The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Handling School Misbehavior

on October 23, 2017

Over the past month I happened to come upon two articles about misbehaving students and the importance of treating them with empathy rather than punishment. Although I agree with that philosophy, I was disappointed that neither article went on to describe what empathy looks like in a classroom or how to put a stop to rude or disruptive misbehavior. So I decided to write today about my philosophy of preventing student misbehavior and my ways of working when it reared its ugly head.

One thing I learned early as a teacher was to be soft-spoken and act kindly in the classroom. Instead of scolding a class for being noisy or careless in their work, I tried to identify each of those things as “our problem” and hold class discussions on what we could do to solve it. Most of the time, I got some good suggestions that the class and I agreed upon and which we could implement easily. Because students had been part of the decision many of them also turned out to be leaders who made sure their less dedicated classmates followed through on what had been decided .

Another thing I tried to practice was to help students who had behavior problems rather than punish them. Although working with each student varied, it was always private and focused on repairing any damage done or preventing possible problems in the future. Often that also meant giving students assistance from an aide in the classroom, such as helping them organize their materials and guiding them to the homework that needed to be done. One student who moved from the elementary grades to middle school needed an adult guide to get him to the right classrooms at the beginning of the school year.

When I became a principal I was able to help students who had been sent out of their classroom because of misbehavior. I always talked with students about what had happened and advised them on how to avoid similar situations in the future. One such encounter was exceptional. The boy who was sent to my office was so angry that he could not sit down and talk when he got there. He said, “I’ve got to scream.” So I told him to go into my private bathroom, shut the door and scream as much as he needed. After a few minutes he came back, quiet and ready to discuss his problem with me. At the end of our talk he decided to go back to the classroom and apologize to his teacher. That plan worked out successfully and things got better for him from then on.

Over time I also observed effective teacher strategies in other schools. One first grade teacher disciplined misbehaving students by sending them to the “thinking chair” at the back of the classroom. That chair included a small table with a large stuffed animal sitting on it. Child offenders told the animal about what they had done, often hugging it and shedding some tears while they did so. Many children also apologized to the animal. After they had told their story and salved their hurt feelings, they went back to their regular seats and joined their classmates in whatever they were doing.

At one of my schools I admired a special education teacher who was great at calming down any students who had become angry and were acting out, threatening the safety of others students and themselves. Her strategy with anyone who was physically violent was to grab them from behind and pull them down to the floor where she held their hands across their bodies and put her legs over theirs to keep them from flailing. Repeatedly she would say, “I won’t let you hurt yourself,” until they calmed down.

Once or twice a student became so unhinged, that she would call the parents to explain what was happening and say that she would like to bring the child home. Almost always the parents would agree,

Although I was not always successful, my attitude and actions helped teachers to deal with unruly students. They knew they could count on me to take away  students who were disrupting a class and keep them till they calmed down. My goal was to change bad behavior rather than punish it, while protecting teachers and other students in the meantime.

One interesting thing was that after my first years as a principal in two different schools,  the incidents of student misbehavior decreased sharply in both of them.  I believe it was because all of us–teachers, students, and I–calmed down and behaved more graciously toward each other.


One response to “Handling School Misbehavior

  1. Frankey Jones says:

    I shared this with some young teachers I know! Thanks


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