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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Student Absences

What do you do when student absences affect their progress?  I work with students who have emotional and behavioral disabilities, so any small thing happening in their world or their body might cause an adverse reaction, which causes them to skip school.  It takes a long time to get them to a point where they can feel safe enough and comfortable enough to go to school.   While they are learning that school can be a safe place, they tend to miss a lot of classes.  We have a truancy policy in our school district that includes sending a letter home to inform parents of their son/daughter’s absences after 5 days and 10 days.  After 15 days absent a letter goes home and a meeting is set up to discuss the issue, and after 20 days, truancy is filed with the district attorney (who then puts the case into the court system).  I’ve been only slightly impressed with how the courts handle truancy cases.

When a student goes to truancy court for the first time it is usually well into the school year and the judge usually gives the student another 30 days to get it together and go to school.  About a week before the next court date the student will pull together and go to school, which looks good in court, so the judge will grant another 30 days to continue the behavior.  This cycle is endless.  Only four times in my 15 years of teaching have I seen the judge actually take a child out of their parent’s home or assign a DCF worker to the case to make sure the child goes to school.  Most of the time the cases are dismissed at the end of the school year and the cycle begins again the following year.

So teachers need to continue to work with students who are not gaining progress due to absences.  I have started making individual lessons for my students.  I use the site edmodo.com so that each student can be assigned their own task within my curriculum.  Students can also access this at home since it is web-based; I have yet to have any students who are willing to do that, but I haven’t lost hope about it.  Students can have conversations with each other or with me and they can turn in their paperless assignments online.  This is completely private since the teacher sets up a code for the students to join; no one can just do a random search on the internet and see who is in the class or what students are saying.

It’s disruptive for the other students to have a student who is absent a lot suddenly show up for class.  It throws off the rhythm of the class and it can make the other students uncomfortable, not to mention that the student who has missed a lot of school has no idea what’s going on and basically feels uncomfortable as well.  Sometimes that contributes to even more absences.   But crafting individual assignments or mini-projects help a student who is absent a lot get back into the swing of the class and feel safe and productive.  It’s important to build a good rapport with students who are absent a lot so that you can help them make a good connection to school; that good connection can eventually be the way you personally coax them to school everyday.

The Learning Environment

When you look at your classroom, what comes to mind? Is it well-equipped, with 21st century technology at your fingertips? Is it spacious and well-lit? Does it have a constant comfortable temperature? I have to answer “no” to all of these questions when I think about my classroom.
When I open the door to my classroom in the morning, a wave of stifling air comes out because the heat has been on all night. Then I have to open a window because there is no way any normal person could work in there. Once the room is cooled down to a comfortable temperature, the heat comes on again; so I continue to play the open-window-or-too-hot game throughout the day. This always surprises me because my school district complains that they can’t afford to upkeep our building, yet the heat in the building is set to “stifling” all the time and is supposedly monitored via computer.
The access to technology is quite limited in my classroom as well. I have numerous extension cords, surge protectors, and looong Ethernet cables snaking through my room with the potential to cause serious harm to someone. All so I can share the school’s video projector and ELMO with 5 other teachers. At least there are enough computers for every student, even though they are scattered through several different rooms.
Getting my students to feel good about their school is difficult when the school still looks like it did back in 1939 when it was built. I constantly struggle inside because on the one hand I’m being told that my students are important and we need to prepare them for the 21st century, but I see that my building isn’t really being taken care of and certainly isn’t being upgraded for 21st century technology.
Even with all of the frustrating things about the building where I work, my colleagues and I are still very creative and can work with students to move them forward in their education. One teacher I work with focused a history lesson on the building by having students research when and why it was built. One student even found out that at one time there was a Norman Rockwell painting hanging in the lobby. Students took pictures of various fixtures and features then they compared them to pictures taken back in the 1940’s and 50’s. In the past I have done a historical unit on the building’s architecture and the original owner of the building. We discovered that one of the building’s foundation stones contain several personal items that once belonged to the original owner. Even though our resources are limited, and money is tight, creativity is free.