Tips for Working with Tough Kids and Their Parents

As a teacher of students with significant emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve found that it is imperative to form good working relationships with the parents of my students.  As part of our alternative school program, parents meet every two weeks with the special education “team.”  We call these meetings “home conferences;” it doesn’t mean that we meet with the parents at home–it just means that we have a home-school meeting with all the players on the student’s team.  

2The best thing you can do to work with parents of tough kids is to remember that they might not have the same values as you do.  Some of the parents I have worked with over the years are people who aren’t necessarily people I think are the best role models, but I look beyond that and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.  Listen to them; let them download their worries to you, and be someone they can lean on.  Don’t try to make them fit into a middle class mold.  Shake their hand when you meet them, smile at them warmly, and ask them about themselves.  Their child might be difficult in the classroom, and you need the parents on your side.  

Set up regular meetings that are based on all of the good things the student has accomplished.  These meetings might only be 10-15 minutes long, but you will quickly become well-liked when you are sharing positives about their child in person. Parents of your difficult students have often had difficulties back when they were in school, so school is a negative and scary place to be.  When you communicate positive accomplishments, the parents aren’t as afraid of school personnel.  You will need to have at least 40 positive communications “in the bank” with a tough kid before you have a negative communication with that child; otherwise it will be an uphill climb to build a relationship with that student and to have them trust you.  The same can be said for working with a parent of a tough kid; build up the positives so that when things get difficult and you have to give some negative feedback, the parent trusts you.

Relationship is key.  In order to work best with a tough kid, you have to build a solid relationship with them because you will be relying on that when their behavior gets difficult.  A tough kid is not going to follow your directions and listen to you because you are the “authority.”  You have to show that kid that you can be trusted.  You have to be a safe person for the tough kids.  In the classroom, tell the child, “thank you for (insert compliment),” or “I like how you (insert compliment).”  Be specific with your feedback, so that it shapes the positive behavior you want.  Try to ignore minor attention seeking behaviors.  

Likewise, if you are a principal who only sees your students occasionally or when they have been “bad,” then you aren’t going to garner respect from the tough students.  Stand in the hall in the morning and greet each student as he or she enters the building; go to student homerooms to say hello, or talk to them while they eat breakfast (or eat with them).  If you work in an alternative school, this is even more important.  Go into classrooms and compliment students who are on task and show interest in their work and accomplishments.  I don’t know how many times since we’ve gotten our new principal that the students will ask where she is, or they will comment on the fact that she only comes into a classroom when someone is in trouble.  Students notice, and teachers can’t hide it.  Further, if you are a principal of tough kids, go to the positive parent-teacher meetings and be a presence in the room when there is good news; if you only go to the meetings where there is “bad news,” again, you aren’t going to build any trust with the parents or the students.  A case in point:  our principal doesn’t go to many parent-teacher meetings; I’ve had parents in the spring of the school year who never remember meeting the principal; I’ve also had parents say to me that they don’t want her at a meeting because they don’t trust her.  Because she’s an authority figure in the school, they especially don’t trust her; they see her just like they’ve seen all authority figures in the past:  not on their side.

No matter what type of school you work in, and no matter what type of principal you have, you need to build the strongest relationships with your toughest students and their parents.  Those are the people who need to know that you are a safe person who is on their side so that when times get tough, they can trust that you have the best interest of their child at heart. 

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Creating a PBIS-based Behavior Program

imagesWhen the alternative school at which I work was formed in 1981, it was really just an experimental program begun by the University of Vermont (UVM) in order to work with at-risk teens.  Over the last 30 years it has evolved into a separate school for students in special education who need intensive behavior management and social skills training as well as school work at their academic level that serves to improve their basic skills.  I have been teaching at the school for the last 17 years and we’ve made many changes to the behavior management program that we use.  Last year we began working on becoming a trauma-informed learning environment.  It opened our eyes to some of the major causes of significant behavior patterns and social skills deficits (for more information on this, go to StudentsFirst.org).  We had been working to implement more PBIS interventions (though, by definition, we were already a tier 2 placement), but after training on the brain and trauma, we completely re-vamped our entire behavior management system.

PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a buzzword of late.  Educators have been finding that zero tolerance policies and harsh punishments are not serving to help students or to improve behavior.  This article by Russel Skiba and Reece Peterson, this article by Stephanie Martinez, and this article by Richard Vertugo all reinforce the fact that zero tolerance policies aren’t in the best interest of students.  PBIS is one way that schools can work to improve student culture and, therefore, behavior.

We have only three rules, or expectations (as we call them) at our school:  be safe, be respectful, be productive.  We decided to dissolve our number coding system of behaviors and work to encompass our coding system in a positive way.  We decided to make our three categories:  safe, respectful, productive.  Here is how we have worded our new behavior system:

Safe:

1.  Use strategies to calm down

2.  Stay in your own personal space

3.  Keep a neutral or relaxed posture when problem-solving

4.  Use non-threatening words and body language

5.  Take a break when needed or directed

Respectful:

1.  Follow directions

2.  Give feedback

3.  Accept feedback

4.  Use public-appropriate language with peers and staff

5.  Motivate and support yourself, peers and staff

6.  Respect property

Productive:

1.  Follow specific class expectations

2.  Be on task

3.  Listen and participate in class

4.  Give your best effort

5.  Follow your schedule

On our data collection sheets, each student has a chart of intervals marked out in 10 minute increments.  When a student is doing something on that list above, they receive a code in their chart (for example, an on task student would receive: P2).  Likewise, if a student is not doing something in that list above they would receive a code as well.  When teachers use the behavior management system appropriately, they will shape behavior with something like:  “thanks for hearing what I had to say; that’s nice accepting feedback,” or when they have to give negative feedback, “I’m counting on you that next time you will take a break when directed to.”  We try to frame things more positively rather than emphasizing the negative with something like, “you never take a break when I tell you to.”  When we meet with parents (every 2 weeks), we are able to talk about the mostly positive things their son or daughter has done–which is very different than what they’ve experienced in past parent-teacher meetings.  It serves to create a positive and lasting influence on the students and their parents.

Pride

As teachers we know it is part of our job to help shape students into the best people they can possibly be.  But sometimes they tune us out–maybe more than just “sometimes.”  I find that the students I work with are usually very vocal about their feelings and thoughts, and because they feel “safe” expressing themselves, they sometimes push their words too far.

I have a student this year who is struggling with his beliefs about other cultures.  Alright, he tends to be outright prejudice, even racist.  I’ve worked with our school’s diversity and equity office to get resources to help shape lessons and the other teachers at the school are all helping with this shaping as well.  I almost think it’s reached the point where he just tunes out the adults because we’ve been working on this for so long now.  Our goal is to educate him to help sway his beliefs (which, obviously, are based on ignorance and misunderstanding).   I feel like we’re not getting anywhere.

Yesterday, to my surprise (and joy), this matter came to a crisis point.  The student said something prejudiced in class, and just as I was about to give feedback to the student, another student piped in, angrily, and said, “I’m so sick of your racist views; no one wants to hear that anymore.  Just shut up.  No one smart thinks those things about anyone.”  Everyone in the classroom was hushed for a moment as the power of peer feedback sank in to our brains.   I was so proud of this kid; it was exactly what I was thinking–but couldn’t say.

The student who has been struggling with his views this school year stormed out of the room, clearly angry–but probably embarrassed, maybe even stunned.  When I went to talk to him a few minutes later, I asked him what he thought happened there.  He said, “I hate that kid.”  I asked him to talk more about that and it came out that no one had ever said anything like that to him before and walked away unscathed.  He said he didn’t really think he was bothering anyone when he talked about his neighborhood.  I told him, “It does bother people.”  He finally agreed to go back to class and said that he wouldn’t talk like that in school anymore.  For me, it’s one more step forward with this student.  It was one of those moments that makes me proud to be a teacher.