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Students Can be Mean, But You Can Turn Them Into Nice

By Karen Salsbury, M.S.Ed/Reading

Mean Students

5 Steps You Can Take to Turn the Negative Into Positive in Your Classroom

                “Please stop talking.  Eyes up here so you can understand the lesson for today.”  Do you find yourself repeating this many times throughout the course of your mini-lesson?  One of the students comes off with a class-clown comment and many students jump in and respond and before you know if, you’ve lost many of the students.  It’s maddening and disheartening!  But what about the kiddos that don’t participate in these comments?  Can you see them?  Or, is the bad out-weighing the good? 

Let’s face it.  Kids can be mean.  Disrespect and mean comments can be heard a lot lately.  We’re entering into the last month of school.  Standardized testing for us was the last week in April.  After that, hold on to your seats because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.  Both you and your students are ready for summer break, and quite frankly you’re all pretty much done.  And yet you’re not.  You still have a month of school left.  For our school, that is 10 percent of the school year.  There’s a lot of learning that could take place, but with a group of disrespectful students, it might not.  That would be a shame.

But what can you do?  You find yourself scowling more and more, and you can’t seem to find a way out of the funk.  Worse, you find yourself responding in kind.  You take these disrespectful comments personally, and it puts you in a bad mood.  First of all, cut yourself some slack.  You’re human.  It’s natural to feel abused and taken for granted.  We teachers love to play the martyr.  It’s in our DNA.  “I do everything I can to teach these kids something, but they don’t appreciate it or me.”  Well guess what?  They didn’t know they were supposed to appreciate what you do for them.  No one ever told them that they were supposed to.  You work like a dog, put in long days for low pay.  Why?  Why do you do that?  Think carefully before you come to a conclusion.

Causes and Effects of Disrespectful Behavior

In order to change these behaviors, it’s important to understand the causes.  Vocabulary is one of the strongest indicators of student success.  (Baker, Simmons, & Kame'enui, 1997)  Betty Hart & Todd R. Risley did a study.  It is called “The Early Catastrophe, A 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.”  You can read the article here:  http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf  but the point I’m trying to make is you’re starting with an uphill battle.  If you teach in an affluent area, you’re probably not even reading this article because you aren’t experiencing the difficulties we teachers that teach in a lower socio-economic area do.  This study cites that children in poverty households have about a 15-million-word vocabulary by age 3, while a child from a professional, affluent home may have an almost 50-million-word vocabulary by age 3.   If all this is true, the die is cast before we ever see these students in our classroom.  And if you’re teaching in a secondary school, the gap has widened dramatically.

Setting Yourself Free to Manage Your Classroom

What does this mean for you the teacher and why does it relate?  It’s important to understand because it will help you step outside of yourself and know that these kids aren’t just acting this way towards you.  Having a strong education isn’t a top priority in these homes, or parents would be spending more time with their kids, talking with them, showing them new things and yes, educating them.  In the words of the immortal Robert Frost, “knowing how way leads onto way,” (The Road Not Taken) these households may not know any better.  They probably don’t even understand that their child is lacking in vocabulary.  It may even come from generations of the same.

“The situation is hopeless then” you’re probably saying to yourself.  Actually, it is not.  By understanding the situation, you start to learn a little grace and compassion even in the face of mean kids.   Don’t take this as an excuse for mean and disrespectful behavior.  It is vital that you know to not make any excuses for this type of behavior.  What knowing this information does is it helps you to not internalize the behavior, thus setting you free to deal with it.  Basically, it’s not you.  It’s how they react towards many people, friends, parents, siblings, and other teachers alike.  You are not alone.

5 Steps You Can Take to Turn the Negative Into Positive in Your Classroom

Number one.  There is no excuse for disrespect.  “But his mom is in the hospital…she lives in an abusive home…mom just broke up with her boyfriend.”  Excuses.  None of these matter when it comes to why a student is being disrespectful.  You must realize that by letting students have their “reason” for disrespect, you are telling them it’s ok.  You can take it.  No.  It is not ok, nor is it ever ok, to disrespect you.  Period.

Number two.  Stop internalizing their disrespect.  We’ve covered this above, but you must not take their actions personally.  They will move onto another class and be away from you and still acting this way.

Number three.  Get your system in place to deal with these rude comments.  Thomas W. Phelan has a wonderful book out called “1-2-3 Magic”.  You can buy the book if you want, but the gist of it is this.  Start with clear and set rules of how students are supposed to behave.  If you don’t have any already made up, you can find a great one here:  http://www.slideshare.net/ksalsbur/classroom-procedures-24071538 and it’s free.  Feel free to download it and add and delete as needed.  Make it your own.

Now that students know what is expected of them, let’s deal with the misbehavior.  In adapting from “1-2-3 Magic”, I use a 3-strikes you’re out approach.  I will calmly look at the student and quietly say “strike one”.  If they come back with any response at all besides stopping the behavior I immediately say “strike two.”  Do NOT engage.  Do NOT explain yourself.  They KNOW what they are doing.  Usually students will immediately get quiet.  But there are a few that will not.  In this instance, I write out a buddy room slip and send them out of the classroom to another core classroom where they stay for the rest of the class period or however long you deem appropriate.  In our school we have this set up.  After they are sent out and during your planning time you call or email their parent about the behavior.  After two buddy rooms, or “safe-seats”, the student must serve an a.m. detention.  We give them a time-frame of one week to get it served.  This is kept in an internal Google doc that is accessible by all teachers.  They must come in from 7:00-7:45 to serve the detention.  If students get more safe seats, the consequences become more and more severe, and parents are always notified.

Number four.  Always remember you set the mood and tone of your classroom.  You must have a zero-tolerance attitude towards disrespect and horsing around.  There are so many other kids in your classroom that are there to learn.  You must take them into consideration and make them your priority.  Model good behavior.  Model pleasant responses.  Keep your temper in check.  Don’t get caught up in the drama of the disrespectful student.  Turn your attention to the students who are behaving.

Number five.  Turn negatives into positives.  Smile.  Offer “gifts” for good behaviors.  For instance, an e-ticket (tickets students can collect use to buy things such as extra free time or reading time, pencils, etc.), a positive comment or remark, extra credit on an assignment done very well, use them as an example for good behavior, a free pass on an assignment, and so on.  Be creative.  Give the positive behaviors way more attention than the negative, and you’ll start to see the students respond.

You CAN Do This

As I always tell my kiddos, “if you say you can’t, you can’t, of course you can’t, BUT, if you say you can, you can!”  You CAN and WILL have a respectful classroom with kids who are positive and ready to learn.  Write me and let me know what happens.  I would love to hear your feedback.  Not only me, but other do too!  Add your comments below telling us how you adapted these tips.  What is working for you?  Or if you prefer to be anonymous, write me at share@teacher1stop.com.  We really want to hear what you have to say.

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