Classroom Management Strategies: How to Win Over the Bad Kid

If I ask you to think of one student who causes the most classroom management headaches for you, does a face come to mind? I’ve had several, usually one or a even handful per year. I can still remember back to the first kid I had like this in my first year of teaching, I’m going to call him Kevin.

Kevin seemed to delight in ruining my day. When my back was turned he liked to throw little scraps of paper at me. I could never catch him at it, and the rest of the class defended him too. His little game worked. Everyone could see how infuriated and embarrassed I was. I was begging for a camera in my room as if catching him would have stopped the torment.

This isn’t a feel good story. I never got through to Kevin. We never once shared a joke or smiled at each other. I made it through his class every day on pure grit, and I rejoiced on the last day of school. I avoided eye contact with him when I’d see him in the halls the next year. I thought I was free! Unfortunately, Kevin has been reincarnated. He returns every year under a new name with new quirks and new ways to plague me. Kevin might be on your roster too.

To truly succeed with classroom management we are really going to need Kevin to fall in love with us. Even more so if he’s a ring leader. We’ve established by now that the only way to get a kid to do anything we ask is by convincing them that we are someone they want to impress, so we can’t simply spend the year scowling at him. Somehow we need the bad kid to want to impress us too.

So without further ado here’s my list of strategies for trying to get through to the kid you have nightmares about:

1. Find a soft spot in yourself for the child.

If you don’t like the kid, you can go ahead and forget about getting them to like you. Close this book and find a more authoritarian method. We need to remember that the person we’re dealing with is a child. This child wants to be seen, acknowledged, and to be considered good by the adults around him or her. Step one is to love the child. As you love them, get to know them. Be interested in them just as you would another adult that you valued.

2. Make your praise attainable.

I know they’re always bad and they never really do anything to deserve a gold star. And if they did earn a gold star then how would that be fair to all the students who follow expectations all the rest of the time? I know, but I simply can’t find a way around this one. Start by making your expectations ridiculously clear. When The Bad Kid follows along without causing a scene for a little while, make a big deal about it. Call her parents. Maybe he or she likes to be publicly praised or maybe not. Find something that feels rewarding for the student and work towards having a whole day of good behavior.

Another method for finding a way to praise this child is to find work that they can accomplish. Maybe a big part of the reason that Kevin decided to be a clown in my room was because the work was quite simply out of his reach and that’s embarrassing. Have a day where success is attainable and see if that changes things. Again, if it works, be proud and show that you are.

3. Choices

Maybe your student is acting out for a sense of control. Their home life could be chaotic. For plain old defiance, try incorporating some acceptable choices rather than demanding a uniform approach to completing the day’s assignment.

3. Give an inch. Use this for bargaining.

To be fair, many of the kids who have been my absolute favorites over the years have been somewhat poorly behaved in a classroom setting. Especially during whole group instruction. Learn to occasionally laugh off a small infraction. You can forgive without forgetting. In a private conversation, I often bring up my prior leniency when I have a non-negotiable demand. “Remember last week when I let you get away with popping a water bottle in the middle of my lesson? Yeah you owe me one. Today I’m going to need you to work silently for the entire period. Is that a fair trade?” There’s certainly a balance to be struck here, but I find it usually works.

4. Stay cognizant of your feedback loop.

No matter how perfect we try to be, we’re still going to have bad days. I think this is the most defining truth about my experience in the classroom. No two days are the same. Some days I feel like I’m getting somewhere with my bad class, other days I dismiss them early just to give myself 3 seconds of silence before the next group starts banging on the door. I can’t win them all. I can feel frustrated and defeated and still come back tomorrow with one tiny next step.

Keep an eye on your feedback loop with both the kid you’re focused on and the entire class. Make sure that if it does start to wind around in the negative direction that you muster everything in you to change the tide. Don’t start downward spiraling. Drink a bottle of wine, sleep it off, and get back in the saddle.

5. Make them special.

Sometimes misbehaving is the easiest way to be a standout student. Our kids don’t just want to be noticed, they want to matter. I have a couple little tricks for making a student feel special without them realizing what I’m doing.

1. Ask for a favor. I love this one. Ben Franklin said, “Someone who has done you a favor is far more likely to do you another than someone you have obliged.” I’ve thought a lot about why this works, and I think it really just comes down to the fact that asking for a favor implies that you need something that only that person can give you. What an honor for a child to be not only wanted, but needed by an adult.

Approach your Kevin with a special request. Something very specific that only this he would be able to accomplish. Let him know you’re in a pickle and you need help. It works every time.

2. Tell them a secret. Another option for putting your Problem Child in a position of respect an honor is to trust them with a (very benign) secret. Make sure to remind him that he’s the only one who knows, so if anyone else finds out your trust will be broken. Then simply wait and see what happens next.

3. Give them a job. Perhaps your Kevin is just bored to death. Give him a job! Ask him to count the number of times anyone gets out of their seat to sharpen a pencil during lecture. Make it clear that he is to record and not enforce. (Ironically, I find my bad kids really love helping me manage classroom the classroom behaviors of others.) Let him mark a multiple choice quiz. Send him on an errand. Let him be the one the teacher chose for an important task. When he feels that you see him as someone trustworthy and special, he will likely return the same sentiment.

6. Become an adult they admire. Be fair and calm. Be consistent. Smile. Be interested in your students. Show that you respect them as fellow humans. be transparent. Show your mistakes. Apologize. Be an adult who models appropriate relationships and boundaries. Your students will notice and fall in love with you. They will want to protect you and make your proud.

Conclusion

As you continue to practice new classroom management methods, you’ll slowly develop a toolbox of strategies that can be mixed and matched depending on the dynamics of the class.

Remember, you are the adult. Children cannot be expected to act like mature adults. When your relationship with a child has gone to a bad place, only you will have the social-emotional skills to right what is wrong. Not every technique is going to work with every child, and that’s ok. You are the professional here, and you get paid to approach each child with an individual and creative method.

Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” We get so much freedom to express ourselves and to impress our values onto children. We get to shape and mold young minds. Your skills and experience make you an invaluable asset not only to society as a whole, but also as a special person in the eyes of a child. Be creative and have fun. Don’t let one grumpy kid ruin your day or your year. Come back to him or her every day with a smile on your face and love in your heart until you succeed in bridging that gap.

Laney Lee
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Published by Laney Lee

I'm an American expat in Abu Dhabi seeking new ways to support teachers. I currently teach grade 7 science, run a Teacher Pay Teachers store, and am writing a book on classroom management.

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