Why Trial And Error Is Bad For Difficult Students

Difficult students need your leadership. They need your consistency. They need your honesty, your forgiveness, and your unwavering belief in them.

They need your fixed boundaries, your steady, predictable presence, your faithful accountability, and your commitment to doing what is right by them and their future.

In other words, they need you.

What they often get, however, is something entirely different. What they often get is an endless succession of haphazard strategies.

Week after week they’re the subject of every “why don’t you try this” strategy under the sun. They’re the subject of trial and error, of experimentation, of offhand bits of advice thrown against the wall to see what sticks.

One week their every move is corrected. The next week they’re ignored. The week after that they’re excessively praised.

From behavior contracts to special privileges to a humiliating day in the principal’s office, over the course of a school year challenging students are propped up, cut down, and tossed about like a dinghy in a squall.

A promised Twizzler stick after a good day, a week’s worth of recess time-out, a smiley face sticker on a progress report . . . the long column of disjointed strategies merely deepens their feelings of differentness and pushes them further and further from success.

It’s confusing and destructive. It labels them in the eyes of their peers and plays with their emotions. It crushes their spirit. It convinces them that there is something wrong with them, that they’re not like other students, that they don’t measure up.

The fact is, difficult students will never truly improve as long as they’re treated like test subjects. For it isn’t trial and error that transforms behavior.

It’s you.

It’s your fair and consistent accountability. It’s your humor and rapport. It’s the smiles, the gentleness, the mutual likability, and the heartfelt connection between you. It’s the same, day-after-day influence of a teacher they look up to and a classroom that makes sense.

But you have to put a stop to the harmful cycle of trial and error. You have to end the revolving door of strategies du jour, the pushing and pulling of emotions, the manipulation and rug-pulling, and the hurtful labels that threaten to drag them down for a lifetime.

You have to take a stand and say, “Enough is enough.” You have to create a stable environment they can count on—one you begin teaching, modeling, and implementing the first day of school.

You have to stay the course and let the joy and peace that comes with being a priceless member of your classroom grab hold.

Fill their heart.

And transform behavior.

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7 Responses to Why Trial And Error Is Bad For Difficult Students

  1. Judith May 17, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    I loved the way you’ve helped us understand how difficult it is for a child to feel “different” (in a bad way). And i agree completely that they should never feel like lab-rats.
    A question i have: how should one respond when a student tells a sub “well, when ms. (Name) is here that’s not how we do it”. I was very careful about this after reading your article on not arguing with your students. However i dounderstand that kids rely on routine and question change. Especially coming from a person that is not a permanent figure in their classroom.

    • Michael Linsin May 18, 2014 at 7:48 am #

      Hi Judith,

      You respond by briefly explaining that you’re their teacher today, and you may indeed do things a bit differently. Then move on.


  2. Emily Morris May 19, 2014 at 7:17 am #

    This makes wonderful sense. Unfortunately, my younger sister in her first year of teaching was the victim of supervising teachers and administrators who REQUIRED her to test a new strategy every week (part of the school’s system in collecting data). This was an experimental program where each week the teachers were required to test different strategies.

    What would you advise those who are part of an experimental school structure?

    • Michael Linsin May 19, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

      Hi Emily,

      It seems odd that a school would require teachers to try different classroom management strategies every week, but if you’re required, you’re required. There isn’t much you can do about it.


  3. Supriya May 20, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    I really like your posts. Will try this out in the classroom.

  4. MPDUBBS July 2, 2016 at 10:53 am #

    Thank you. This was me last year before I found this site and your books. I had never had the amount of problems I had with the new incoming middle school student that I had this year. I desperately tried different strategies with the large number of difficult students in those classes, while following my classroom management style with the other classes. Part of the problem, as I saw it ( as did many of my peers not in the core classes) is the large number of trauma students, low IQ, many 504s, with ODD and ADHD, and coming from small classes with paraeds, and probably little structure at home and in there elementary class. I was exhausted, despondent, and dreading those 2 classes at the end of each day. I can not go through that again, even though my other classes were a joy. Is there any advice you can give when more than half of your class is high/special needs? Or do you just follow what you have stated above? Thank

    • Michael Linsin July 2, 2016 at 11:23 am #

      Hi MPDUBBS,

      This is a topic I hope yo address in future articles or a new book.