else, but as a teacher you should see the child for who and how he is. I know you have many kids in your classroom, but the Heart Nurtured Approach will change your classroom, will invite tolerance, restorative justice and celebrate diversity in your classrooms!
    The idea here is that difficult students act up for attention. If they turn around their acting out behavior and start to behave and make improvements give them attention that they are craving for doing what they need to be doing. This is called shaping! Every situation or day that’s positive or negative is an opportunity to modify what’s going on.

    • Katharine November 24, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

      RE: Dana Fears Comment.
      As the mother of five children, I know the approach you’re speaking of does not work.