Looking at Behaviors in the Classroom – Differently

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Just a quick “who do I think I am to write this”.  I have worked with at-risk youth since 1996, in the following positions: Assistant Family Teacher, Behavior Technician, Behavior Technician Team Leader (these all in a group home);  Case Manager for a social services agency; Education Technician and a Special Education Teacher in private and public schools.  So while this is not an academic study or an “expert” discussing this topic, I do have a lot of practical day-to-day experience in the subject.

The opinions and observations stated in here are strictly my own and are not supported by research or other evidence-based research.

1. LACK OF SELF-CONFIDENCE.  Most of these youth I have observed actually have very little self-confidence.  Many of them try to come across as bigger than life or that they know everything. I have found that in many instances this attitude is usually an act or an attempt at bravado to cover up how insecure they actually are. Just think of what some (not all) have been told throughout their lives that they are: “less than dirt”, abused and neglected by the very people that should love and nurture them. Most do not have the “typical” or supportive family life that “others” might have had and we wonder why they don’t have a lot of self-confidence.

I have found that many of these students are actually very needy and want/need to be supported as much as possible. I understand that large class sizes, their behaviors and other factors make this difficult, but sometimes as crazy as it may sound “school” is the only stable part of their life.

2. NEGATIVE BEHAVIORS IN THE CLASSROOM: When they are acting out in class – is it because they are purposely being “jerks” or a problem for you?  Or is it because they don’t have a clue about whatever you are talking about, want them to do or how to do whatever it is you are doing in class.  Often times it is easier and more socially acceptable for them to “look baaad in front of their peers, than dumb or stupid.

Teachers have to remember that at-risk youth typically have poor school attendance records and can have tremendous gaps in their education (high school students reading at 3-4th grade level or unable to do basic math functions). It doesn’t mean that they are dumb or learning disabled, they simply haven’t been in or available for school enough to learn basic skills – it is that they are what some call Curriculum Deprived.  They are easily embarrassed about their lack of academic ability and are quick to cover it up.
Think about that kid(s) that always seem to act out in your class.

What event(s) trigger those negative behaviors.

  • Is it when you call on them to answer a question?
  • Do something in front of their peers?
  • They are taking a test and don’t have a clue or can’t even read it.
  • Over-react to something they do and not react to the same thing by another student.
  • Publicly “calling them out” or “challenging them (machismo)” in front of their peers.
  • Direct “that” look or voice towards them in front of their peers.
  • Be sarcastic with the intention of belittling them
  • Look down your nose at students, or
  • Use comments similar to:  “Oh come on – anyone can answer that question”; “Ah – you didn’t do your homework yet again!”; “I guess I need someone else to answer this question.” “We don’t have all day” and all those other “put downs” that have been said to classrooms by teachers.

Sometimes we need to take a closer look at what we are doing to trigger repeat negative behaviors in our classrooms.

3.  BUT I TAUGHT THIS ALREADY.  Just because you taught it yesterday, doesn’t mean those students learned it yesterday or remember it today.  This is a hard one for many teachers to accept, but causes so many issues in the classrooms because it is often the truth.

Many students have so much on their mind and so many difficulties (emotional, learning issues, substance abuse, mental health problems, etc.) that just because they seemed to understand what you previously taught, doesn’t mean they understand it today.  I know that this is very frustrating for us as teachers, but just think how frustrating it is for these youth (especially the ones who realize this). But in large classes what do we do? There isn’t any simple answer for this and I don’t claim to have the answer, but smaller classes and more individual attention really works well. But in this time of budget crunches and increasing class sizes, it isn’t a realistic solution.

4. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.  Many times these youth are battling multiple demons in their lives: their home life is shambles, their relationships are tumultuous, substance abuse is rampant, the police, multiple state agencies are involved and so on.

These youth are stressed to the max and the last thing on their mind is “school”, our classrooms or some asinine homework assignment. When they lash out in your classroom, are they actually always lashing out at you or the other students…no I find most of the time it is everything else going in their life and you just happen to be the only one they can safely blow up at.

Sometimes, take it as a compliment when they blow up at you (am I crazy – maybe), but they feel safe enough around you or in the school to let out some of their frustrations. What can you do? Maintain school standards, expectations and set appropriate boundaries (rules) and don’t let the youth intimidate you by yelling, screaming, swearing, etc. into lowering your standards. Physical aggression is a different story, but you should follow the polices in place for your school in either case.

I know how difficult this is to do — I have been called every name in the book, some that are not in the book and some were invented specifically for me, been kicked, hit, bitten at some point or another in my career with at-risk youth and have found the one thing they really respect is CONSISTENCY. They thrive on knowing what you will do in the classroom or those “bad” situations and once they know you are “safe” (you won’t hurt them), you can begin a relationship with them — slowly, sometimes very slowly.

5. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS: These youth are scared to death of relationships they have been hurt by so many people who they are close to.  They will do everything they can to “push” people away, that way it is harder for them to be hurt, especially by adults – again. My best advise is be patient and take it at the youth’s speed – not yours (if you rush them, the result usually isn’t pretty), be consistent and stick around. These youth will test you in every way they can, to see if you will stick around. But if you are able to do it, you might be surprised with the results.

6. THE PAY-OFF: When you are walking around in a mall, store or other public place and the youth see you and come rushing over, and want to talk your ear off; sit down beside you when they don’t have to and talk “sports”; about their future plans or you if/when see them in that cap in gown at graduation (I have had to wipe tears off this old curmudgeon’s face more than once). It is then you know why you took the time to extend your hand, kept it out no matter how much they slapped it away, and stuck with them.

7. THIS ISN’T JUST A SPECIAL EDUCATION ISSUE: These behaviors happen just as often in a general education classroom as they do in the special education classroom.  It just seems that these behaviors get more notoriety when they happen in a resource room or with a student who is identified as special education.

Then there are always the students who none of the above applies to and are making conscious decisions on what they are doing in the classroom – those ones all you can do is document the behavior and follow the rules.  The problem as always is determining whether it is attitude or a skills deficiency.

In the course of teaching a class, if a teacher is purposely and repeatedly sets a child up to fail, or continuously verbally demean a student, then in my eyes the teacher is initiating the youth’s behavior cycle and is abusing that child. Especially when they know full well that the student will be held accountable for the behaviors they exhibit. This may sound harsh, but it is the way I feel.

I could go on, but these are in my opinion some of the most important issues to look at when working with at-risk youth. Books have been written about this subject, by people a lot smarter than me, but I thought it would be nice to get a conversation started on this subject and see where it leads.

The next time a student is acting out in your classroom, stop and think for a moment, what happened right before he or she began to act negatively?  Write it down when you have a chance and see if a pattern develops and talk with others to see what they are seeing.  You might be surprised with what you find out.


  1. Thank you for this advice. I am working (in my mainstream class) with an 8 year old in care who this week has screamed obscenities at me, kicked, hit and wiped wet hands on me. Many of the points you have raised here have been going through my head all week but to read them today has affirmed for me that my attitude to her behaviour is the right one. I definitely held the thought that she is treating me like this because she trusts me with me at the most difficult times. And at the end if yesterday she came and gave me a small hug. The first she has given since arriving in our school in September. I am glad that we now have a week off as my emotional stamina needs replenishing but I am looking forward to working with her (and the rest of my fantastic class) again when we return at the start of November. I will read this post several times over the next week to help me be as positive and subsistent with her as possible. Thank you again!


  2. Lara – thank you for commenting and am glad that I was able to say something that could be helpful. I wish you well with this student, as it will not be easy road, but it will have its rewards – you didn't give up on her. You will know this and she will too. Good LuckHarold


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