Difficult or disruptive children present a significant challenge to teachers, administrators and their peers in the classroom. These children can disrupt the whole class through outbursts, or pose a threat to the safety of the teacher or their peers if they become volatile.
Approximately 10% of school-aged children in the United States struggle with mental health problems. That is between nine and 13 million children aged 5-18 years old. In a classroom of 20 students, one or two children will be dealing with serious psychological stressors related to poverty, domestic violence, abuse or neglect, trauma or a psychological disorder. These students find it difficult to regulate their emotions and focus on learning. They often times lack the basic skills needed to regulate their actions. They can disengage socially or be clingy, sleepy or irritable. They will show defiant and oppositional tendencies and will regularly try to claim power.
Teachers need to be able to help students reach their full potential and control their classrooms. The key to this is that teachers need to recognize disruptive behavior for what it is, and attempt to stop it before it starts. Behavior is a way of communication for children: it has a function, most times it has a pattern, and it can be changed.
Misbehavior is often a symptom of some underlying issue such as one of the stressors mentioned earlier. Children would behave properly if they could. Problematic or maladaptive behaviors usually stem from an underdeveloped skill of some sort. A child that blows up, acts out or has tantrums is not coping with the stress of a situation. Some are oversensitive to stress, some may have an overactive "fight or flight" response. Others may lack basic social skills.
Even when the behavior looks weird or is disruptive, these actions are an attempt to solve a problem the child may be having. Teachers must take a step back and analyze the behavior to figure out what the child is trying to communicate and the function of the child's bad behavior. With time and practice, teachers will be able to "listen" to the child's behavior code and respond in more productive ways.
A child would not repeat a certain behavior unless something was gained. Usually children use negative behaviors are to get attention or a response from others. An example of this would be whining or swearing to get attention from adults. A child that has tantrums every day and then gets to leave class might be furthering his or her desire to escape. Teachers must figure out what the student gains from the negative or unwanted behavior and then find other ways to respond so that they are not reinforcing the negative or unwanted behavior.
When a teacher has tried all avenues of behavior modifications and nothing seems to work, the teacher should look for patterns in these behaviors. For example, if a child throws and tantrum and has to be removed from class when something unexpectedly changes during the daily class schedule, the teacher may be able to assume the child cannot handle unexpected changes and thus is able to have himself removed from the class. Once a teacher discovers a pattern the behaviors begin to make sense. The teacher is able to see the environmental factors taking place prior to the behavior and the response the child gets after.
Once a teacher recognizes a pattern in behaviors, the reasons for the behaviors he or she can make plans to help the child improve his or her behavior. Behavior plans guide teachers in helping children learn new behaviors so that they may communicate more effectively and productively.
Some ideas to help challenging children focus and stay on task in class are: behavior cards taped to desks with reminders for appropriate behavior, a daily schedule on the board with completed tasks erased, warnings to ease students into transition times, reminders to children regarding taking responsibility, and providing children with positive and immediate feedback when they behave well.
Teachers should set a tone when communicating with children. This should include using understandable vocabulary, being firm and direct, and using a neutral tone and body language so as not to seem confrontational. Teachers should not enter into a power struggle or react emotionally to anything the children may say.
For a teacher to de-escalate defiant children, they first should avoid raising the child's stress level. Teachers should not try to reason or make emotional appeals to win the child over. Teachers should give the child a firm choice to make (as long as it is safe) and then give them time to make their choice. Teachers should avoid arguing, as children who engage in disruptive behavior are seeking power and control over their situations. By giving this child a choice, he or she can regain some sense of control over their own fate. Teachers should avoid negotiating in the moment. Once the decision has been made regarding redirection or consequences, teachers should remain firm in their decisions. Negotiating at this point will reinforce the child's need to test limits and avoid consequences by being difficult.