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Difficult Students (From Challenges to Solutions)

By Gustavo A. Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /
In previous articles I reviewed both positive and negative ways to deal with “Difficult Students” who constantly misbehave at school. Dealing with Difficult Students, Effective Ways to Deal with Difficult Students, Dealing with Loud and Playful Difficult Students.  I encouraged teachers to have unbending and effective classroom management, and I suggested positive ways for them to deal with repeated and distractive behavior of students. However, several parents recently contacted me to complain about several difficult students whose constant power struggles with teachers at a high school in Belize City hamper the learning process of other students. 

While re-reading my previously published articles, I noticed a reader’s comment to suggest that today’s difficult students need “a good paddling” as they used to get in the past. Once more, I remind readers that we cannot live in the past! This is 2013 and we need to adapt classroom management methods that are in line with 21st Century ways of living and learning. Previous civilizations constructed huge temples and pyramids (Maya ruins in Belize) by using slave labor forced out of thousands of its citizens; however, no matter how magnificent those temples and pyramids turned out, we do not build monuments that way today. Likewise, many teachers used the paddle regularly 50 years ago to “straighten out students”; but teachers do not use paddles today for many reasons. Many research studies, conducted by well-respected professionals and many books that followed, show long-term negative effects of corporal punishment. 

Difficult Students (From Challenges to Solutions)

According to current law, corporal punishment is not allowed in schools in Belize. In other words, even if paddling was used (or worked) in the past, it is not a viable solution today to stop unwanted student misbehavior. So, do we simply throw up our hands and let misbehaving students do as they wish at school? The answer is a loud and resounding NO.  Loud, distracting, and unwanted student behavior at any school is as totally unacceptable today as it was in the past. It impacts others negatively, and it totally disrupts the learning process of the entire class, including the perpetrator(s). Not only does it show total disregard and disrespect for teachers and for the other students, but it goes against school rules and regulations. Rules and regulations, after all, help to keep us civilized as opposed to barbarian!

Difficult Students (From Challenges to Solutions)

We educators know that managing student behavior is a complex task, one not as simple as “follow steps 1, 2, 3”. Actually, the lack of simple formulas for enforcing effective classroom management explains why many difficult students often surface (even thrive) in schools. Some educators today ignore the misbehavior of difficult students because they don’t know an easy way to end it. Demerits, detentions, and suspensions are temporary interventions to temporarily slow or halt misbehavior; however, they don’t address the root causes of why students break rules, or chronically and aggressively misbehave. Other than ultimate expulsion, there is no guaranteed solution to permanently end student misbehavior. Nonetheless, we should always make every effort to halt student misbehavior at school as soon as it starts. Immediate and/or temporary interventions work for a while, but they are not enough. As educators, parents, and as a community we also need to address “head on” the actual roots that create difficult students. After all, no one is born a difficult student, but rather is created out of, shaped by, and continuously nurtured by his/her home and surrounding environment. 

Difficult Students (From Challenges to Solutions)

Many schools claim to have outright “Zero Tolerance” for any type of misbehavior from a student.  However, life is not black and white.  For this very reason, teachers and administrators (who are the ones who usually know students best) should be allowed flexibility to deal with difficult students. Who better to work effectively with them? Many graduates (and their parents) of the last school where I worked have high praise for their former principal. He was quite creative in doling out punishments for difficult students; however, his hands were not tied as to how he could deal with them. His many forms of creative discipline “worked” because he was free to discipline students in many ways, and still be able to respect their dignity. 

So, yes, let us immediately address any unwanted behavior in students, and nip it in the bud; but let’s not stop there! By looking deeper we’ll realize that loud and misbehaving students are screaming out for attention, and from a total lack of dignity – they have none or have never been shown any. These are students who, deep inside, believe themselves to be inferior, inadequate, and unworthy. They’ll hide and mask these confusing and unhealthy feelings from themselves by trying to always “be in control” — hence their constant, loud and destructive behavior at school. (Are there any difficult students who are high achievers?)

I suggest that we firmly discipline difficult students by enforcing strategic and effective interventions, not packaged methods, to show them that each action, good or bad, bears a consequence. Let’s show them how to rise above their negative behavior at school by acknowledging, not condoning, their individual needs and out-of-school triggers of constant misbehavior. Yes, firmly discipline them; but also model for them how to deal with conflict — they don’t know how. Modeling, however, will not be successful if it’s full of implied threats, is militaristic or mindlessly robotic. Chronically misbehaving students usually live fully rooted in confusion and want to know that someone cares about them in life. (More intense or aggressive behavior may indicate a desperate need to know!) We show care by teaching them how to develop responsibility, i.e. for actions and consequences. (Does paddling do that?) 

Difficult Students (From Challenges to Solutions)

“In School Suspension” provides several forms of effective and much-needed discipline for difficult students; it also affords the dignity that these students crave and desperately need.  San Pedro High Introduces New Suspension Program  In Belize, rehabilitative discipline is widely misunderstood. Most administrators, teachers, parents and students protest that not enough punishment is involved. So, by not intervening and helping difficult students while we can, do we “cut off our nose to spite our face”? Countless research studies in developed nations show that rehabilitation (for criminals or students) benefits society in the long run, whereas punishment alone does not. Does hard labor punishment, repeated detentions, or ultimate expulsions help difficult students rise above their misbehavior? Harsh punishments may appease administrators, the community, or school by giving them a feeling that justice and restitution is served.  However, after difficult students serve out punishments, no matter how harsh, or are ultimately expelled, they’ll go right back to being their old selves – or perhaps worse. If no one cares (enough to rehabilitate them) why should they care? Unfortunately, society pays the ultimate price.

Already, I see the many comments, “Ah, the good old days when I went to school!  We knew what to do then; we did not have all the problems that schools have today.” Effective and strategic interventions, not memories, will help difficult students — and ultimately society.  Already, I can hear that all-too-familiar question posed to me so many times by educators in Belize, “Whose side are you on?” Learning neither chooses sides nor good guys over bad guys. We may have the most qualified teachers in the world, but if no learning takes place in their classes, we have no Education. Wherever difficult students seem to be winning their power struggles with teachers, it’s time once more for us to Wake up and smell the coffee.

Author’s Note:
These articles are not intended to be comprehensive or complete. They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, and the community. If we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, then we can learn from our mistakes as well as success. Way to go, fellow educators!

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