[Originally posted March 14, 2002]

It’s no surprise that one of the major concern of new teachers is maintaining discipline, particularly if you plan to work in a “hard to staff” school. Oddly enough, though, I haven’t been overly concerned about discipline in general. I guess twenty years of dealing with lawyers, judges and sheriffs has left me confident of handling a classroom full of children. Still, I have worried about handling specific children: confrontational, violent, attention-grabbing or passive-aggressive ones. With those kids, the first confrontation can set the tone for the entire relationship. Yesterday, though, I found a very good book on the subject: Succeeding with Difficult Students: New Strategies for Reaching Your Most Challenging Students by Lee and Marlene Canter (Canter & Assoc., 1993).

The Canters define “difficult students” as “students who are continually disruptive, presistently defiant, demanding of attention or unmotivated.” And, let me hasten to say, this is not a problem limited to “hard to staff” schools. I spent most of my school years “tracked” in what were known as “IGC” (for “intellectually gifted children”) or SPE (“special progress–enriched”) classes. We weren’t juvenile delinquents but — especially when we hit Jr. H.S. (or maybe it was puberty) — we could be monsters. Unruly, difficult, even dangerous kids, are not limited to underprivileged underachievers.

We ate substitute teachers like popcorn. We had a guidance teacher we reduced to tears every other time we met with her. Our orchestral music teacher used to retreat into the instrument closet in frustration to play his clarinet at least once a week, leaving us to run riot by ourselves in the classroom. We were not a violent group (with one exception), but we were really smart and we knew it, so we were obnoxious. In those days (and maybe these, too), the class carried something called a “section sheet” from classroom to classroom and each teacher marked latenesses, absences, etc., gave the class a rating in conduct and listed disciplinary “charges” against individual students. My class, 8SPE-1, held Jr. HS 52’s record for “poor” conduct ratings.

We had one classmate who was ultimately moved to a “600 school” (NYC schools for kids with “behavioral issues”). “Linda” (not her name) was bright, articulate, funny, sometimes very kind to me (the class bully-magnet) and frequently, frighteningly violent. With Linda, the line between “mouthing-off” and throwing things was quite thin.

I was a “difficult” student; the passive-aggressive sort. I would not do homework. I was perpetually on the edge of being dropped out of the track because of my grades. Then the standardized tests would come around, and I would test first or second in the class. I hated that time of year, because with the test scores would come the lectures about not working up to my potential. bleah. (As a friend of my once wrote “my potential was like a rich uncle who refused to die.”) I would start every semester with a determination to make things different but, within a few weeks, I would back to the old routine. I wasn’t refusing to learn, btw; I read voraciously. I went through an entire year of Chemistry at Bronx Science without opening the textbook because I had read it all independently before I started high school. I loved to learn things, but I hated every day of school until I was about 14 (and a junior in high school). I was never rude to my teachers, did well in the classes I liked and in three years, I only got one individual “charge”: I stuck my tongue out at my French teacher’s back and she turned around and caught me. Still, I was a very “difficult” student.

So, I’ve wondered, what do I do when what goes around comes around, and I face a quiet, well-behaved, passive-aggressive child? Or another Linda — bright, likeable and frightening? The Canters’ book makes me feel like a some tools for that now. Their strategies aren’t rocket science and the basic principle seems obvious:

“[Difficult students] need more from you.

“Difficult students need a teacher who recognizes that building positive relationships is without question the most important factor in succeeding with difficult students.

“Difficult students need behavior management approaches addressed to their specific needs.” (page 10)

They deliver an important reality check, too: “The difficult student does not view you as the positive, caring role model you see yourself as. These students do not trust you, do not like school and do not believe that behaving in school is in their best interest. School has not been a positive experience for these students, consequently, they don’t really care what you say to them or ask of them.” Therefore, say the Canters, “you have to change your perception that all students regard you as a trustworthy human being. With some of your students, you will have to make a conscious effort to build this trust.”

We “scaffold” children who have difficulty reading, or learning arithmetic, designing special exercises and working with them to bring them up to speed with the class and students with difficult behavioral problems need the same scaffolding. Just as we design our lesson plans to take into account the need to provide some special instruction for a student in academic difficulty, we need to take into account the need to model and reinforce proper behavior for difficult students.

The Canters go into some depth about this process. They advise analyzing the situations in which these students act-out, so that you can anticipate outburts and pre-empt them; using interest inventories to provide hooks for reinforcing behavior; and detailed planning of the behaviors the students need to learn and how to teach them.

I’m sure it will be extremely unpleasant when I’m actually confronted by a difficult student, but now I have a framework for thinking about solutions, and I feel a good bit more confident about my ability to address the problems.