Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The “Bad Kid” Stigma

By Peter DeWitt — October 28, 2011 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Every year we have students who need a “tune-up.” A tune-up is when they need to see the principal because they had a one time issue with a student or teacher that needs an administrative intervention. Sometimes students are beginning to show a pattern of behavior and it is a good time for principals to step in and talk with the students about their behavior.

I enjoy doing a tune-up with students because it involves a conversation where we try to get to the heart of an issue. For a long time, I have felt that screaming at a student to stop a behavior is not the best way to get to the bottom of a problem. Having a conversation with children is the best way to put them on the right path. Some students just need to be shown the path a few times before they understand.

Let’s face it most of us need a tune-up now and then. To deny that we all need to check our behavior would be sending students a bad message. It doesn’t give them carte blanche to have bad behavior but it does teach them that we all have bad days where we don’t make the best choices.

As a principal, I believe we can deal with a lot of bad behavior before the behavior ever begins. Through proactively establishing relationships with students, we create a classroom and building environment that supports students. However, there will always be students who do not have proper behavior skills that need the experience of seeing the principal and talking about behavior. Some students need to experience tougher disciplinary measures such as detention or suspension and that works to stop bad behavior for some of them. Unfortunately, there are other students who do not learn lessons through suspension, and ultimately can no longer attend our schools.

The Bad Kid
Parents worry that their child is being labeled as the “bad” kid. It’s unfortunate that this happens but it does happen in schools, and it’s not just because of teachers and administrators. A student who has a history of bad behavior is labeled the bad kid by adults, and that includes parents of other children. When that happens, those children who are labeled are least likely to be asked over to a friend’s house or to a peer’s birthday party. Parents of other children fear the “bad kid.” They do not want their child to be “guilty by association.”

However, the bad kid stigma is a complicated issue because it really is a case by case basis. There are a variety of reasons why children get labeled as bad. By giving the following reasons, I am not condoning the issue, just providing some examples why it happens.

Students who:

  • Consistently speak up in opposition to a teacher
  • Do not finish their class work or homework
  • Have a sense of humor that does not jive with that of the teacher
  • Have had behavior issues year after year which have not changed
  • Have a tough time with peer relations

The reality is that there are children who have bad behavior. Some of these children learn it from home because that is the type of behavior their parents role model. Other times it’s a child who is testing the waters and acting out so they can be seen and heard by adults and peers. We see students who will act out negatively because any attention is good attention even if it is for bad reasons.

Part of schooling is to get students to fit into society. I do not think that all students need to be from a cookie cutter model where they all behave when we ask them to and are perfect day in and day out. That would be an unrealistic goal, considering I can’t even promise that in my own behavior on a daily basis. The important aspect of bad behavior is teaching students how to keep a handle on it. The true issue is when we (educators, parents, children) cannot get bad behavior to end and it disrupts their own learning as well as the learning of students around them.

The Role of Parents
There are parents who will not provide honest feedback to schools about their children. In my experience, there have been parents who will not admit that their children are a discipline issue at home because they do not trust the school system and believe that by admitting their child is an issue at home they are somehow a bad parent, which is unfortunate. In addition, some parents believe a child’s bad behavior stems from a personality conflict between a child and the teacher, which can be a reality.

The following questions are important to take into consideration:

  • Are they really making bad choices and the parents are not accepting it?
  • Has the child consistently had issues that have not been properly addressed?
  • Is the child a target of the teacher because their behavior sticks out more than other children?
  • Is it possible that the child is displaying the same behavior as other children but because of a reputation, they are the only one who gets caught?
  • Do the parents encourage bad behavior out of their child?
  • Is the bad behavior really masking an issue at home?
  • Is the bad behavior really masking an academic issue?

We need to understand that if there is a disconnect between home behavior and school behavior it needs to be addressed through a meeting with the teacher and the principal. Ignoring an issue will only create resentment between school and home which does not help anyone, especially the child. Only through honest discussions on the part of all parties can the stigma of being a bad child disappear.

Tune-Ups and Clean Slates
Unfortunately, not all students are given a clean slate every year. Other times, students who are given a clean slate are self-destructive and the clean slate is quickly replaced with the stigma of being a bad child once again.

Some students, for internal (i.e. social-emotional) and external (i.e. issues at home, issues with peers, etc) refuse to move forward and get along with others. Although they make it very difficult for us to want to help them, these students need our help and not our criticism. Some of those students who are labeled as a “bad kid” desperately need our help and have no idea how to ask for it, which is when positive role models at home and school can make a big difference.

Follow Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.