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. 

Some Strategies to Teach Writing to Students with Disabilities

Today I read this excellent article on the Huffington Post:  “Fixing our National Writing Crisis From the Foundation Up.”   In the article, Graham discusses how student writing scores are pretty low considering that writing proficiency is required “for success in today’s knowledge-based economy” where “communication skills are more important than ever.”  He suggests that we go back to teaching foundational skills since they are the “building blocks of written language.”  There are seven things we should teach:  handwriting, spelling, vocabulary development, sentence construction, writing process, writing strategies and genre knowledge.  I can’t say that I disagree with any of those things.  In fact, addressing most of those seven things is how I’ve been approaching writing instruction with my students for many years now.  What I’ve found is that foundational skills are what so many of my students missed back in their early elementary school days, that they developed negative behaviors as ways to cope; they would be forced out of class or school in order to not have to deal with what they were unable to do.  As a result, as those students entered middle and high school with those coping strategies, they needed basic instruction.

My students all have emotional and behavioral challenges, but many of them have reading or writing disabilities as well.  Handwriting has historically been difficult to work on for my students.  Some of them have motor difficulties which requires them to have a scribe or to use software like Dragon.  So I haven’t done as much as I should have with handwriting; I mean, some of them can’t even read cursive writing.  Building vocabulary has also been a significant challenge because my students start out so much farther behind in their word knowledge than a middle class student does, so words you’d think they would know are not understood so meaning gets lost.  I’ll give you an example:  one student I had in the past didn’t know that “trapped” could have several connotations, so when he read the phrase, “he felt trapped,” that student could not make meaning from that.  I frequently pull words from third and fourth grade vocabulary lists to use with vocabulary lessons because that’s where my middle and high school students are at academically.

What I’ve had the most experience with is helping my students with a writing process that includes learning strategies, learning how to write in several different genres, and learning how to construct sentences.  Something I like to start with when I begin the school year is to train kids’ writing fluency.  My students are all in middle and high school and are quite adept at avoiding what they have trouble doing, so I need to ease them into writing and help them build some self-confidence so they will be willing to take more risks.  There are several things you can do to help with writing fluency:  STROOP tests (hold up an index card with a color written on it in marker–but the color of the word doesn’t match what the word says, ie: “red” written in blue marker.  Students need to say the color, not read the word);  a table of 4-letter words is shown to students for 2 minutes, then taken away, and students have to write down as many of the words as they can remember;  or category lists–where you name a category and students have 1 minute to list as many things in that category as they can (categories can be as simple as “things that are blue,” or more challenging like “crustaceans.”  Whatever kind of fluency activity you do, it can be a great writing warm-up, and I’ve had a lot of success with all of those activities with my challenging students.

Another tip for students who have significant writing challenges is to first do all “writing” verbally; talk it through with them while you model the skill.  This is especially helpful when you have students who have issues thinking, sequencing, and making movements at the same time.  It allows students to get used to the process you teach them without the added pressure of having to write (at first).  As students become comfortable with the process, then writing should be introduced slowly; first introduce it at the sentence level, and then move to the paragraph level, finally ending with longer pieces of writing.  Here are some lessons I wrote that help illustrate teaching writing as a process for students with significant challenges:  Writing Lessons


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.

A Long Week

Have you ever had one of those weeks?  You just feel like Friday will never come.  Obviously this was one of those weeks for me.  At the beginning of the week I had to deal with a student who no longer wanted to be at our school and he was refusing to come at all.  There was a lot of contention between him and his mother which she ended up channeling to me because she was just so frustrated.  So, I had to deal with the special education process for that and set up a meeting so the team could talk about options and appropriate placements.  It ended well, but it was tough dealing with it for the week.  I put some new options onto the table and generally helped the student feel better about his placement and his school day.

I also had a student (who had a baby over the summer) who has been living with no electricity.  It had been several days by the time she talked to me about it.  Apparently her mother hasn’t paid the electric bill in so long they owe over $1300, and her mother has burned all of her “payment plan” bridges with the company.  This girl told me that they have an extension cord running to a neighbor’s apartment to keep the fridge running, but they have nothing else.  It’s been chilly at night so they’ve been swaddling the baby up with a lot of blankets.  I was outraged on this girl’s behalf, and frustrated that she is living with a parent who cannot or will not take responsibility for the bills as well as she ought to.  I got some information about local programs to help her out so that she might take it upon herself to improve things, if not for herself then for her baby.  I called a number and got information for this girl; I told the girl to take the bill (and her baby) to the community action office (and gave her the address) because they were going to help her out.  Yesterday I asked her how it went and she said, “Well, my mom called, but they couldn’t really do anything to help us.”  After all that I was frustrated with my student who now has the adult responsibility of being a parent, but doesn’t know how to be responsible for  her child properly.  Our school social worker said that we need to report it to our city’s child protective services on Monday if they still don’t have electricity because it endangers the baby to swaddle it up under a lot of blankets.

I’ve also been dealing with my school district‘s need for all technology applications to be free.  They don’t want us buying any programs when free ones work just as well.  The truth is the free ones don’t work just as well.  My school keeps behavioral and attendance data on students on a daily basis; that data is compiled bi-weekly for parent/teacher meetings.  We have been using Excel for the last 8 years to compile this data and merge it into a “parent-friendly” Word document.  This year we went to the totally free Open Office program.  Well, our Excel spreadsheets don’t work because merging statistical data is too sophisticated; so, with the help of another teacher, we re-made the whole data collection spreadsheet right down to all the calculation formulas.  It should also be mentioned that there is no one in our district yet trained enough in the program to train teachers to use it…so this teacher and I taught ourselves.  It is similar enough to Excel that we learned quickly, but we soon discovered that some basic calculation functions in Excel don’t exist in Open Office, so we had to figure those out.  We finished the spreadsheet today with a sheet that calculates year-to-date data so we can share it with parents.  Open Office doesn’t merge easily the way Excel can, so that sheet is, unfortunately, less parent-friendly than before, but at least it’s useable.  Now next week we can make a separate copy for each student in the school.

I will close with a comment I got today from a parent related to the fact that students have 2 days off next week because of teacher inservice.  She said, “Wow can’t you guys train on Saturdays and Sundays, it seems like you guys never have to work.”  I’m so glad it’s the weekend


Children at a refugee camp in Chad

Image via Wikipedia

I just started a new unit on diversity and what it means to be part of a community.  I really want students to gain more of an understanding about the world around them–to understand some of the reasons why people leave their country of origin and go to another place to start over, and further, I want them to perspective-take and try to see the world from a refugee‘s point of view.  Usually when I choose literature topics I address topics related to diversity and equity as they come up, but because some of my students have recently been involved in harassing other people because of their race and nationality, I’ve decided to address these issues as a whole unit of study.

I thought about what I really want students to come away with.  Then I met with someone from our school’s diversity and equity office to get some resources and insight, and I began planning the unit.  I know that I’m not going to change students’ perceptions overnight; some of them have been raised with misconceptions and prejudices from birth, so my goal is to introduce new kernels of thought and establish some seeds of change.  My essential questions are based around “push” and “pull” factors and discussing facts and myths around refugees and resettlement programs.  The city we live in is a major resettlement area in our state, so there are rampant myths and misconceptions I hear all the time.  Those myths and misconceptions become the base of why students are bullied and harassed.  All of these myths are purely based in ignorance and misinformation, so if I can get students to learn the facts that will help them begin to change their preconceived notions.  I also want to help my students understand that bystanders are as much a part of bullying and harassment as the perpetrators themselves.  I have students who say or do nothing when they see someone being bullied or harassed because they think (and I’ve actually had students say this to me) that it’s better to just “stay out of it” and “not rat on anyone.”  Passivity is as much a part of ongoing bullying and harassing as the actual words and actions.

So, having established my big ideas and essential questions, I began choosing resources and topics.  There are so many to choose from that I had a very difficult time narrowing my focus.  I decided to choose topics related to three of the major refugee populations in our state.  I set up a Wiki to be a central point of posting resources to share with my students and to be a place where we can have an ongoing discussion to process questions and thoughts.  I also asked students to share what they think they know about the topic and to share the ideas they currently have, so students can see their growth after studying the topic.  Each day I share a video (or two) and a short article with them from the wiki and then they login to answer discussion questions and post information to develop our topic further.  I will soon be introducing some of the activity ideas that I got from meeting with a diversity and equity consultant in our district so that students can put themselves in different situations and try to see things from another perspective.  All of this will lead up to their final project which will include creating a digital resource targeted to the very youngest students in our school district.

I will share an “ah-ha” moment one of my students had the first day we did the unit.  This 15 year old boy is one of my students who is passive to bullying and harassing situations around him because he “doesn’t want to get involved.”  He also has actually said, “I hate Africans because they think they’re all big and bad and try to take over the neighborhood.”  The first day of the unit I shared a slideshow and information on the drought and famine in Somalia and then asked students to tell me why people might escape that situation and resettle somewhere new.  Of course they figured out that “starvation” was a major push factor, but it was the information he learned about the militant groups in Somalia that led one student to his “ah-ha” moment.  He said, “Wait, so there’s no government and all these groups will just kill people for no reason…no wonder they come here; I would too.”  I’m really excited about embarking on this journey with my students.