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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Don’t Fear’ Students Who Challenge Class Chemistry

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 02, 2016 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

Cheryl asked:

One student can change the chemistry of whole class. How do you bring balance to the Force in your class?

You can call them “difficult” students or students “who face a lot of challenges” -- all teachers will have them in their classes at one time or another. How can we support these students, be effective teachers to them, and perhaps even learn from them?

Today, Kevin Parr, Gianna Cassetta, Allen Mendler and Signe Whitson contribute their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Kevin and Gianna on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Years ago, I was lucky enough to meet a man who had worked with Gandhi during the campaign for that country’s independence. He told me, “Larry, the key to Gandhi’s success was that he looked at every problem as an opportunity, not as a pain-in-the-butt!”

I’m not quite sure that Gandhi would used that exact language, but the message has stayed with me for all these years and has considerable enhanced my quality of life. And when it comes to classroom challenges, most of the time (though, certainly, not always) I am able to maintain the perspective of looking at them as opportunities for me to become a better teacher.

I’ve previously shared some of the specific ways I’ve applied that point of you to classroom management. You can read those suggestions, and more, at collections of this column on the topics of Classroom Management and Student Motivation.

In addition, you might be interested in this collection, The Best Posts On Classroom Management.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington, and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr:

Some kids have the ability to change the chemistry of the entire class. They disrupt class, dominate their teacher’s time and attention at the expense of everyone else in the classroom, and can turn a normally well-behaved class into something unrecognizable. These are the students the teacher secretly hopes are absent and the ones kids, parents and other teachers complain about.

That said, these students can (and will) contribute to building a successful learning environment if teachers can maintain a positive mindset. Here are a few ways teachers can bring balance to this seemingly negative force in their classroom:

1. Flip your thinking: If you or your students are thinking, “I wish _______ wasn’t in our class,” or you find yourself dreaming about life without a particular student, you need to flip your thinking. Instead of thinking about why that student shouldn’t be in your classroom, think about why they should be in your class. Tell yourself, your class and your colleagues that the student is in exactly the right place. Insist that the student needs to be there and explain why the class environment (the one your students created) is the best place for them. This simple flip will turn that student from a problem to another child to be embraced and cared for.

2. Trust the Classroom Culture: The other students in your class (even those with no history of misbehavior) may succumb to the “force” for a while. Be patient. The underlying class culture of respect, empathy and inclusion will eventually take over and set the tone for the student. I experienced this firsthand a couple years ago and through many sleepless nights I worried that I had lost my class forever. What helped me the most was sharing my observations during our class meetings and inviting discussion. For example, I might have said, “I noticed you said you wanted a classroom that is safe, fun and where you could learn but lately I have been noticing exclusion and disrespectful comments. What do you think about that?”

3. Provide a Mentor: Sometimes teachers need help. It may be impossible for a teacher to provide enough one-on-one time for specific students. In these cases it is beneficial for teachers to enlist the help of other students, school staff and community members to serve as a mentor who could provide additional social and emotional support.

Teachers should not fear a student who challenges the chemistry of the class. Perhaps the one thing these students have lacked in the past is an environment of respect and empathy. Therefore, teachers should welcome the opportunity to test and solidify the culture of the classroom and in the process give these students the support they need to productively participate in school.

Response From Gianna Cassetta

Gianna Cassetta is an experienced teacher, school leader and consultant. She is coauthor of Classroom Management Matters: The Social Emotional Learning Approach Children Deserve. Gianna is also coauthor of No More Taking Away Recess and Other Problematic Discipline Practices, part of the Not This, But That series published by Heinemann:

When one student changes the whole class chemistry, that student needs a stronger invitation into the classroom community. As teachers, we need to focus on helping that student become socially competent.

Years ago, I taught a student named Martin. Martin had it bad. He was poor, neglected, and physically abused. He would come to school in filthy clothes and he smelled horrible. He was the student about who some colleagues would say, “You have Martin this year? Good luck with that.” Students stayed away from him, and he’s sit in a corner rocking, mumbling under his breath. Martin stole and hoarded food. Children would often complain that their lunches and snacks were missing and at the end of the day, Martin’s jacket would be bulging with them.

It isn’t a stretch to imagine that none of Martin’s social needs were being met, and that as a 10 year old, he must have felt completely powerless in his situation. While I wasn’t really sure what to do for Martin, there was one thing I knew I could do to help. I made sure the rest of the class didn’t ostracize him. No group of students who I’ve ever taught would be allowed to treat any other student like a pariah. I dealt with the food stealing issue so that a) Martin was secure in having extra snacks to take home, and b) so that the rest of the class wouldn’t be resentful. But I also had numerous conversations with my class without Martin there, about how to treat him. Nine, ten and eleven year olds could understand that Martin’s behavior was a sign that things weren’t happy or good or comfortable for him, and that we had to make consistent efforts to let him know we weren’t going to make things worse. Just maybe we could make things better. I can’t emphasize enough that I’ve never taught children-ever-who when asked and expected to, didn’t rise to such an occasion with kindness and grace. For example, students should always be taught to:

  • Greet each other in the morning and say goodbye at the end of the day.
  • Smile and make eye contact.
  • Ask an alone student to sit with them at lunch, play at recess, or join a work group, or partner up.
  • Take the initiative and go sit next to an alone student during instruction, lunch, or work time.

When children are asked to be thoughtful of others, kind to others, inclusive of others, and when we give them the tools to meet those requests (which are really expectations, as we aren’t giving a choice), we allow them to feel socially and emotionally competent themselves. In the asking, we are saying to students, “I have high expectations of you. I believe you have the capacity to make others feel better tomorrow than they feel today. Now here are some ways to accomplish that. Go to it.”

Sometimes we don’t realize the power we can give to children just through an opportunity to try out being their best selves. Students in my classroom felt like they were capable through my expectations and feedback to them about ways that they could be inclusive with Martin. And for Martin, his classmates’ actions made him begin to recognize that he could be someone others wanted to be around. For anyone, but especially an outsider like Martin, being included leads toward the development of social competence.

Response From Allen Mendler

Allen Mendler is an educator, school psychologist, and author who resides in Rochester, N.Y. Dr. Mendler has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular education and special education settings; and youth in juvenile detention. Mendler’s books include When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game (ASCD, 2012) and The Resilient Teacher: How do I stay positive and effective when dealing with difficult people and policies? (ASCD, 2014). Connect with him on Twitter @allenmendler:

Good classroom chemistry happens when kids believe in themselves, support and root for each other. One way is to occasionally celebrate the individual improvement of a challenging student by rewarding the group. For example, “Carlos’ special effort this morning gets us all five extra minutes of recess. Enjoy.” Another is to get students involved in creating and modifying classroom rules.

Perhaps most important is to let your students know that their daily success is your most important goal and define that as each student getting better, wiser or more able each day than they were the day before. You might have them keep a daily improvement journal since learning is ongoing. If possible, try to minimize academic competition by making at least a significant portion of each student’s grade dependent on improvement. Give properly challenging assignments that are difficult to fail. For example, a discouraged student who is trying to hide inadequacy by refusing to work can be encouraged by privately saying, “I’d like to see you do all six of these problems but focus your attention on number two because I’m going to call on you for the answer and I want you to feel confident, so let’s look at it together.”

The arrival and departure of students during the school year can create challenges to classroom cohesion, so have procedures in place to help new students transition with minimal disruption. Assign new students to “mentor” students who have the responsibility of welcoming them by doing such things as touring the school, eating lunch together, and sharing important classroom rules and procedures. Interestingly, many difficult students act very responsibly when given this role. As well, you can quickly get at a new student’s talents, needs and preferences either by interviewing or through an interest inventory.

If a difficult student has trouble behaving, you might meet separately with one or more of your stronger students and seek to have them reach out to that student. For example, “Hey guys, we all know that Matt struggles to have friends. Sometimes kids do things that bother others because they don’t know any other way to feel special. Since you guys seem to be widely respected, I think if you reach out to him, his behavior might improve and that would be good for everyone. Some ways I can think of are_________ (name the ways). What are some of your ideas?”

Students who tend to upset classroom balance usually have unmet basic needs for connection, competence and/or control. Unless there are appropriate classroom channels available, these students often take a disproportionate share of classroom time by calling attention to themselves and/or bothering others. You can often minimize the likelihood of disruption by welcoming them, involving them and setting them up for success.

Response From Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson is a school counselor, national educator on bullying prevention, and author of four books, including 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. For more information or workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com:

A sad truism about classroom dynamics is that it is far easier for one negative student to bring down an entire group of peers than it is for one positive student to lift the class up. As a teacher, what can you do in your classroom when that ‘one bad apple’ threatens to spoil the whole bunch?

Prioritize Connections with Students

In this age of technology and testing, it is far too easy to regard students as items on a to-do list rather than as human beings who only succeed academically when they feel safe emotionally. Make time to genuinely connect with each student in your classroom:

  • Greet them by name each day.
  • Learn their strengths.
  • Know their families.
  • Ask about their feelings.
  • Notice changes in their behavior.

Genuine connections are the essential prerequisite to creating a positive classroom culture that can withstand the force of changing social dynamics.

Role Model Kindness

Rodkin & Hodges (2003) cite evidence that when teachers are warm and caring to their students, the students, in turn, become less rejecting of their peers. Be the standard bearer of warmth and kindness in all of your interactions with young people. Smile often. Make abundant eye contact. Listen. Be there. Show that you care. This is a real “do as I do” opportunity where your actions are the model for how your students treat each other.

Intervene Quickly & Briefly

Many adults tell me that when they witness cruelty in their classrooms, they freeze up and don’t know what to do or say. I tell them that the most effective way to intervene is also the easiest (not to mention the most time-effective.) Use brief messages, such as:

  • “It’s not OK to say that to someone in my classroom. Are we clear?”
  • “Leaving someone out is not going to work. Let’s fix this and move on.”

On-the-spot interventions show kids that unkind behavior will not be tolerated. They also communicate that the classroom is a safe place and demonstrate that the teacher is aware of social dynamics and not afraid to intervene. Best of all, non-humiliating, forego-the-long-lecture messages allow teachers to get back to their lesson quickly.

Reach Out to Vulnerable Kids

Make it a habit to reach out to students who are vulnerable to peer-rejection and exclusion. Eat lunch with students who may not otherwise have a friend to eat with. Check in with them after a troubling peer incident. Create buddy systems by pairing socially savvy kids with those who struggle socially.

Look Beyond Bad Behavior

That bad apple? The one who is systematically dismantling your carefully constructed classroom culture? Your instinct may be to show disapproval and marginalize this “troublemaker,” but know two things:

  1. This may be the child who needs you most; kids who wield social power in destructive ways often have emotional deficits, which are not met through further alienation, but rather through close connection.
  2. When you take the time to see beyond surface behavior and understand the pain that drives it, you gain the opportunity to make a real difference in the life of a child.

Thanks to Kevin, Gianna, Allen and Signe for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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