Are You Focusing On The Wrong Students?

Are You Focusing On The Wrong Students?Ask a struggling teacher how their class is going and they’ll inevitably bring up one or two students who take up much of their time.

They’ll lament the disruptions and the battles.

They’ll tell horror stories of incidents past.

They’ll share how they’ve tried everything under the sun and yet nothing works.

Undoubtedly, if you were to see their class in action, you would see what they see.

You would see the arguing and disrespect. You would see the temper tantrums and silliness.

You would see the source of their furrowed brow, their tired eyes, their weary acceptance.

But there is something else at work here, something deeper and hidden from view, a surprising truth behind the veil.

And this is where it gets interesting.

You see, if during your observation you were to turn your attention away from the one or two most challenging students, and allow your clinical eye to fall upon the rest . . .

A second group of students would emerge from the mist. This group, numbering between six and eight, but occasionally more, are the real source of the problem.

They are the antagonizers. They are the catalysts and tone-setters who engage in small “quality of life” misbehaviors like calling out, leaving their seat, side-talking, inattentiveness, and the like.

They don’t purposely try to rile anyone up, mind you. Rather, it is their shoddy example and transgression of class rules that provoke difficult students into extreme misbehavior.

And it is this group you must focus on.

They are the oxygen that fuels the incitement of the few. They are the poor role models, the laughers of jokes, and the creators of tension. They are most responsible for filling the classroom with stress and disorder.

The truth is, your difficult students don’t need any extra time or attention from you.

They don’t need your reminders and exhortations. They don’t need your pep-talks and behavior contracts. They don’t need your lectures, your over-the-top praise, or your logical arguments.

What they need is for you to get a handle on this second group of students.

They need peers to look up to, models to show them how, and classmates to emulate. They need student leaders who by their mere presence engender hope and confidence, whose example inspires better behavior.

They need positive influences surrounding them from opening bell to dismissal.

This idea that one or two students are creating most, or all, of the trouble and misbehavior in your classroom is a fallacy.

It is the second group that is your chief problem. And unless you get them working for you instead of against you, then your most challenging students will never improve.

Your classroom will always be chaotic and low-performing and brimming with excitability.

From the first day of school onward you must teach, model, and require exceptional behavior from all students. You must lock it down and button it up.

You must peel them away from their old habits and behaviors and bring them into the loving fold of your leadership one by one.

As your happy crew gets larger and larger, and the feeling of being part of something special grows stronger and stronger, no one will be able to resist its gravitational pull.

It’s a strategy that works from the inside out, that alights a burning glow of intrinsic motivation within each student, that turns your classroom into the coolest, most exclusive club in the world.

It’s the simple way.

The powerful way.

The Smart Classroom Management way.

PS – If you’re a principal and would like to improve recess behavior, click here.

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.

10 Responses to Are You Focusing On The Wrong Students?

  1. Malik June 20, 2015 at 10:27 am #

    I hold what you say to be be true on most topics. I see that from experience. I teach in a middle school- inner city- high poverty – all of that. I’ve taught for eight years, six of them have been good; no surprises in that my first two were not so. I now have a quiet, sane, pleasant and polite classroom and get hugs from older students who come back to see me. I also get the occasional letter from an old student about how great my class was and all of that. I think that I am a competent teacher; not a Ron Clark by any means though.
    Yet, every year, I still have one or two students in a hundred who have never come to school to learn. I have never allowed them to disrupt the class. But, however much I resolve not to get admin. involved, there will come a time in the third or fourth term , when all the students and I have had enough of him or her and is glad see them go down to the office. We then have a wonderful lesson. I make sure that learning time is not wasted. And its not just me; other experienced teachers do so with that student too. The student has gone beyond what we as the adult in the room can do and it did not start with a relaxation of rules and I do not think that anything I did or did not do is responsible for the student behaving in that way. It is deep rooted lack of motivation or even an ability to learn. There is the occasional case where having tight classroom management, an interesting lesson and a calm, mindful presence is simply not enough.
    This is my experience, from the trenches.
    I agree with most else of what is said and I have willingly purchased a couple of your publications, but this, I had to say.
    M. Malik

    • Michael Linsin June 20, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

      Hi Malik,

      I recommend reading chapter 7 of Dream Class. It’s also a topic we’ll be covering to some degree next week.


  2. Chuck August 2, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

    This has definitely been the case that I’ve seen in the past year.

    I took to heart some of your advice to stop focusing on the difficult students and instead focus on making sure the ENTIRE class is following the rules. So this past year I spent a lot of time actually doing my best to NOT pay attention a lot of attention to my difficult students and their behavior.

    I still kept them accountable, but I did it so quickly and matter-of-factly, that in most cases, the rest of class weren’t even aware that the student was breaking a rule until they went to time-out.

    I still had some blow-ups from these students, but I would never give them the satisfaction of playing into their hands and would simply follow my consequence plan, while continuing to keep the rest of the class accountable as well.

    I had a VERY successful year last year, much better than my prior two. I even built relationships with these difficult students who came in much later in the year simply by not paying them too much attention or getting myself worked up about their behavior. It is so contrary to intuition that it seems crazy that it works, but it definitely does.

  3. Chuck August 2, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    By the way, these are difficult students for whom consequences like suspensions and detentions wouldn’t really do anything to change their behavior if used in a traditional punitive manner, where they’re being focused on and picked out. But by keeping everyone accountable, they realize that you’re not picking on them like every other teacher does, but just making sure everyone follows the rules. I didn’t have to do any class suspensions or admin calls the entire year, and these students probably had some of the most challenging behaviors that I’ve ever experienced.

    • Michael Linsin August 2, 2015 at 3:24 pm #

      Hi Chuck,

      Good to hear from you again. Thanks for sharing your success. I’m thrilled you had such a great year. Way to go! It will only get better and better.


  4. Larkyn December 14, 2015 at 8:01 am #

    I like this article. I’m a junior in high school and I’m very independent and high achieving, I sit quietly and do my work which works perfectly well most of the time. I enjoy not being bugged by teachers and just being left to my own devices. Except on the occasion where I want help with something but the teacher is too busy with students that won’t stay in their seats, won’t work, and won’t listen to her. I have had class times where I never got help with what I needed and ended up having to watch tutorial videos and teach it to myself. Which I am capable of, but nevertheless- If I need help with something, my teacher should turn her attention away from the difficult students, and help me.

    • Michael Linsin December 14, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

      Thanks for sharing, Larkyn. I’m glad you like the article.


  5. Silvia February 16, 2016 at 4:28 pm #

    What a about the class clowns whose only motivation of being in your class is to stop other people from learning ? I admit that paying attention to the majority of students works, but how to stop the disruptions immediately so that other students can continue to learn?
    I have been teaching this student for several years and it’s heartbreaking to see him showing only defiance in every possible way in my class.