Why You Should Pretend Your Most Difficult Students Are Perfectly Well Behaved

One of the biggest reasons difficult students misbehave is because they’re often treated with the expectation that they will.

Smart Classroom Management: Why You Should Pretend Your Most Difficult Students Are Perfectly Well BehavedTeachers tend to hover near them.

They’re frequently pulled aside for reminders, lectures, and pep-talks.

They’re rewarded inexplicably, praised effusively, and spoken to differently than other students.

These are common, often impulsive, reactions to those who continually disrupt the class.

They’re also forms of labeling.

You see, when you treat difficult students differently than everyone else, you send the message that they can’t control themselves like everyone else.

You reinforce the conclusion that they’ve naturally drawn about themselves that “behavior problem” is who they are—as much a part of them as their name or eye color.

You communicate to them loud and clear that they’re not good enough. After all, why else would they be getting so much attention?

Labeling has a profound influence on behavior. Yet, a majority of teachers are unaware they’re doing it or that it’s the primary reason behavior hasn’t changed.

Adding to the confusion is that many labeling strategies and behaviors do indeed result in temporary improvement. Thus, teachers continue to use them, “experts” continue to recommend them, and students on the receiving end never actually change their behavior.

Behavior contracts, do-this-and-get-that rewards, false praise, and pulling students aside to coerce or convince are all common ways teachers label difficult students.

And so are unconscious behaviors like glaring, hovering, and modulating your voice in a way you don’t with other students.

The former aren’t so difficult to eliminate.

Simply being aware of how detrimental they are is enough to put an end to overpraising, threatening, lecturing, and promising rewards in exchange for expected behavior, especially if you double down on your commitment to following your classroom management plan instead.

But the latter, because you often don’t realize you’re doing it, are more difficult to get rid of, which is where this week’s strategy comes in.

From the moment your students arrive at your classroom door, if you make a point of pretending that your most challenging students are among the better behaved in the class, then those erroneous beliefs they’ve been saddled with will start falling away.

Practically, you’re going to smile and joke with them like you do those students who are near perfectly behaved. You’re going to make eye contact with them. You’re going to believe in them and have the expectation that they will follow rules and behave as you desire.

Although you’ll never stop being a vigilant observer of all your students, you’ll find yourself quite naturally refraining from hovering and micromanaging, warning and reminding, and glaring and glowering around them.

Instead, you’ll start enjoying them and liking them more than you ever have. Following your classroom management plan consistently will also come easier.

Your stress level will drop a few notches and a sea of tension will drain from your classroom.

But the real benefit resides within the heart, mind, and self-worth of the difficult students themselves.

When you treat them like everyone else, they begin to feel like a valued member of the class. They begin fulfilling the new prophecy you convey to them through your behavior, words, and actions.

They begin behaving like everyone else.

What’s cool about this strategy is that you’ll see a difference within the first day. Combined with a renewed commitment to your classroom management plan, you’ll see bona fide change in their attitude and behavior.

Not short-lived improvement, mind you, but change to who they are on the inside.

Change that is real, intrinsic, and enduring.

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23 Responses to Why You Should Pretend Your Most Difficult Students Are Perfectly Well Behaved

  1. Colleen January 7, 2017 at 9:19 am #

    Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t work with several of my HS students, especially those with LD, ADD. One kid is so distracted and un-focused that he literally does nothing the entire period, unless a para is available to help him one on one. Another just has a negative, combative attitude. And this is in an art class, which should be fun and relaxing.

    • Michael Linsin January 7, 2017 at 11:37 am #

      Hi Colleen,

      This is a strategy that improves behavior, not motivation. At least not directly. We have, however, tackled how to motivate students as well—here on the blog and extensively in the book The Happy Teacher Habits. Also, the strategy is always the best approach with students labeled difficult. I’ll be sure to cover why this is so and how and why they change internally and over time in a future article.


  2. Catherine January 7, 2017 at 9:25 am #

    This is JUST what I need to read and seems so simple but just profound. Thank you so much!

    • Michael Linsin January 7, 2017 at 11:31 am #

      You’re welcome, Catherine.


  3. Peggy H. January 7, 2017 at 9:40 am #

    Thank you for addressing this topic. I agree with everything you have written, but have a couple of questions. What is your recommendation on how to address a situation that a teacher is treating a student who has many negative behaviors, as if the student is well-behaved, and the student hits and pushes his classmates when the teacher isn’t looking? Also, how should a teacher explain to the classmates and parents of the classmates the reason for the student being disruptive in class, and hitting and pushing kids, when the rest of the class is following the class and school rules?

    • Michael Linsin January 7, 2017 at 11:41 am #

      Hi Peggy,

      You’re misunderstanding the strategy. When you get a chance, please read the article again. 🙂


  4. ron January 7, 2017 at 9:49 am #


    I have a student who has not brought my letter back from the parent to sign. I have contemplated holding her out of P.E., but she does not want to participate. Even though she does not like the physical aspect of P.E. I was hoping the removal from the social perspective of the class, might motivate her. What would you do in this situation?


    • Michael Linsin January 7, 2017 at 11:43 am #

      Hi Ron,

      I know we have a coaching appointment on Monday. I’ll talk to you about it then.


    • Debbie McCoy January 8, 2017 at 2:57 pm #

      Call the parent!

  5. Reality check January 7, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    Can’t wait to read the comments on this!

  6. Debbi January 7, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

    I have had a few students that started my room with the label of “problem kid” already. One in particular was “that kid” that teachers all talked about. I made it a point to tell him the first day “I’m so glad you are in my class this year! i’ve heard great things about you and know you are going to be a super student!” His response was a look of shock and he blurted out “Who told you that? You must have misheard! I’m not good!” I just continued to show him that I cared about him and knew he could be great – and he was! We didn’t have any behavior problems all year in my class. He did have some issues at recess and in pull-outs, all with teachers who still had that label of him as the bad kid in their heads. I really saw that because I let him know that I believed in his ability to make good choices and treated him like other kids who did what they were supposed to, he wanted to show me that I was right and started to believe in himself as well.

    Thanks for the article. I know there is more I can do with some students I have this year. Need to remember to stop hovering and looking for problems.

    What do you think of a mini-behavior agreement with a student? I’ve sometimes talked with a student about changing a behavior and offered a reward for the first week or so while they changed their habit. They knew it wouldn’t continue – but also knew that I understood that it might be hard at first and that they had my support. After a few weeks, the carrot was removed but the better behavior stayed.

  7. Karolina January 7, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

    Hello.Just a quick note to say thank you for your informative posts.I have been reading your blog for several months now and always found your advice useful and more importantly incredibly practical. Thank you again for such great input.

    • Michael Linsin January 7, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

      It’s my pleasure, Karolina! Thanks for being a regular reader.


  8. Jo January 8, 2017 at 7:46 am #

    Michael! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

    I’m in need of your help! My students are well behaved and they LOVE my classroom, thanks to your help.

    However, I work in a building where rewards, labeling, and disrespectful talk about students is encouraged. For example, at the beginning of the year, all the students who had poor behavior the year before were pulled out for a required meeting with the classroom teacher and counselor. Talk about a bad way to start fresh! Any tips for how to deal with administration and fellow teachers who hold different beliefs? Every year since I’ve been following your suggestions, people will say that “Oh, this age group has just matured since the year before,” or they will say, “That kid is doing better this year because he’s been separated from this other kid.” Blah, blah, blah. When I try to tell others about how powerful these methods are, they just say, “There’s all different teaching styles out there.” I also have a hard time being forced to use an incentive program. To summarize, How can I continue using these effective methods with an administration who require labeling and incentives?

    Thanks for your time!

    • Michael Linsin January 8, 2017 at 11:21 am #

      Hi Jo,

      It’s a great question and I’m in the process trying to figure out how best to address it—whether in an article or perhaps an e-guide where there is more room to elaborate. It’s definitely too big to cover here. Other readers have voiced similar concerns, so I hope to get to it soon. Great teaching, as you well know, often swims against the tide of present day educational theory. Stay tuned. 🙂


  9. LiKina January 8, 2017 at 10:09 am #

    Regarding Colleen’s statements. I just had to comment on the “perception ” that art is supposed to be fun and relaxing. This is an assumption that should not be as every student is different. It is the student’s perception that matters as art may not be their zen. Another huge part to all of this is teacher/adult interaction with the students. As we know and indicated by some others here, the adults are sometimes antagonists.
    The key is communication.

    We all can stand to have a lesson or two in effective communication with students of this milineum.

  10. Vutaieli January 8, 2017 at 6:57 pm #

    Thanks for all the tips you’ve sent me.Our 2017 school year will start next week and I am looking forward to meet my students. The first thing I always do is to display my classroom rules for everyone to read. Please could you help me with some of your rules that would be very effective in the 8th grade classrooms.

  11. Shirley January 9, 2017 at 6:08 am #

    Great information for us teachers, many thanks Micheal for your words of wisdom. I have used many of the strategies you have suggested and it worked very well with many different groups of students I have taught over the years and more so now. Building relationship as well is key to winning the students over. Its just unfortunate that some of us believe that some theories applies to all. When we should be looking at every student in our classroom as individual. Many thanks again!

    • Michael Linsin January 9, 2017 at 9:03 am #

      Hi Shirley,

      The pleasure is mine. I love helping teachers improve their classroom management. You’re spot on about good relationships being key.


  12. gin January 9, 2017 at 9:46 am #

    what if they change for a short time and then they go back to their difficult attitude?

  13. Haydee C. Parreno January 10, 2017 at 8:05 am #

    Thank you MichaeI for sending me series of articles. I learned so much from them.

    I have two students who are really good in discussions and can express themselves fluently in English. I observed that the rest of my students got intimidated of them. Though how much I encouraged my class to participate in the discussion, only few got the courage to stand but only said one or two statements if not a phrase. How can I make my class discussion more interactive?


    • Michael Linsin January 10, 2017 at 8:50 am #

      Hi Haydee,

      I’ve written about this topic before. When you get a chance, try the Search function along the menu bar. I will be sure to revisit it in the future.