Teaching is a tough job. You are expected to help every student learn and achieve good grades, but that’s only the beginning. You’re often in the position of acting like a parent or a counselor: teaching and modeling appropriate behavior, communication, and social skills.
The problem is, your degree in education didn’t prepare you adequately for this aspect of teaching.
Here’s what is making the job more challenging than ever: the growing number of students suffering from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. These issues fuel many of the most common classroom behavior problems that teachers struggle to handle.
In this article, we will explain the psychological needs behind the most difficult behavior problems, and share the most effective ways teachers can respond.
1. Disruptive behavior
When a student frequently shows off, annoys the teacher and other students, and otherwise disrupts the classroom, that student is often looking for undue attention. The student’s self-esteem may be suffering, so he seeks attention and special treatment because that makes him feel like he matters.
The typical response to disruptive behavior
In this situation, the teacher is understandably irritated. Teachers frequently respond to disruptive behavior by interrupting the lesson and trying to coax the student to settle down and complete the task at hand. When that fails, the teacher may resort to doing things for the child that he should be doing himself. That brings on feelings of worry and guilt: What am I doing wrong? How can I get this student back on track?
A more effective response to disruptive behavior
Involve the student in problem-solving. How can you help the student feel seen and heard without allowing him to disrupt the class? The idea is to come up with strategies that avoid the constant classroom interruptions to deal with the student’s problem behavior.
Offer alternatives. Suggest ways for the student to get the attention he craves without disrupting the classroom activity. “Let’s allow your classmate to finish giving her presentation, and then you can ask her a few questions about it.”
Give a nonverbal cue. When a student is disrupting with a repetitive behavior such as calling out or tapping his pen, it can be helpful to establish a nonverbal cue with the student, such as walking over and putting a post it on his desk, or making eye contact with a brief nod.
2. Defiant and argumentative behavior
The student who frequently argues with teachers and refuses to cooperate or follow instructions is looking for power and control. Sometimes that desire shows in passive-aggressive behavior, where the student tries to manipulate people and situations to get her way. A child that wants power over others often feels angry and alone. That student believes that she can belong only when she is the boss.
The typical response to defiant behavior
In this situation, the teacher often feels angry and sometimes even threatened by the child’s power play. In that case, the most common response by the teacher is to fight back and reinforce authority, which only serves to escalate the child’s defiant behavior. Over time, the teacher might begin to feel defeated, become emotionally exhausted, and give in to the student’s demands. That response does little to help the student overcome her problem behavior and can undermine her ability to receive her education.
A more effective response to defiant behavior
Building a relationship based on trust is the best way to stop defiant behavior. When the student feels that the teacher is on her side and looking out for her, she will become more open and cooperative.
Don’t pick up the rope (avoid getting into a power struggle). Instead, appeal to established classroom routines: “Putting phones away during discussions was one of the class guidelines we all agreed to. Can you do me a favor and put your phone away now?”
Offer choices and consequences. “You can put away your phone now and refocus on the discussion, or I can write this up and you will need to speak with the assistant principal and could lose your phone privileges.”
Set limits. Offer the student alternatives that you can live with, such as:
- If & Then: “If you put your phone away now, you can check it during the last 5 minutes of class.”
- When & Then: “When you put your phone away, we can schedule a time when you can check it.”
3. Abusive and hurtful behavior
When a student frequently displays hurtful, vindictive, rude or abusive behavior in the classroom, that child feels hurt and rejected. Because he feels like he can’t belong, he wants revenge and tries to make others feel the way he does.
The typical response to abusive behavior
When a student emotionally (and sometimes physically) attacks the teacher or another student, it’s normal to feel hurt, shocked, disappointed, or even disgusted by the student’s hurtful words and actions. The teacher often responds by retaliating and punishing the student. Or, by shaming the student and hoping to make him feel guilty about his behavior. Unfortunately, these responses only escalate the emotional pain that’s driving the child’s abusive behavior in the first place.
A more effective response to abusive behavior
It can be difficult not to take hurtful speech personally, but the more we can take a breath and remind ourselves, “this isn’t about me,” the more effective we can be in defusing the situation.
Generally, when a person is agitated, he is not in an emotional state that will enable him to respond rationally and calmly. It’s important to give the student some time to regain his composure.
Acknowledge the feelings and set limits. You can use one of the limit-setting frameworks outlined above:
“I can see that you are upset with me but that is not how we talk to each other. If you can rephrase that more appropriately, then I will be better able to understand what you need and help you out with it. If you are not ready to do that, I can give you some time to collect yourself.”
“I understand that you are angry with Sam right now, but that is not how we talk to each other and no one will listen to someone who is insulting them. Please don’t say anything else to Sam right now, and we will set up a time for you and Sam to work things out when you have had a chance to cool down.”
Encourage strengths. Point out what the student is doing right as well as the behavior they need to correct. “You are really great about being upfront with your feelings. That is a real strength of yours. Just now, you let your feelings get the best of you and you said some really hurtful things. Take some time to cool off now. Then we, or you and [another trusted staff member], can talk about how you can discuss this issue more productively.”
4. Helpless and withdrawn behavior
The student who appears helpless and unable (or unwilling) to complete even the simplest tasks is a big challenge for any teacher. This child feels so inadequate and incapable that she wants to discourage the teacher from expecting anything from her. If there are no expectations, then she can’t fail.
The typical response to helpless behavior
In this case, the teacher begins to feel the same kind of helplessness and despair that the student feels, especially after many failed attempts to engage the student. At first, the teacher may over-help and do too much for the student, which only enables and reinforces the helpless behavior. Eventually, the teacher may give it up as a lost cause.
A more effective response to helpless behavior
There’s a very effective four-part strategy for building the student’s confidence and overcoming helplessness:
- The teacher demonstrates the task while the student watches.
- The teacher demonstrates the task and the student helps.
- The student does the task and the teacher helps.
- The student does the task while the teacher watches.
Over time, the student takes on more and more responsibility, gaining skills and building her confidence.
Is the problem behavior related to a mental health issue?
We don’t need to tell you that mental health issues are on the rise among students at every grade level. You deal with the resulting behaviors every day in the classroom. So how do you know when it’s a problem you can solve, or if the student needs more help than you can provide?
Here’s an article that can help you identify students suffering from mental illness, and know when to alert trained professionals who can provide expert support.
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.