3 Things to Know If You Have A Student Who Keeps Acting Out In Class, Refusing To Do Work?

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Every teacher has been there.

You are trying to get your lesson done. You might even be leading up to something that most of the students will enjoy, but you have that one student who will not allow you to teach. They have influence over the other students, they distract you, and they are able to ruin the lesson for everyone. These situations stink.

However, there is an upside. These are the moments in which you decide what kind of teacher you really are. Are you in it for student learning, or for something else? 

If you’re in it for student learning, you will find a way to solve this problem. If you’re not, you’ll go after this student, attempting to shut them down, using all your power to disempower them. You’ll use yelling, threats, humiliation, and eventually, you’ll use your systemic power to have the student removed. 

If you are not in it for student learning, you should quit your job as a teacher. Now. You need to find some other kind of work. Sorry to be blunt–actually, I’m not–but get out of this profession. 

If you are in it for student learning, here are some things to keep in mind as you search for a solution.

  1. Most Students Who Act Out Do So For A Reason

Unless the student you are working with is mentally ill–and possibly even then–they are behaving in a way that makes some kind of sense. There are reasons for their behavior. Figure out that reason (or reasons), and you can solve the problem. Doing that well will even transform the misbehaving student into an ally in the classroom.

The first thing to do is to stop the negative behavior. You must do this because the misbehaving student is interfering with the learning of the other students. What I do is talk to the student very quietly, so as to not embarrass them. I say in a gentle but authoritative whisper, “We’re going to talk about this at the end of class. For now, please don’t keep the other students from learning.” Often, this stops the poor behavior. This works because you have told the student: I see there is something wrong, and I am going to work it out with you. If the students generally trust you, this virtually ALWAYS works, and the student gets quiet. 

There’s no reason to force the student to do any work. They aren’t in a place in which they can learn anyway. Just let them sit quietly and read or just think or mope. As long as the other students are learning, it’s fine.

At the end of class, ask the student if they are ok, and begin a powerful conversation that I discuss in detail in this post.

  1. You Will Never Win a Fight with a Student in Front of the Whole Class

Adolescents and teens are hardwired to avoid humiliation, and they will fight with all they have against it. The fight looks different with each student. Here are some of the reactions you would see:

  • A student will scream and yell and staunchly refuse to cooperate, encouraging you to escalate the fight to the point that you are being unprofessional, even inhumane.
  • A student will shut down completely. They will stop hearing you. They may get physically like stone, and they might even tear up. But they will never let you affect them again, negatively or positively.
  • A student will get up and leave the room. They might wander the halls, go to the library, hang out in the bathroom, go to the principal’s office, or even leave school. If the student leaves school, you will almost certainly be blamed–and the savvy students know that.

Your goal as a teacher must be to de-escalate the situation, so it never becomes a confrontation in front of the other students. Again, if it becomes one, you will definitely lose at least in the short term. Doing so requires the teacher to be calm (even unflappable) and firm but kind.

  1. Some Students Are Dealing with Unbelievable Pain, And Even Little Things Affect Them Very Deeply

You may have no idea what the student is going through. Whatever it is, the student is trying to get your attention. Otherwise, what is the point of misbehaving? The student could just have cut your class. But they didn’t.

If you treat the student kindly, you may find out what the problem is and be able to help. Other times, you may find that the situation is not something you can help, but you can get the student in touch with those who can. At the very least, you can be someone the student knows feels some sympathy for them. For a teenager in pain, just knowing someone cares can be overwhelmingly powerful. Honestly, I have been there myself.

Here are some important things I have found out about students after they misbehaved badly in my classes:

  • Their father was cheating on their mother and the whole family found out the day before.
  • A young woman’s boyfriend told her to change her sweater because he thought it was too tight, and when she did, her friends all got mad at her.
  • A student had been arrested and was very scared as they awaited the next legal steps.
  • A young man had been humiliated in front of the whole class by another teacher early that day.
  • A student took seriously something I said as a joke. (I learned quickly that my sarcastic humor did not work with students younger than 9th-10th grade.)
  • In a nasty coincidence, I reminded a student of his uncle who molested him. (When he finally admitted this to the school counselor, he was moved from my class to a female teacher’s, and he did really well.)
  • The work I assigned made the student feel stupid. 
  • The student was incredibly bored because they were in a class-section that didn’t challenge them.

If you listen to students, they will tell you what is bothering them. Perhaps they won’t say it in words, but they will let you know. They WANT you to know, even if they don’t want to tell you.

  1. Bonus Thing To Keep In Mind: When Students Misbehave In Your Class, It’s Often A Compliment

When students don’t like or they mistrust a teacher, they either shut down in class quietly or they don’t attend class at all. Think about it. What would be the point of misbehaving in a class if you didn’t want to get noticed? It makes no logical sense. 

Yes, sometimes students behave irrationally. But those times are rare, especially when their behavior is attracting attention. Most young people want to blend in. If they are making themselves stand out to you in a negative way, something else is going on. And ultimately, they are trusting you to find it out what it is and help them with it. That means they like you.

There are exceptions to the above. In some cases you may be dealing with what I lovingly call “a little bastard.” One time a student pointed a gun at me in class, and that was a very different story. 

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