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Empowering Learning Communities | Transforming Social Climates

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Working with Tough Kids by Mike Meeks

In all my experience in education and training there has always been one or two kids that leave a lasting impression. More often than not, these students are the tough kids. You know, the students that have the ability to always be the center of attention, find all of our triggers, require all of our patience and time, but often touch our hearts. Some of us enjoy working with these students, but many reading this find this task exhausting (if not impossible). Many teachers and administrators consider the tough kids enigmas wrapped inside Pandora’s Box. For the most part, I would agree. There is no magic strategy, rulebook, or easy answer. More often, these students present an ever-changing set of challenges that require multiple approaches and supports. However, three simple shifts in mindset can make working with these students easier, and in many cases rewarding.

Be Consistent and Predictable

As educators, we bring varying tolerances and values into our schools and classrooms. This variance creates environments that are often inconsistent and unpredictable. Unpredictable environments are difficult for even the most socially adept student to navigate; much less, students that have difficulty managing their behaviors. The best thing we can do is to create an environment that is consistent and predictable. This is done through a consistent set of expectations and tolerances, so that each day is an instant replay. This predictability creates a level of trust between you and the students, and trust improves compliance when correcting behavior is necessary.

Create Space for Grace

The tough kids in our schools have often experienced trauma in their home environments and from the adults in their lives. Therefore, they often have difficulty trusting adults and building relationships. Moreover, these students exhibit negative behavior to push adults away. This makes building relationships with these students difficult. However, as educators, it is important for us to make space for grace. This means understanding that students will exhibit negative behavior. They will attempt to push us away. They will make building relationships difficult; but these actions are not personal. We have to be able to separate the behavior from the student and create space to build relationships over time. This process will not happen overnight, but the final outcome is worth the wait.

Reinforce the Small Stuff

Reinforcement is a powerful tool in promoting positive behavior. Tough kids often crave attention, but in many cases only know how to get attention in negative ways. By being intentional with your praise, you are able to provide attention in a positive way and increase the likelihood of positive behavior. Additionally, we need to look for the small changes in behavior, not only the obvious. Reinforcement of these approximations make it possible for students to achieve small goals on the way to larger positive changes. As educators, we have the power to affect change in students just through the application of positive praise.

It would be dishonest to say that the tough kids will ever be easy. However, when you are able to affect change in the lives of these students, the payoff can be life changing. By applying these three shifts in mindset, you may be able to improve student behavior and your love for teaching even the most difficult students.

13603 Flanagan Blvd
Boys Town, NE 68010



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