(What do I do now?)

Some students stand out as different from the others.  These are the hostile, lonely, frightened, depressed and frustrated children who need our special attention if they are to become more successful academically and socially.

In this chapter, I will describe my experiences and those of other teachers when we were able to help such students overcome their problems.  The approaches we used worked for us and are described here not as a blueprint, but as examples of how we took a creative leap hoping for a positive resolution of a difficult problem.  I hope it will encourage other teachers to try out their own ideas on resolving a problem with a student or students before asking the administration to remove them from the class or calling on the guidance counselor to meet with them.

Topics include how to make the new arrival and the outcast become accepted class members; how to help the child who cries and the one who doesn’t speak; what to do about frustrated children who have given up; how to stop the fighter from fighting; how to calm down the acting-out child who is constantly seeking attention; ways to reach students who are of a different race, class or culture than yours.

You will find out more about how teachers have used class meetings in which the teacher and students put their heads together to find a solution to a problem the teacher has failed to solve alone.

In addition, I discuss briefly the child you are unable to help – the one who continues misbehaving despite superhuman efforts on your part, and what you can do to see that they get help elsewhere.

The New Arrival – Elementary School

It is easy, because of all the things a teacher has to do, to ignore a new child.  You find him a seat, give him some books and a hook for his coat, find out what level he has reached in reading and math and place him accordingly.  Then he’s forgotten if he’s a quiet child, or soon becomes a problem in his attempt to get attention and recognition.

I’ve been guilty of this, too.  My attitude changed one day when my third-grade classroom door opened and the principal brought in a little boy named Miguel, newly arrived from Puerto Rico.  His mother stood timidly by, apparently fearful of how her son would fit into this strange environment.  It struck me then that something must be done to help new children adjust and feel at ease.

I introduced Miguel to the class and explained that he didn’t know one word of English.  I spoke with great seriousness.  I conveyed to them by my tone of voice and by what I said that being new was scary.  I put myself in his shoes and asked them to do the same.  I paused significantly and looked at the class intently, clearly showing that I felt great sympathy for a new student like Miguel.  Children are very impressionable, and my third-graders became wrapped up in what I was saying.

“Can you imagine yourself,” I exclaimed, “sitting all day in a class listening to words that have no meaning?”  To engage the children further, I pointed out that Miguel needed a notebook, paper to write on and a pencil.  In no time at all he was liberally supplied with both, as his new classmates vied with one another to meet his needs.

I further said there was something else Miguel needed:  our new classmate had no friends at all.  A voice from the rear shouted, “Now he do!”  I thanked Felix, and when I asked who else would like to be Miguel’s friend, many hands shot up in the air.

I encouraged the children to help Miguel learn English and suggested several ways they could do this.  Soon they were telling me what they had taught him at lunchtime, on the playground, after school, and I would praise their efforts before the entire class.  Thus Miguel was immediately accepted as part of the group and the cooperative classroom atmosphere was strengthened.

Children love to be helpful, and by providing an opportunity for them to be of positive assistance to a new classmate, many of them will rise to the occasion.

Another way newcomers can be made to feel welcome is for the teacher to find out something of interest about their lives which either the teacher or the child can tell the class.  If they can make something, have them teach it to the class.  If they can speak another language, put some words on the board comparing them to English.  Children can practice saying and even writing these new words.  (See the story in Chapter 5 of Mee who was from Hong Kong.)  Some way should be found to involve the class in welcoming new members, in helping to familiarize them with routines, and in making them feel at ease.

Aside from making a child feel comfortable, involvement of the class in their well-being will bring out the best in students, enabling them to go beyond their own needs and to focus on how to make another human being happier.  If we teachers can create an environment where our students help each other to solve problems, then this can lay the foundation for their developing into responsible citizens who work to solve problems in the wider society.

The New Arrival – Alternative High School

Manuel arrived in the spring and was an unnerving and slightly scary presence in my literacy class at the Frederick Douglass Center, Brooklyn, New York.  Each day, his tall, muscular form strode into my class usually dressed in a black sleeveless t-shirt, black pants and black boots with shiny studs embedded in the sides.  He had strange scratches up and down his arms.  He was the only Latino among African-American and Caribbean students and spoke to no one.

He was present when I invited a poet to our class to read his poetry and show students how to begin writing poetry themselves. Everyone tried, including Manuel.

I looked over student poetry after each session and was surprised to see the emotional extremes Manuel expressed.  For example:  a love poem to his girlfriend; another about how bleak and hopeless life is.

After he had written a number of poems, I asked if he would be willing to read one or more of them to the class.  (This was my excuse to break the ice between him and the rest of the class.) He said he had to think it over.

Finally, he agreed.  I think he was empowered as he saw other students read theirs with no negative remarks, due to the strict rule against put-downs in our collaboratively-developed class rules (explained in Chapter 1).  I was anxious to see what the reaction of the other students would be.

When I announced that Manuel had offered to read two of his poems aloud, class attention was completely focused on him since he had previously isolated himself.

First he read a love poem while seated at his desk.  A number of students said they liked it and wanted a copy (which I agreed to provide).  Then he read one of his morbid poems, and what shocked me was how many students said it reflected how they have felt past and present.  At this moment, they revealed a connection with him that previously seemed non-existent.  The ice had been broken, and he began to participate in subsequent class lessons and activities.

One day we went on a class trip, and as I was walking down the street next to him, I casually asked, “Manuel, I’ve been wondering why you have scratches on your arms.”

Here I got another shock.  He explained that he was a wrestler in rings with barbed wire along the sides instead of ropes and he liked to feel the pain when he fell or was pushed against them.

As I tried to process this admission, I gently suggested that life was full of enough pain without inflicting more on yourself; that he could get infections from the wounds he received.  Why not, I asked, use poetry to express your pain as well as any happiness?  He was non-committal.

Weeks later, I asked Manuel if he would like to be our class speaker at the final school assembly where certificates of appreciation were distributed to all students who participated in the Frederick Douglass Center program.  He refused but thanked me anyway.

Although, he did not return to school in the fall, I hope that my interest in his poetry, in his overall well-being in and outside of school, as well as the support from his classmates, helped him to find a more positive road ahead.

In retrospect, I wish I had explored with my students their reactions to Manuel’s poem about life being depressing and hopeless.  A discussion of why they agreed with his theme could have provided a lively dialogue in which students learned more about one another.  In addition to building our sense of community, it would have given me specific information into their world outlook that could have helped me understand them better and thereby choose more beneficial lessons.

However, Manuel’s poem did make me think of developing an extended series of lessons related to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.  It had occurred to me that if so many students felt a lack of hope, a study of a period when students their age rose up against an entrenched system of legal segregation could be inspiring. These African-American students of the past had dreams of a more just society and persisted in their goals despite the violent acts used against them. I invited a civil rights leader and singer, Matt Jones, to my class and over a series of weeks, the materials I used and the first-hand experiences of Mr. Jones, were inspiring to my class.

See full story on my website:  Matt Jones, Inspiring Students with an Invited Speaker 

The New Arrival from Abroad – Alternative High School

During another term at the same school, a student from the Cameroons in Africa was placed in my literacy class with students reading at about the 4th- or 5th-grade level.  She was much more advanced and ready for a GED program.

While the guidance office looked for another school placement for her, she remained in my class. Since she was a friendly, respectful young woman, I realized that Desdemona could provide my class with an opportunity to learn from and develop respect for a peer from another part of the world.

I introduced her to my students and asked her to tell them about her country.  This was possible because she spoke English in addition to African languages from her area in the Cameroons. She pointed out where her country was located on our class wall map. (This was a Peter’s Map that showed more accurate proportions of continents – revealing, for example, that Africa is much larger and the U.S. smaller than the traditional Mercador Map.) She gave a description of her daily life there and some of the history which greatly interested her classmates.

She became my classroom aide, helping students with assignments when appropriate, and when not needed, she read books on her own.

She had a great interest in poetry, so I gave her poetry books to read, encouraging her to write her own.  At the time, my class was connected to Waterways, an organization funded to print small, stapled “chapbooks,” for any student who submitted ten poems.  She began to write poetry while the rest of the class was engaged in our regular curriculum.  When she asked for feedback, I gave it to her, and when she had finished 10 poems (after discussing with me the best ones to revise or send in as is), I submitted them to Waterways.

She soon received ten copies, and each student in the class got a copy.  We formed chairs in a semi-circle, and she read her poems aloud.  Following each one, she asked if there were any questions or comments.  (I pointed out that a pause was needed to allow time for students to think.)  This led to interesting back and forth exchanges. Here is one of her poems:

My Mother

(I wrote this to my mother because I always thought she hated me and loved my brother more.  But I realize she loves us all.)

How lovely,
How gentle,
And how sweet she is.
Why, why did I have to do
What I did to her?
Why did I have to fight her?
And give her all types of insults?
I love her and she loves me, I care for her and she cares for me,
What a kind mother she is,
Oh what a wonderful mother,
I need to go back to her for forgiveness,
For I love her,
No matter what she does.
Always love your mother,
No matter what she does to you,
Always love her.

This poem evoked respectful disagreement among some who agreed and some who disagreed that you should always love your mother “No matter what she does to you…”

After a month and a half, she was enrolled in another school and left, but not without inspiring many of my students to become more focused in their studies.  They began to appreciate poetry more and to write their own, so a number of them had chapbooks made just as she did, and they presented their poems to the class in the same manner.

I was also grateful that Desdemona helped my students to unlearn stereotypes of Africans as uneducated people.

As a newcomer to the U.S., she benefited from her short time in our class by being in a safe, supportive environment where she was appreciated by all of us for her academic help, her focus on developing her poetic skills, and her kindness.  I remember her fondly every time I look at her handmade burlap purse she gave me as a parting gift, embroidered with the words, “Glory Be to God.”

This experience showed me how a situation that could be considered an added burden of planning for a unique student, or an experience that might have given me a guilty feeling by having Desdemona work on assignments that were too easy, could be turned into a positive time for all.

The Outcast

Some teachers feel it is inevitable that there are children who will be picked on and the butt of jokes or, in the most extreme cases, outcasts.  These teachers feel that such children are just natural victims and that there is nothing you can do about it.  Here are three examples of such attitudes:

Teacher A had a student who was mercilessly picked on by other children.  Eventually this child stopped coming to class.  One day another parent asked the teacher what had happened to the child because her own child had liked him.  “Oh,” said Teacher A.  “Other children made fun of him and his parents put him in another school.  Some children just ask for it.”

Teacher B had a third-grade boy whom other students picked on from time to time.  These students kept reminding this child of a few embarrassing incidents that had happened to him in previous years.

The boy’s mother made an appointment with Teacher B to find out what could be done about it.  The teacher’s only observation on the suffering this child was going through was, “Well, what can I tell you? Some children are mean.”

Teacher C was one of my 8th-grade teachers. I liked him but he never did anything to help Mary, the class outcast. None of the other teachers helped her.  Either they did not notice, had no idea how to help or perhaps thought it was not their business to intervene.

Mary was a meek girl who always seemed worried that she would have no one to sit next to as we moved from room to room since we could sit wherever we wanted at double desks.  My friend Carol and I were the only ones who did not say no when she asked to sit with us.

I remember how annoyed we felt that we always had to be the ones to sit next to her, but we could not bear to refuse her, so we took turns saying yes.

I don’t believe that the victimization and resulting suffering of one or more students in a class is a given at any level.  In my experience and in the experiences of other teachers, direct adult intervention in positive ways can bring this unhappy state of affairs to an end.


Juliana (nine-years old) was a shy girl and very frightened when she first entered my 3rd-grade class.  She had recently come from the Dominican Republic and knew very little English.  I had enlisted the help of other children and soon her English greatly improved.  But all was not well, as I learned from her mother some weeks later.  Juliana, she told me, hated school, was miserable and cried almost every day.  Investigation revealed that she had no friends and that two boys were writing nasty notes to her and harassing her in other ways, to the point where she could hardly pay attention in class.  I spoke to the boys but decided that more had to be done.

I recalled that during a visit to her home I had seen her preparing a meal for her entire family of eight. I told the children that Juliana was a very good cook; that I happened to know she could prepare delicious chicken and rice, a wonderful soup, and many other dishes.  A general “Oooooohh!” arose from all sides, and I concluded by saying that if we were lucky maybe she would cook something for us.

Children began asking her when she would cook for the class. Juliana was pleased with the attention she was getting and one morning she appeared with all of the ingredients for preparing Spanish rice including a pot of beans she had already cooked. Everyone was very excited.  We scouted up two hot plates, a pot, spoons and paper plates from the kitchen.  Juliana demonstrated how to prepare the rice, and while it was cooking we returned to our classwork.

Finally, the rice was done.  I explained how difficult it was to cook rice so that it came out perfectly.  Everyone got a plate of rice and beans, and it was quite tasty.  Juliana took some to the principal and assistant principal, both of whom came to the classroom to say how much they enjoyed it and how talented they thought Juliana was.  Her prestige rose and the children gained a new respect for her.

Her life in school from then on was much more pleasant and she was much happier at home, too, according to her mother.

How Class Meetings Can Help Resolve Problems Including Helping Outcasts

Sometimes a teacher might want to have a class discussion, or a meeting with a small group of children, about how to help an outcast become accepted or to resolve another problem.  A number of teachers I have spoken with about this method have told me they would not use class meetings to solve negative interpersonal relationships in their classes – only for minor issues like planning a party or a class trip.

These teachers say that if the child or children are in the room, it would be unfair to subject them to the possibility of public ridicule; if they were out of the room, you would be discussing them behind their backs which would probably backfire: the children would find out and be angry with you.  Therefore, the argument goes, teachers must take matters into their own hands, try every way apart from class meetings to find a solution, and if all this fails, contact the guidance counselor, the principal, or the school-designated administrator of discipline.

This has not been my experience, or the experience of other teachers who have tried this method–as long as you and your students have created and agreed upon class rules together that have led to a positive, respectful atmosphere among students and between teacher and class (as described in Chapter 1), and as long as you are careful how you conduct the meeting and discussion procedures are clear.

In fact, there are a growing number of teachers who hold class meetings on a regular basis because they believe they are a key component, “the missing piece,” to furthering students’ emotional, social, moral, and intellectual development. They believe that meetings help build empathy and respect for one another, leading to a safer environment which can prevent serious problems from developing in the first place and making academic learning easier.

If you do an Internet search for “Class Meetings,” you will find a lot of resources to help ensure that your efforts will be rewarding.  For example, I found an excellent article very quickly:

“Class Meetings:  A Democratic Approach to Classroom Management” based on the book Class Meetings:  Building Leadership, Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills in the Respectful Classroom by Donna Styles, a veteran teacher in grades K – 7 in regular and multi-age settings.

A pioneering organization providing materials and professional development workshops on how to implement this approach successfully is the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City:  https://www.morningsidecenter.org/

Their website provides information, materials and videos where you can see meetings in action and comments by teachers who use them successfully: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/class-meetings-caring-school-community

They advocate having class meetings each week at a regular time when students can bring up issues of concern rather than holding them just for emergencies.  In this way, simmering issues can be brought up before they escalate. (Students write their problem on paper and put them in a jar, or tell the teacher.  The teacher looks over the submissions and decides on the most important ones to discuss.)

The Morningside Center’s guide “Class Meetings for Problem Solving, A Guide for Teachers, Grades Pre-K to 5” explains step-by-step how to do this successfully and includes a DVD of class meetings in action which can be shown to students as well as an interview with the teacher leading these meetings on the great value it had been in turning her 3rd-grade children in conflict with one another into one where they strove to help each other.

Morningside Center has a program called “Peace and Restorative Circles” https://www.morningsidecenter.org/restorative-circles where students at the K – 12 levels share their feelings and experiences in a circle formation. Their website states that circle processes have been used “to encourage and practice group communication, relationship-building, empathy, democratic decision-making, conflict resolution, and problem solving.”  They provide “an alternative to the style of discussion that involves debate and challenging each other.  Instead, circles create a safe and non-hierarchical place in which each person can speak without interruption. It encourages respectful listening and reflection.”

These skills are as important as academic content learning if not more so. As the teacher models how to conduct class meetings, students learn to peacefully discuss and negotiate issues of concern as well as to appreciate, to compliment and apologize to one another. At some point, they are ready to take turns leading the meetings themselves with the teacher as participant and guide (where necessary).  They begin to incorporate what they have learned to problems outside their classroom, and conflicts in the cafeteria, hallways, bathrooms and playground are reduced.

The process of using and mastering these skills will stay with students and help them to become self-assured, non-alienated adults who are able to communicate better and to take positive action in their families, their workplace and the outside world. It helps to assure an understanding of democracy in actual process rather than just a theory, and in this way will help preserve it in our society.

A national organization, Educators for Social Responsibility, to which Morningside Center is connected, has similar goals, excellent materials and staff developers involved in improving school climates across the country.  Their website describes their many activities, their books, their videos and has testimonials from school personnel on how ESR programs have benefited their classroom and school atmosphere along with academic learning.

I wish that I had been able to benefit from such resources and programs when I was a student.  As a teacher, I figured out some of this on my own, but I would have done a much better job on an on-going basis if I had been lucky enough to be part of such an organized program and to have access to workshops and helpful materials to make such work easier.

More Information on Class Meetings

Class meetings as a way to solve problems and build a supportive community are most effective when the administration of a school supports this program in the entire school and makes this happen by creating special staff meetings with this as the focus and, if possible, by bringing in experts to help facilitate.

However, if your school is not part of a program like this, there is much you can do alone or with other like-minded teachers that will make your school day more peaceful, more productive and more enjoyable.

When I became the director of a student teacher program, I found videos and materials to teach about class meetings, and some of my students tried them out and began to see their value.

Since running class meetings is a challenge at first, it would be very helpful to read more about their value and how to approach them to maximize your success. There are certain pitfalls you want to avoid which will become clear as you learn more.  Meanwhile, here are a few guidelines I have used and taught:

    1. Tell the class you have a problem you want help in solving. This gets student attention at elementary through high school levels since it is a surprise to hear a teacher make such a request.
    2. List a few rules for the meeting to make sure that no one makes a snide remark, name calls, or does anything disparaging.
    3. Describe the problem and ask for help in solving it.
    4. When students offer suggestions, don’t show that you like some answers and not others. This will discourage contributions. “All ideas are on the table,” you tell your class. You can take notes on their remarks or, at the higher levels, write them on a chart for students to see.
    5. Students can vote on the best solution or solutions. If any suggestions are obviously outrageous such as “We need to have a party every week,” you exercise your prerogative to point out how this one can’t be voted on and why.
    6. You try one. Check in the ensuing days at a class meeting to see if it is working. If it does, congratulations are in order. If not, you try another solution.
    7. Throughout this process, stay on the alert to be sure the rules are being followed. If someone slips up, you stop and address it by a comment such as “We will not be able to solve this problem unless we are respectful of each other. As you know, this is one of the class rules we agreed upon at the beginning of the year.”

Examples of Class Meetings That Helped Resolve Problems the Teacher Could Not Solve Alone


Anthony was a rather short and thin third-grader but a good athlete.  Joseph was the opposite – tall, chubby, poor at sports but a good student.  Joseph complained to me that Anthony was making fun of him all the time.  I warned Anthony a number of times to leave Joseph alone, but this did not help.

One day I asked the children to clear their desks, saying that I had a matter of great importance to discuss.  They were most attentive as I told the story of Anthony and Joseph, both of whom were present.  I was very serious and straightforward.

“We have a problem,” I said.  “Some of you may know that Anthony is always picking on Joseph.”  All eyes on Anthony.  “Now, I’ve tried very hard to make Anthony stop, but Anthony keeps laughing at him and calling him stupid just because he can’t run fast.  I have told Anthony that everyone can’t do everything equally well.  Maybe Joseph can’t run fast, but he can write good stories, and Anthony has never done that.  But Anthony is a good athlete, so at the moment that’s where his strength lies. I just want to say that I hope Anthony will get over his problem.  He may think he’s having a good time by making Joseph unhappy, but he’s wrong.  No one can truly have a happy life by making someone else miserable. And we wouldn’t want Anthony to go through life picking on other people, would we?”

After my short speech, hands shot up in the air, and children began expressing their feelings on the matter: “Yeah, Anthony, how would you like me to make fun of you all the time?” Other appropriate comments followed, and suddenly Anthony jumped up and shouted, “I told Joseph I wouldn’t make fun of him any more.”  “No, he didn’t,” said Joseph.  “Well,” I said, “I’m glad to hear that Anthony is going to try to change for the better.”

Later, Anthony, in a bid for approval, held up a page he had just written, saying, “Look, isn’t this neat?”  I showed his paper to the class and said, “This is so much better that we’re going to put it up on the bulletin board.”  I ceremoniously handed him a tack, and he proudly hung up his paper while his classmates applauded.  Thereafter, his classwork improved, and he left Joseph alone.

I never figured out exactly why Anthony had picked Joseph as a target, but it did not matter.  The group showed they did not agree with his behavior and it helped him to change.

When I later described how I handled this situation to my supervisor, he thought I had made a terrible mistake in singling out this child for public criticism by his classmates, fearing that my action would make the other children hostile to Anthony and isolate him from the group.  But that wasn’t the case.

Children don’t hold a grudge for long.  My purpose, of course, was not to ostracize Anthony but to bring group pressure to bear to correct his behavior.  Alone I was unsuccessful, for children are often influenced much more by the reaction of their peers.  Also, by combining group pressure with immediate recognition and approval of any signs of positive behavior, the disruptive and destructive actions of problem children can often be reduced or eliminated.


Levancy, although a skillful elementary school artist, did poor academic work and was socially awkward.  As a result, he was the butt of jokes from time to time.  One day he came to class with a very short haircut, and children began calling him “Kojak” after a bald-headed TV character.  He became very upset.

I held a brief class meeting, in this case with Levancy in the room. “Levancy can’t help that his hair is short.  There is nothing wrong with short hair anyway.  In fact, it is very easy to take care of.  It’s not fair for him to have to hear people making fun of his hair, and I feel badly that he’s so unhappy.  I think we all would feel sad right now if we were in his shoes.”  (I did not place blame because my tactic here was not to punish or single out anyone, but to develop sympathy for Levancy.  In this way, those who had ridiculed him were more apt to become part of the solution.)

I continued, “Now I need children to look out for Levancy to see that no one calls him ‘Kojak’.”  A number of hands went up, and Levancy felt better.

A few days later Scott confided to me, “David and Martin were making fun of Levancy.  I told them to stop, and pretty soon they were playing with him.”  I congratulated Scott on his success.

However, the next day, I overheard Scott call Levancy “Highwater” (because his pants were short).  I stared incredulously at Scott.  “I just can’t believe what I heard!  Yesterday you stood up for Levancy, and now you ridicule him.  Why?”

Scott looked at me and answered matter-of-factly, “I just felt like it.”  I spoke with him some more about this contradiction, and in the end, he said, “You know, you’re right,” and he walked off.  Needless to say, he agreed to apologize.

To help keep the pro-Levancy movement going, I pointed out his artistic achievements and provided opportunities for him to share his drawing skills with others. With a continuing vigilance by me and certain students, Levancy was subjected to fewer and fewer negative comments.

Gerry and Julie

Children called Gerry “Cry Baby.” He had a cornered, frightened look as if he expected children to pick on him, and he cried easily.  He was immature for a third-grader and couldn’t read or bring himself to write anything down.

Meanwhile, there was Julie, a small, depressed child who could read anything and wrote well.  Every now and then she would go in the closet and refuse to come out.

Both of these children were isolated from other students in my 3rd-grade class. I was tired of saying or yelling things like, “Come out of the closet,” “Stop crying,” and “Leave Gerry alone.”  Something had to be done.

I decided to ask Julie if she wanted to help Gerry learn to read.  I explained that reading with me and his reading group every day was not enough.  He needed extra help.  He would be her special assignment.  I told her this was a very important job, and that I was sure she could help Gerry.  She agreed, and I changed his seat next to hers.

Then, one day, when Gerry was out of the room, I initiated a class discussion about how to help him.  I asked for volunteers to look out for him at lunchtime when he often was ridiculed and would come in crying.  I asked the children to put themselves in his shoes – to feel how unhappy and scared he was – and that we could make him happier.

There were many volunteers.  Their job was to tell children to stop bothering him and to include him in their games.  They would report to me any problems he had, and I would talk with any tormentors.  At the same time, I always asked to hear of any successful experiences he had, and the volunteers, and Gerry himself, would tell me.

I gave Gerry very easy homework assignments, different from everyone else’s and because he could do them, he was glad to take them home.  I called on him to be my special helper from time to time, such as to help me choose children to do math problems on the blackboard.

Gradually, he lost his scared look.  He stood up straighter; he began to look people in the eye, to raise his hand and to stop crying so much.  Julie was a big help to him, and she herself cheered up some as she saw him begin to read, and as I praised her for her efforts.  Every now and then the class and I applauded them for working so well together.

Gerry and Julie could have been considered lost causes, but because I had thought hard about their problems and enlisted children to help, our actions enabled them to change for the better and to function on a much higher level.

Over and over again I have found that miraculous results can be obtained by creating opportunities for students to be responsible for each other.  The entire effort to help Gerry had a unifying effect on the class.  Everyone felt better and successful.

Now, instead of bad vibes floating around the room, we all did our best to attack the problem at its roots:  Gerry was insecure, and it was up to us to create an environment in which he could flourish, a more cheerful and cooperative setting that would be good for all of us.

Toward the end of the year, Gerry’s mother came to pick up her son.  She said to me, “My son has always been unhappy in his classes, and this is the first year he has wanted to come to school. My family and I are very grateful for what you have done for him.  We are very sorry we have to move to Puerto Rico before the year is over.  We want you to know if you ever come to our country, you will be welcome in our home.”


Involving the class in helping a child become accepted can also be done with very young children.

Kindergarten teacher Nereida Morales had a girl with short hair, a low voice who only wore pants.  Children were calling her “a boy.”  She would yell, “I’m not a boy. I’m a girl” and then she would cry.  Ms. Morales realized that a class meeting was in order.

She put the child on her lap and said, “Boys and girls, Alice is very unhappy.  Children have been saying that she is a boy because her hair is short, and she wears pants. Look at me.  I have short hair, I wear pants and I’m not a boy.”

Children began talking about this.  They looked around the room and noticed that a few boys had a pony tail.  They began to see that the length of one’s hair was not important and that lots of girls wore pants.

Ms. Morales asked the children, “How would you feel if you were mistaken for someone you were not?”  They all agreed they wouldn’t like that.

As a follow up, she found stories to read aloud about a girl with glasses and another one about an interracial family to help develop the children’s sensitivity for and acceptance of others who are different from them.  As a result of her efforts, name-calling against Alice came to an end.1

Having class scapegoats is a miserable experience for the unhappy victims and unhealthy for the children who pick on them.  The teacher must find at least one thing to celebrate about such children.  A lot can be discovered simply by making an effort to talk to the child every day, and by creating opportunities for scapegoats to participate in important ways in activities which will help raise their status.

For example, they can help you as you teach a lesson by passing out papers, setting up an experiment, calling on other children to help out.

If searching for solutions within the class doesn’t seem to be working out, perhaps the solution has to begin outside your room.  For example, at the elementary level, hypothetical scapegoat Gloria is chosen to be a helper in a lower grade.  The teacher she assists can write a note praising how helpful and cooperative Gloria is, and then this letter can be read to her class.  Gloria can then choose someone to go with her the next time, so she can train her classmate how to be a helper too.  The principal can even be called in to congratulate Gloria and the classmate she helped to train.  As a result of such efforts, the class begins to see Gloria in a more positive light.

It is really amazing how many simple solutions there are for seemingly insurmountable classroom difficulties if teachers and students work together to solve problems.

Ms. Morales was determined to prevent any student from becoming an outcast.  As the months unfolded, she encouraged each child to play with different classmates.  If, despite this, children fell into ruts where they only wanted to play with the same small circle of friends, she chose partners for them on various days.  She said to them, “You might not like this, and you might want to cry.  It’s O.K.  I want you to learn how to make new friends.”

According to Ms. Morales, if you stay with the ones who are upset and encourage them, they settle down and happily begin playing.

Here are more examples of successful class meetings described on my website:

 Every Classroom Needs a No Put-Down Rule  by Jane Califf

(a fifth-grade in which one child was tormented by being designated the class “cootie girl”)

Class Meetings and Their Power to Change a Life  by Nivin Papa

(A seventh-grade class where a student teacher got her English class to accept a rejected student who could not read)

Urvi Shah’s Class Meeting, High School Social Studies  (Unruly behavior in high school Social Studies class changed by class meeting)

Frustrated/Angry Students

The reactions of children to a frustrating situation can range from anger to complete passivity, and frequently the teacher is at a loss to know what course to pursue.  However, there is a way out if the teacher carefully thinks about the situation and devises a plan (with the student whenever possible) to remedy the problem. If this does not work, consulting with colleagues for suggested solutions can help.


Lawrence wasn’t satisfied with his writing, ripped up his paper, threw it on the floor and refused to do any more work.  He was eight-years old, a foster child, the only African American in the class, and he required a lot of attention and encouragement.  I asked him to pick up his paper but he refused.  “What do I do now?” I asked myself.  “They never taught me about this in college.”  (It was my first year of teaching.)

Finally, I said: “Who would like to help Lawrence pick up his paper and put it back together?  Then we will see what’s wrong with it so he can do better next time.”  Patty volunteered and, sure enough, bolstered by my moral support and the help of a classmate, they picked up his paper and pieced it together.

I explained to him that we all make mistakes and suggested that instead of erasing so hard that his paper tore, he could just cross out a word or two with one line, and the paper would still be neat.  We agreed that the next time he felt like throwing away his paper, he would show it to me first, and together we would determine whether it was salvageable.  It worked!  He made many trips to my desk at first, worried about his mistakes, but gradually his confidence grew.

“Let’s do it together” are magic words that frequently soothe a frustrated child.  The task then doesn’t seem so formidable and often the rebellious child will readily cooperate.


Robert sat in my third-grade class as if in a daze most of the day, seemingly thinking his own thoughts.  No matter how much I encouraged him, he never went beyond writing his name on the paper.  Since he could never finish an assignment, he had given up trying.  After a month or so of trying to figure out what to do about this, I finally hit on an idea.

“Robert,” I said, “I know you have a lot of trouble writing, so today all you have to do is write your name and the date.”  His eyes brightened.  “That’s all?”

The next day I said, “Today just write your name, the date, the class number, and the name of our school at the top of the page.”  He readily did this, and every day thereafter I increased the amount of work by one or two lines.  Within a few weeks Robert was filling up an entire page.  I exhibited his papers on the bulletin board, one on top of the other, so that everyone could see how much more he was writing.

One day, I brought children to the display of his papers. I dramatically pulled them up so they could see that on the first page, there was only his name.  I slowly let the papers float down as I pointed out with admiration how each page had more and more words on it. Robert had a smile on his face. We gave him a round of applause.  While his work from then on was far from perfect, he no longer was afraid to tackle the task of writing on a blank page.


Ralph was an angry, frustrated child who, when he first entered third-grade, was frequently uncontrollable.  His behavior would include crawling under tables and throwing chairs.

Two years later this child was promoted to Millie Fulford’s fifth/sixth-grade class.  By then, his behavior had greatly improved.  What had happened?

When Ralph first arrived, Ms. Fulford consulted with her colleagues on what to do when he became violent.  They decided that the key was to help him develop strategies to deal with his anger before he lost control. For two years they told Ralph it was O.K. to feel angry. This helped him to realize he was not alone. They also told him, “If you feel you are being picked on, you will feel angry.  Then what can you do?  Violence is one way of dealing with it, but how do you feel afterwards?”

His teachers told him that if he was very angry, he could tell them, and they would help him solve the problem.  They also met with his parents to show them what the school was doing and offered suggestions on what they could do at home.

Ralph began to see that his teachers were his allies, not his enemies.  They were there for him.  He still got angry more than other children, but he could manage it without violence.

To show how far Ralph had come, Millie Fulford explained:

“Ralph has improved so much that he has internalized our school’s attitude toward sports which is you are just out to be as good a player as you can and to have fun. When his baseball team played a game at the end of the year and lost, certain other children were crying and angry, but Ralph was calm.  He had tried his best, and that was enough for him.”

Sixth-Grade Girl Given a Second Chance

In a letter to the editor of N.Y. Teacher, United Federation of Teachers, June 16th, 1997, Janet Nadler wrote:

“A young girl whose parents were separated was put into a New York City orphanage.  She was angry at her abusive, alcoholic father and her ignorant and illiterate mother.

“This girl’s school work was always good.  However, her conduct, which reflected her disappointment and belligerency at having been abandoned by her parents, was deplorable.  She regularly received a U in conduct on her report cards.  The punishment was that she couldn’t attend movie night in the orphanage.

“In the 6th-grade she was handed a report card.  Her remark to her teacher was, ‘Well, I probably won’t be seeing movies for a while.’

“Her teacher asked her for an explanation.  The teacher then said, ‘Look, I will change the U in conduct to an S, but you must make me a promise.  You must live up to the S.’ The young student was very surprised and she said, ‘Finally, someone is paying attention to me and cares to help me.  I won’t let you down.’

The student never let the teacher down and still talks about the caring Mrs. Blum-Levitt after 55 years.”

See my website for more stories of transformed frustrated/angry children:

 Alexander, A Challenging Kindergarten Student  by Wafa Saed

Kindness Transforms an Alienated First Grader  by Arlene Lackowitz

The Kindness Jar  (second grade) by Nieves Lepore

Reaching  (fourth grade) by Concetta DiGenna

Sarah Gains Confidence  (seventh grade) by Mark J. Balaz

The Angry Class

Bella had been teaching successfully for seven years.  One year she had a class with many first graders who were always fighting and arguing. Every day for months, she would call them to the rug, sometimes multiple times, and say “My heart is singing sad songs.” Children would ask, “Why?” Then she would point out the problem, and she and the children would talk about how to solve it.

Meanwhile, she instituted as many community-building activities as she could think of and pointed out every positive act that she noticed. Every Friday afternoon before dismissing her class, as exhausted as she felt, she said, “I will miss you over the weekend.  I hope you have a good time and we will meet again right here on Monday.”

It took a long time, but by spring, the children had calmed down and had turned into a largely cohesive group.

High School Student Curses Student Teacher

A student teacher in an English class, who worked very hard to have interesting lessons, reported to our Student Teacher Seminar the following: That week, she was attempting to help Paula, a student who was reluctant to do an assignment which was her usual attitude.  Paula said, “You’re such a bitch!”  The student teacher remained calm, thought quickly and replied, “Yes, I am such a bitch trying to help you with your English assignment.”  The student did not respond, but the situation did not escalate and lead to her being removed from the class.

The student teacher reported that by not getting excited when this student was rude, but calmly responding with short, non-threatening remarks, the girl’s behavior improved and she actually began to do more work.

Read other stories at the middle and high school levels about helping frustrated and angry students on my website:

 Students and the Power to Change  by Jane Califf: Rohan, alternative high school student who only wrote “It” on his paper and then went to sleep.

 Acknowledging a Student’s Demand for Power Does Not Mean Giving In  by Mary Welliver-Dillon:  Shaniqua, angry 8th-grade math student, told teacher not to look at her work during class time and to leave her alone.

 The Value of an Extended Discussion with a Disruptive Student  by Tara Mansmann Romero

Fighting – Elementary Level

“Oooooooohh!  Teacher!  Boyd and Michael are fighting!”

Sooner or later this cry reaches the teacher’s ears.  There are those who become so distraught when faced with a fight and the often nerve-racking task of administering discipline, that they lose their self-control and lash out at the offenders with bitter words and even corporal punishment. Such a reaction can spell a teacher’s doom, for the children who were fighting or creating the disturbance will conclude that they are all in the same boat, and it’s the teacher who is the enemy.  Thus they may begin to unite against her, and all respect for her is lost.

Another response is to pull the combatants apart and lecture them on the evils of fighting and the virtues of talking things over.  As a beginning teacher, I soon learned how ineffective this technique is.  Neither child listens, and the hostile words and gestures usually continue. I came to realize that in such an explosive situation the less said the better, and began taking a different tack.

First, I tried to maintain my “cool” even when the fight was violent, realizing that it would only make matters worse for me to get excited too.  If the fighters were at the elementary level and smaller than I was, I would pull the combatants apart.  Once the struggling and shouting subsided, I’d attempt to find out the reason for the fracas.  Usually the picture was cloudy, so I would say, “It’s obvious that for the present you two can’t get along, so I don’t want you to talk to each other.  Boyd, go to your seat, and Michael, we’ll change yours so that you can be as far apart as possible.  I’m sure that after a few days, you’ll make up and be friends again.” Then I would see to it that we got back to whatever we had been doing before the disturbance began.

Later on, after things had cooled down, and they could be more objective about the matter, I would talk to the two children, together or separately, depending on the situation. Sometimes I would have them write out their version of what caused the fight. We would discuss what had happened and how it could have been prevented.  I would tell them that if they ever found themselves about to get into a fight again, to come to me, and I’d help them solve their problem.

A Kindergarten Teacher’s Approach to Fighting

Lorna Justice, kindergarten teacher, described her approach to her class:  “I tell my students, ‘What you do is important to me.  I’m here for you l00%.  If you have a problem, we can talk it over.’  I show the children that I really care about them:  I listen to them and respect them.  I try to be firm and fair.”

She used this approach with Ned, a particularly difficult child.  Ned had been in many foster homes. He hit, pushed and hurt other children. Pain had no meaning to him; he blocked it out.

One day he was playing in the block area and pushed another child because he wanted the child’s toy dinosaur.  The child cried.  Ms. Justice removed Ned from the block area and consoled the crying child.  Then she went over to Ned and said:

“You know the rules for the block area, and you broke them.  I’m going to say what I think happened.  Correct me if I am wrong. (He didn’t correct her.)  It looks as if what I said is what happened.  I don’t like what you are doing.  It’s not helping you to make friends.  What could you have done instead?”

Ned:  “I could have asked him to pass me the dinosaur.”

Ms. Justice: “That’s right.  Now I could tell you not to play in the block area, but I don’t want to do that.  I could tell your mother, but that would upset her and you too; I could take you to the principal’s office, but I don’t want to do that either.  Now what can we work out together, so you can play in the block area?”

After talking it over, they decided that whenever he felt he was about to fight or push someone, he would tell her.  This worked for a whole week.  During this time, Ms. Justice looked for ways to reinforce positive behavior to show that he could get attention for cooperating.  For example, when she noticed he was playing with children without arguing, she commented, “Why did everything go along so well?”  “Because I shared,” he replied.

At the end of the week, there was another incident.  He punched a child in the block area. Another boy laughed while the punched child cried.  Ms. Justice stopped everything in the block area and had a meeting.  “I am very angry with you Ned for punching Joe and with you Barry for laughing.  Neither of you can play in the block area until I get some answers.”

She discussed what had happened with the other children.  She said to Barry, “Put yourself in Joe’s shoes.  How would you feel if someone punched you and another child laughed?”

Ms. Justice decided that Ned needed a short cooling off period on a nearby chair.  He behaved for the rest of the day.

She works with Ned’s mom and gives her suggestions for helping her son.  She tells her that she must be specific about how she wants him to behave.  She can’t say, “Be good.”  That is too vague.

In dealing with Ned, Ms. Justice said, “My experience with Ned and with other children shows that progress is not steady, but hanging in there with a child usually pays off.”

A Fifth-Grade Teacher’s Approach to Fighting

Kathy Matson, fifth-grade teacher, had a system that helped avoid fights. At the beginning of the year, she told her class, “If you fight in the classroom, you really don’t want it to continue. You want the teacher to break it up. You are a coward.” This, she says, usually stops the macho students from fighting in the room.

If a fight breaks out anyway, she separates the antagonists (without calling anyone a coward), sends them to their seats in different corners of the room to write down what happened.  Their writing must include the following:  who, what, where, when, why, and how can this be solved.

In one instance a boy said, “I know what to do.  Send what I wrote to _______’s mother, and you can send what he wrote to my mother.”  Ms. Matson did this.  One boy’s mother was floored that her boy would be in a fight.  The other boy’s mother simply told him to be good.  Both boys’ relationship improved.

By taking students’ suggestions for problem solving seriously and implementing them, there is a collaboration involved in searching for a solution which brings all the parties and the class closer together.

Once, early in Ms. Matson’s career, she was teaching a 6th-grade class with two boys who fought every day in class.  She and the students were getting tired of this.  The administration was no help.  She was getting desperate, and decided to ask the class what should be done.  “They should fight it out with boxing gloves,” they suggested.

She wondered if this was the right thing to do.  As she thought about it, she realized that if they were allowed to fight for only one-minute bouts when they weren’t angry, and since they were the same size and strength, no one would get hurt.

The day came, and there was great excitement.  The class pushed back their desks, and a ring was created.  The fight began.  After three one-minute bouts, the fight was over.  The boys got their licks in and were satisfied.  Ms. Matson said, “I hope this is the end of the fighting.  Nobody was the loser.  It was a win/win situation.”  The class was dumbfounded at the whole event, and the boys never fought again.

Ms. Matson does not argue that this should become a routine way of handling chronic fighters.  However, it does show that teachers must be very creative and sometimes do the unbelievable and amazing to solve serious problems.

On my website, find an inspiring second-grade story:   Fighting Student Becomes a Social and Academic Success  by Joe DeRisi

Breaking Up a Schoolyard Fight

Elementary school vice principal Lenora Bosley had a special technique for breaking up fights in the schoolyard.  She used a bullhorn, blew a whistle, and the crowd would scatter.  Without an audience, the fighters were exposed and usually stopped, enabling her to begin to resolve the issue.

Letting Students Solve a Dispute by Themselves

Wafa Saed frequently models the behavior she wants to see in her first-grade students.  She knows that they need to see concrete examples of how to solve problems without fighting.  She knows she needs to demonstrate what kind of complaints she has to handle and which ones her students can undertake on their own. 

The children know that if they are physically injured no matter how minor, they need to tell Ms. Saed who will get to the bottom of such an infraction.  To show them how to take care of lesser problems, she uses a teddy bear to act out common issues among her students. Using a different voice for the bear, she shows them various non-violent conflict resolution strategies.

For example:

Ms. S: “You took my pencil.”

Bear: “I found it on the floor.”

Ms. S: “But it’s mine.”

Bear: “I need this pencil.  I don’t have one.”

Ms. S: “Do you want me to help you find one so I can have

mine back?”

Bear:  “Yes.”

When the skit ends, Ms. Saed has a discussion about what happened.  In this case, she points out how she did not have to fight with the bear because they found a peaceful way to end the conflict.

Here are three incidents in her class that could have led to fights between children but, because they had lots of practice choosing options for solutions to problems through Ms. Saed’s skits, they resolved them without rancor:

Situation 1:  Boy: “She stuck her tongue out at me.”

Ms.S.:  “Did she hurt you?”

Boy:  “Yes, she hurt my feelings.”

Ms. S (to the girl):  “You hurt his feelings.  Both of you need to go to the library center and work it out.”

They complied, talked it over and resolved it.  Ms. Saed  did not have to be involved.

Situation 2:  Boy:  “He’s looking at me.”

Ms. S.: “What do you need to do?”

Boy:  “I need to talk to him about why he did  that.”

The two boys worked it out without the help of Ms. Saed.

Situation 3:  Children are returning to their seats from the rug, and one girl starts to cry.  Ms. Saed asks what the problem is.

Liz:  “Nicole jumped over me and touched me.”

Ms. Saed:  “Why did you do that Nicole?”

Nicole:  “I said ‘Excuse me,’ but she didn’t  move.”  Then Nicole starts to cry.

Liz:  “I didn’t hear her.”

Ms. Saed: “You know how to work it out,” and she walked off.

The girls stopped crying, talked with each other, and went back to their seats.

Lenora Bosley, teacher and vice-principal, once had two fourth-graders who were not getting along.  She brought them to her office and told them to talk it over among themselves and see if they could come up with a solution.  She closed the door.  When she returned, they told her they had solved their problem.  Ms. Bosley believes that letting students solve their own disputes is a tool that many teachers don’t use, but it can be very effective in certain situations.

Middle School and High School Level Conflict

Fighting at the upper levels could be dangerous to the combatants and also to the teacher. This is the time for calling the security guard or the administrator in your school responsible for helping in such situations. The school rules for fighting are then implemented.

However, when there is only a threat of violence and the fight has not begun, it is sometimes possible to resolve the conflict without calling for help.

There once was an incident in my alternative high school class.  Students were packed up to go home, and everyone was ready to leave except Calvin.  Derek got mad because he did not want to wait, picked up a desk and threatened to drop it on Calvin’s head.  I went over and said to Derek, “I can’t believe what you are doing!  Do you really want to hurt Calvin just because he is not ready to leave? Do you really want to get in trouble?”  Voices from my class agreed with me.

Derek put down the desk.  I told Derek and Calvin to stay behind as the rest of the class went home.  We talked it over.  Derek apologized to Calvin who accepted his apology.  They shook hands and the incident was over.  No one in the administration was informed.  Why bring them in unnecessarily?  To non-violently resolve a problem like this among ourselves is a good lesson for students.

The Quiet Child

The other side of having noisy disruptive children is the reality of very quiet children.  They sit unobtrusively in their seats.  No matter what the activity, they rarely speak to or bother anyone and are often isolated. We often overlook these children because there are so many others who actively demand our attention.  However, just as the acting-out child needs help, the quiet child may be just as needy.

Many of these children may just need extra encouragement to bloom while others may have serious problems that need addressing.  They need to be taken aside during class time, before or after school or when the teacher has a preparation period.  During this time, as they help the teacher with a task or receive academic help, conversations take place in which the teacher can find out about any problems or special interests they have which will help her decide how to include the child more in the life of the class.

Not making a priority of helping such children can sometimes have tragic consequences.


In first- and second-grade, Cliff Evans was described by his teachers in-grade school records as a “sweet, shy child; timid but eager.”  As the years progressed, teachers’ comments changed to “dull,” “slow-witted” and “low I.Q.”  By the time he was in high school, he had stopped talking.  His literature teacher, Jean Todd Hunter, remembers that he came into the room by himself, left by himself, and never smiled.

One day he got out of the school bus, collapsed in the snow and died.  No one had even known he was sick.  Ms. Hunter was chosen by the principal to write his obituary for the school paper.  She visited his family and discovered he had been completely rejected by his stepfather.  She looked at his records.  He had never belonged to a club, played on a team or held an office.  It seemed to her that “he had never done one happy, noisy kid thing.  He had never been anybody at all.”

She imagined how many times he’d been chosen last to be on a team, how many whispered child conversations had excluded him.  She said, “I could see the faces and hear the voices that said over and over, ‘You’re dumb.  You’re dumb.  You’re just nothing, Cliff Evans.’“

Ms. Hunter became convinced that the educational system had helped destroy Cliff.  “When finally there was nothing left at all for Cliff Evans, he collapsed on a snow bank and went away.  The doctor might list ‘heart failure’ as the cause of death, but that wouldn’t change my mind.”2

This boy could have been saved despite a depressing home life, but after second grade no adult took the necessary steps to help him.  We must never be found guilty of ignoring the quiet, undemanding children who are rejected by their peers.  Our actions in the classroom can literally help save or destroy their lives.


Altagracia was so quiet that for a long time no one in the class, including me, knew what her voice sounded like.  She was a poor reader.  She had a look of vague confusion, never having an opinion, never smiling, never causing any trouble.  Her only known academic asset was an exquisite handwriting.

On the last day of school, I received some presents but not from her.  (I had made it clear that gifts were not necessary even though our school permitted them.)  As Altagracia was leaving the room, she asked me for a brown paper bag.  An hour later, as I was packing up in my empty classroom, she appeared at the classroom door.  She silently handed me the bag.  In it was a small, old, plastic, red rose sitting on top of popcorn I had given out earlier.  I almost cried.

I realized that all through the year I had not given her the attention she needed. This was in my early years of teaching when my skills needed honing. I was teaching in a school that gave no administrative or guidance support despite their knowing I was assigned a very difficult class.

I was so grateful she was quiet that I was busy paying attention to other children who made demands on me. I never thought of having casual conversations with her during a free period or asking her questions about her life outside of school. As a result, I never got to know her or to make any breakthroughs that I was aware of.

The fact that she went out of her way to bring me a present was a sign she was reaching out to me.  But what could I do now that the school year was over?  I did not even think of searching out her new teacher in the fall to tell her of my failings and brainstorming how to help her.


A similar experience by fifth-grade teacher Miss Thompson had a happier ending.  Teddy, like Altagracia, had a “deadpan face; an expressionless, glassy, unfocused stare” and spoke in monosyllables.  “Unattractive, unmotivated and distant, he was just plain hard to like.”  He was labeled by previous teachers as a slow learner.  His mother had died when he was in third grade. In Ms. Thompson’s class he was failing, and she had basically given up on him.

At Christmas he surprised her with a present wrapped in brown paper and held together with scotch tape.  In it was a “gaudy rhinestone bracelet with half the stones missing and a bottle of cheap perfume.”  At first the students giggled and smirked at his gifts, but Ms. Thompson silenced them by putting on the bracelet and putting the perfume on her wrist.  She said, “Doesn’t it smell lovely?” and the children’s condescending attitude changed to one of admiration.

After school Teddy hung around, slowly came over to his teacher’s desk and said softly “Miss Thompson. Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother…and her bracelet looks real pretty on you, too.  I’m glad you liked my presents.”

This experience totally changed Miss Thompson who vowed never again to neglect any of her students especially the slower ones.  She gave Teddy a lot of attention and help.  By the end of the school year, he had caught up with most of the other students and surpassed some.

Teddy’s gratitude to Miss Thompson was life-long.  He wrote her when he was graduating second in his high school class; when he was graduating first in his university class; and when he became a doctor.  He invited her to his wedding to sit where his mother would have sat.3


In an article entitled, “Miracle at PS 138” (New York Teacher, City Edition, 6/2/97) first-grade teacher Christine D’Amico described her dogged efforts to get a student to speak.  He was labeled a “Selective Mute” meaning he could talk but chose not to.  Whenever Ms. D’Amico tried to get him to speak, the children would all say, “He doesn’t talk, Mrs. D’Amico.  He didn’t talk in kindergarten.” Alec just looked sad.

His parents could not afford therapy which was what the School Based Support Team suggested.  Mrs. D’Amico was on her own, desperately wondering how to resolve this problem.

Alec’s father told her that he talked all the time at home. That gave her the idea of visiting him there.  She asked Alec if he would like this.  “We could have ice cream together and talk and play.”  Alec nodded. She made an appointment with the parents and to her surprise, Alec talked with her during the entire visit.

The next day Mrs. D’Amico said to her class, “Children, I have something to tell you.  Last evening, I went to visit Alec’s home.  I met his mom and his sister and we played with his toys. Alec has a favorite dinosaur toy…”  She asked him to tell the class its name.  “Triceratops” he said.  “He talks!  He talks!” the children all exclaimed.

From then on Alec slowly but surely began to speak up in class, finally even raising his hand to answer questions. The children were happy that he was joining them in group games.

Here is how Mrs. D’Amico described the transformation: “I couldn’t believe that one half-hour home visit could actually change a child’s perception of school and self so drastically.  In November, Alec was even able to say a few short lines into the microphone during our class assembly show in front of about 300 children. That’s a miracle!”

Yung Su

Kathy Matson, fifth-grade teacher, shared a success story about Yung Su, a new boy who never spoke for his first three months in class. After she found out that he was a gifted artist, she initiated a class project in which everyone made a robot.  They had to design it, tell what the robot did, make an ad, decide how much it would cost and who would use it.

When the project was completed, everyone was encouraged to describe their robot to the entire class.  It was then that Yung Su spoke for the first time.  The children were very surprised to hear him speak.  “He has a low voice,” some said.  They all appreciated his presentation and gave him a round of applause.  From then on, Yung Su was willing to speak up in class.

The fact that Yung Su finally spoke was not a miracle.  Ms. Matson had worked hard to create an accepting, supportive atmosphere.  This made it possible for a quiet, shy child finally to speak out without fear that someone would laugh at him.

Getting Quiet Students to Speak Up by Enlisting the Help of Peers

Elementary School Level

A similar situation occurred in a second-grade class. I was observing a student teacher’s lesson and I saw that she always called on Rose who yelled out “Me! Me!” for every question while vigorously raising her hand. I asked the student teacher during our post-lesson discussion why she gave Rose so many chances to speak compared to her classmates.

“Whenever I don’t call on her she gets angry and yells out, “You never call on me!”

We made a plan of action to address this problem.  The student teacher met privately with Rose and said,

“Rose, I am proud of how you are very eager to answer questions and always raise your hand, but I have a problem that you can help me with. I feel badly that I never get to hear a lot of students’ voices. They just don’t speak up the way you do.  I would like to call on you all of the time, but then other students won’t have a chance. I need you not to call out while you are raising your hand, and not to get angry if I don’t call on you.   We need a signal I can use to remind you to give others a turn.  What could that signal be?”

Rose thought for awhile and said, “If you pull your ear, I will see and I won’t call out.”

The next day, Rose forgot and called out with her hand up in the air.  The student teacher pulled her ear and Rose quickly covered her mouth with her hand.  The student teacher smiled at Rose.

Later on, she took Rose aside and told her how wonderful it was that the signal she had chosen worked and more children were speaking out thanks to their plan; that not calling out was a hard thing to do, but she was sure that Rose could do it.  Rose did not always remember, but she gradually improved because she was included in the solution and the teacher complimented her ability to change.

High School Level

Miriam was a student in my alternative high school class.  She always raised her hand and wanted to be called on.  When I overlooked her and called on others she got annoyed. One day I sat down with her with a compliment and a proposal:

“Miriam, I appreciate that you are carefully listening in class and often have comments to make about the subject at hand or have answers to questions.  I wish more students would speak up the way you do.  Have you noticed that a number of students rarely raise their hands to participate in lessons?”

She agreed.

“I think you can help me with this.  When I call on you, and it is clear that other comments are needed, it would really be helpful if after you speak, you turn to the class and ask ‘What do the rest of you think?’  You would be giving courage to others who are afraid to speak up.”

Miriam took up the challenge and would ask this question from time to time.  She got less annoyed when I did not call on her and more interested in what others had to say.  I made sure to thank her privately for her help in solving this problem. She was a student who needed more attention than most, and I was able to harness her need for recognition to improve classroom communication.

Another example of a student wanting to garner all the attention occurred when I observed a student teacher in a high school math class.  I was amazed to see that during the entire lesson only one student raised her hand – the only one who spoke during the entire lesson besides the student teacher.

In the post lesson meeting, we discussed what to do about this problem.  The student teacher did not want to call on other students who might become embarrassed if they did not have any answer. We talked about the value of wait time – that at the beginning of the next lesson she could say:

“I am noticing that many of you do not raise your hand when I ask a question. I am not looking for every answer to be correct.  I just want to see you thinking or asking questions if the subject is not clear.  From now on, after I ask a question, I will wait longer before I call on anyone.  Silence can be good. It will give you more time to think.”

As our brainstorming continued, I pointed out that despite this message, some students may still not want to participate for fear of showing their ignorance.  She could also try the following:  when a problem is presented that could be particularly difficult to figure out, students can pair up to work out the answer. Then she could call on some of the pairs to report their results.  This is more likely to be successful since collaborating can be more fun, and having the support of another classmate takes the pressure off being in the spotlight.

The student teacher reported that these two strategies led to greater class participation and more student learning.

The Attention Seeker

There are children who are used to being the center of attention in their home lives which can carry over to their behavior in school. Then there are unhappy, neglected children, desperate for recognition, who employ all kinds of attention-getting devices which, if not handled carefully, can drive a teacher up a wall. When  teachers reach their wits’ end, the confrontations that result can disturb the entire class and lead to a deteriorating classroom climate in which it is impossible for students or teacher to function normally.  However, it is possible to turn such children around without yelling.  Here are some examples.


Billy was one of thirty third-graders I faced in my first year of teaching.  Every time I announced a new activity or made a suggestion, he would slam his hand down on his desk, roll his eyes and exclaim, “Oh no!”  At first I tried to ignore him, but to no avail.  I then tried giving him a stern look and ordering him to be quiet, but his unruly behavior persisted.  My self-confidence shaken, I began to wonder whether perhaps he expressed the feelings of the entire class.

After much agonizing, and after seeking the advice of other teachers, I came to the conclusion that he needed attention, and this was his way of getting it. Negative attention is better than none at all, and indeed I certainly reacted every time he went through his routine.

One day before class began, I engaged him in conversation.  I asked about himself, his family, what he did after school, and other similar questions.  His reaction was instantaneous.  His face brightened, and he responded eagerly to my show of interest. I then made it a practice to speak to him before class whenever possible, and his impudent behavior soon disappeared.  Although at first he wasn’t quite sure he could trust me, it was the beginning of a friendly relationship between us.


John’s record file described him as “very hostile and difficult to control,” and he lost no time living up to that description.  Although this 9-year old boy was a bright child, he was completely turned off by school.

Unable to read, spell or do arithmetic, he had to prove himself somehow, and this he attempted to do by annoying other children, ripping their papers, getting into fights, walking around the room, bouncing a ball, falling off his chair, and seeming to thoroughly enjoy his role in the spotlight.  I found myself shouting “Stop that!” and “Sit down!” which only encouraged his misbehavior.  In my frustration, I decided to enlist the aid of the whole class to cope with the situation.

One day, while John was out of the room, I frankly put the problem to the other boys and girls:  “I think John is basically a nice boy.  But he has problems.  Do you know what they are?”  They certainly did:  “He bothers people.”  “He walks around the room all the time.”  “He hardly ever does any work.”

After the problem had been spelled out, I asked what we could do to help him.  There were many eager suggestions:  “We could help him with his work.”  “When he bothers us, we could ignore him.”  “We can tell him to go back to his seat.”

I complimented them on their suggestions.  “Let’s see,” I said, “how many strong people there are in this room who will try to help John instead of arguing with him.”  With the problem posed in this way, the children were anxious to show what they could do, and eagerly awaited John’s return.

Soon after rejoining the class, John leaned over Rafael’s shoulder and said, “What’s happening?” Rafael replied, “Go back to your seat, John.  I am trying to do my work.”  I immediately said, “Very good Rafael.  You are strong this morning.”

I could see that the other children were waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves too, and they did.  When he suddenly began swinging on the closet door, no one paid any attention. Instead of focusing on John, I spoke to the class: “I am proud of you.  You are doing your math, and not swinging on the closet door.  This shows that you are strong.”  Failing to provoke me and ignored by the class, he soon drifted back to his seat.

In addition to enlisting the help of the other children, I missed no opportunity to build up John’s ego by complimenting him whenever possible on his work or improved behavior and choosing him to be my helper.  (For example, sometimes I would let him choose children to write on the blackboard or to line up first to go to lunch or home.)

I also made an agreement with him that I would send a note to his mother when he cooperated and when he tried to do his work, even once delivering the message to his home personally.

(The key to success here was that the first day he only had to be “good” for five minutes, after which I wrote a positive note home that he could keep no matter what happened later.  The next day I told him if he cooperated for at least ten minutes, he would get a note, and so on until he was able to behave most of the day. In this way getting a reward for good behavior was not difficult, and he became prouder and prouder as each day he was able to do better for longer periods of time.)

The hostility between John and me disappeared.  His mother, who had only been hearing complaints from teachers about her son, later voluntarily came to school to tell me how pleased she was with her son’s improvement. (On the last day of school, John told me that I had to come to his house to see his mother.  When I arrived, there was a complete meal she had prepared for me to take home for my family. I was overwhelmed.)


Brenda’s parents paid little attention to their children, who wore the same clothes for weeks on end and frequently went hungry.  This 8-year old had everything against her – neglected by her parents, living in a dilapidated tenement, and never getting enough to eat; however, she paid attention in school and did her homework, often on a dirty paper for which I never criticized her.  But she was starved for affection and often created scenes to attract notice.

Many times she would refuse to come into the classroom with the other children, remaining in the hall until she got a personal invitation from me to enter.  Almost every day someone would tell me “Brenda is out in the hall again,” and I would tell them not to worry, that she would come in when she was ready.

After the class had settled down to work, I would go out to discover what the problem was.  Once she said, “Some people say my shoes is on crooked.”  When I assured her that this was not so, her face lit up, she came in and got to work.  Another time the principal brought her screaming to the door; she had lost her pen.  I gave her another pen, and she calmed down.

The worst incident occurred when she stole the perfectly kept notebook of Mary, one of the best students in the class.  She denied it, but the evidence pointed to Brenda, and her classmates accused and condemned her.

Assuming she had taken it, I asked her privately, “Where is the notebook now?” knowing that if I came right out and said “Did you take it?” she would deny it.  (I realized that to Brenda the notebook probably was a symbol of neatness and order, something she desperately wanted in her life and couldn’t achieve.)  A long lecture would have been a waste of time, so I simply told her that if she needed a notebook, she should have asked me, and I would have given her one.

She then admitted her guilt, but since her little sisters had gotten hold of Mary’s notebook and had mutilated it badly, I took her to a nearby store and bought new notebooks for both girls.  The next day Brenda gave Mary her new notebook, and the incident was closed.

I decided to visit her apartment to see first-hand her living conditions.  Her mother was on a mattress on the floor holding a baby with a dazed look on her face, the place was dirty, and Brenda and a younger sister were clearly on their own.

I reported her as a child abuse victim, and eventually she and her siblings were removed from their parents and went to live with their grandmother who had to quit her job to take care of them.

Some teachers wondered how I could stand this child, but I came to love her and respect her ability to survive despite such great odds.  I often put my arm around her, listened to what she had to tell me, and made a point of giving her responsible jobs in the classroom to show I had faith in her.

After she left our class, I invited her classmates to write friendly letters to her, giving them a few suggestions such as they hoped she would like her new home and school. The letters were wonderful, and I mailed them to her grandmother’s home along with one from me.


Raymond was a very immature second-grader who was constantly in trouble.  While I was reading a story to the class one day, he amused himself by snipping a pair of scissors.  I asked him to put them away and he did, but a moment later he was at it again. I then asked him to give me the scissors, saying he could have them back later.  At this, he pushed them into the back of his desk.  Tense moment.  The room fell silent as everyone wondered what would happen next.  I could have shouted at him and taken the scissors by force, but that would have brought on a tantrum.

Instead, I shook my head sadly and said to the class, “I’m very disappointed.  When I asked Raymond to give me those scissors, I really expected he would put them in my hand.”  All the children looked in his direction as if to say, “What’s the matter with him?  Slowly he took out the scissors and handed them to me.  “That’s much better, Raymond,” I said.  “I’ll give them back to you before you go home.”

Raymond’s decision to give me the scissors was partly a reaction to my disapproval of his behavior, but was due in larger measure to group pressure from the other children. I had taken them into my confidence, thereby involving them in the problem.  Raymond thought they agreed with me, and because he didn’t want to be an outcast, turned over the scissors.

If a child will not turn over a toy or other offending object in spite of the disapproval of his peers and a statement such as the one I used, you can say “I’m sure Raymond will give me the scissors later,” or have a brief confidential talk with him out of earshot of his classmates, assuring him that you will take good care of his toy and return it at the end of the day, is almost a sure-fire guarantee that it will be surrendered.


In a first-grade class, Johnny was running around the room and banging on the piano.  Not knowing what else to do, especially since I was a substitute, I addressed a note to the assistant principal asking her to take him from the room, reading the note slowly out loud as I was writing it. This had an immediate effect — Johnny hurried back to his seat. Eyeing him sternly, I warned that I would send the note the instant he misbehaved again, but I also complimented him for returning to his seat.

Before he could get into further mischief, I chose him to help me show the pictures in a book from which I was reading to the class.  This gave him something to do, as well as a feeling of importance.  For the moment, at least, I had this boy under control.

Some teachers feel that class jobs should go only to children who deserve them.  I have found, however, that it helps to also give such responsibilities to difficult children because it often wins them to our side and gives them the recognition they seek. I once read of a teacher who put the class kleptomaniac in charge of taking the lunch money to the office.  By giving him such responsibilities to show that she trusted him, while at the same time demonstrating in other ways that she liked him, he was soon cured of stealing — in class, anyhow.


In my early teaching years, I didn’t realize that difficult children could be given important roles to play in the class. I remember a third grader, Annie, who left her seat at every opportunity, went to the front of the room and pretended to be the teacher.  She would yell out orders, looking for my reaction from the side of her eyes.  She was a very disruptive child, but I didn’t help her any.  I always yelled out, “Go back to your seat! You’re not the teacher!” and other such comments.

In retrospect, she could have been my ally.  She was a bossy leader, and the class had a number of discipline problems.  By figuring out ways to let her help me, to win her confidence, to show her how to lead positively, she could have helped me solve classroom problems instead of create more.


In an inspiring essay on my website, No Time to Yell Magdolen Guirguis Sleman writes about a student in her 7th-grade class who had a history of misbehavior.  Starting on the first day, he began continually drumming on his desk with his pencil.   Knowing of his past problems, she thought fast and found an ingenious way to begin winning him over.  Read her story on my website.

A Sixth-Grade Teacher’s Approach to Discipline Problems

Ruth Daniels, special education sixth-grade teacher, explained that for the attention-seeker and for discipline problems in general, it’s important not to overreact, but to give such children space to settle down and to think.  She described an incident in which a student came into the class late and yelled, “Leave me alone!”  Ms. Daniels went over to her and gently said, “What can I do to help you?  Maybe something happened at home.  I’ll give you until l0:30 a.m.  I’m sure we’ll get along then.”  This approach worked for this child.

“It’s crucial,” Ms. Daniels said, “to speak in an emphatic, yet caring voice.  Children need to be nurtured and to be given the feeling that they are important.  At the same time they need structure and limits, and to participate in making decisions.  For example, I sign a contract with each of my students.  We both have to agree on one skill that should be improved.  After a period of time, I sit down with each child to evaluate together whether or not the goal has been reached.  If it is, we decide on a new goal.  If it isn’t, we try to figure out what happened and to try again.

“Another way I help children improve their behavior is to involve them in classroom decision making.  We discuss together what to study, what to write about and what books to read next.  When students feel they are listened to and their suggestions taken seriously, they have a greater stake in being cooperative rather than disruptive.”

The Poor Reader

Students who do not learn to read well and as a result don’t understand enough of what they read become frustrated and can become discipline problems.  At all levels, this can lead to feelings of inferiority, helplessness, anger and alienation from schoolwork.

Here are three examples:


Katharine entered kindergarten knowing the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, but she didn’t know how to make words. Her kindergarten was non-academic, so she didn’t make any reading progress that year according to her mother, Theresa.

When Katharine began first grade, she was looking forward to reading.  However, since the school’s philosophy was “Whole Language,” and there was no direct instruction in phonics, she memorized various simple books available in the class library.

With this approach, Ms. M., Katharine’s teacher, gave her students a regular homework assignment of “reading” a book, and keeping a reading log.  There were six possible questions to answer about each book they read, but students only had to answer two.  Parents were told they could help their children read, but Katharine was very motivated and didn’t want any.  It took her one and a half hours to read and write in her log each night.

Soon Katharine had memorized all the simple books and was choosing books with a more difficult text.  Now it was taking her even longer to finish her homework.  She would ask her mother, “Is this spelled right?”  Theresa would tell her, and her work was always perfect.  The teacher wrote a note to Theresa telling her not to help her daughter.

Theresa wrote back saying that Katharine was picking books which were too hard, and that she insisted on reading them herself which she couldn’t do.  Theresa asked Ms. M. if she could direct Katharine to easier books.

Ms. M. wrote a note to all parents stating that children had to learn at their own level and on their own.  However, this was not working for Katharine who, although quiet in school, was becoming more and more frustrated at home – crying and having temper tantrums.

Her mother asked for a meeting with the teacher who refused saying, “Your child is doing the best she can.  You have a problem.  She is making progress, but you just don’t see it.”

Later in the school year during open school night, Theresa met with Ms. M.  She said, “My daughter has memorized her books; she really can’t recognize many words at all.”

Ms. M. replied, “She can read.  She is struggling; she is learning, but not at a first-grade level.  She’s doing the best she can.  You must accept that she is slower than you want her to be.”

Theresa became worried.  She felt her daughter was capable of reading if only she were shown how to put the letters and sounds together to make words.

She bought a phonics book and began teaching her daughter at home.  Other parents in this school, finding their first, second- and third-graders were having difficulty reading, hired tutors to teach them phonics.  Once they learned the letters, sounds and how to combine them, all of these children became good readers.

The unfortunate side to all of this, apart from the unnecessary frustration these students had faced, was that their parents did not tell the teachers that they were having their children taught phonics since they would have become upset at this interference.  In this school, direct, systematic instruction in phonics was considered old fashioned and ineffective.

Mr. A’s Experience

I spoke to the resource room teacher in this school, Mr. A., who confided that his education courses had never taught him how to teach reading.  After five years as a classroom teacher, he felt incompetent as he saw so many of his students reading poorly and making very slow progress.  On his own, he took a number of courses on how to teach phonics and spelling sequentially and systematically rather than incidentally.  He incorporated these techniques into his classroom instruction along with lots of good children’s literature and writing projects in which children made their own books.  He saw a dramatic improvement in reading ability.

He explains, “A lot of teachers like me never learned how to teach phonics or to realize how important direct instruction is. I firmly believe this is why so many children are falling through the cracks and into resource rooms.  Some of these children are dyslexic, but most just need to learn letter/sound correspondence.  Many of these children are behavior problems in their classrooms.  Once they begin making progress in reading, their behavior usually improves.

“I had one girl who was doing strange things like going under her desk in her third-grade class and refusing to come out. She was a non-reader and was referred to me.  After she began to read, she stopped this disruptive behavior.”

A High School Teacher’s Concern and Action

A high school teacher told me how she realized there were a number of students who could not read in her school. She thought about the suffering they had endured throughout their school career by being unable to read; how they had just been continuously passed to the next grade, each teacher hoping that during the next year reading would click with them.  She convinced them to attend a class she set up in the basement (where no other students would find out) and she began to teach them phonics on a regular basis.

This was really too little too late, but she noticed their self-esteem rising as they began to understand the sounds of words, and that words can be broken down into syllables to help sound them out.

What is the Solution?

The concern of Theresa, Mr. A, the high school teacher and others about the lack of phonics instruction in developing literacy is part of a broader national problem expressed in a comprehensive report published in 2002 by the International Reading Association entitled National Reading Panel Report, Teaching Children to Read.4  Their research concluded that systematic phonics instruction featuring a planned sequence of phonics elements makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than non-systematic programs that highlight elements as they happen to appear in a text or no phonics.

Children who benefit the most from this are children of all socio-economic levels in kindergarten and first grade; at risk beginning readers below 2nd grade; poor readers between 2nd and 6th grades. The report points out that phonics is not an end in itself, but the goal should be to apply phonics knowledge in daily reading and writing.

They encourage direct and systematic instruction to other components that contribute to becoming a successful reader:  spelling, fluency, vocabulary development and strategies to improve comprehension.  They point out that cooperative learning activities are particularly helpful when students work together in practicing comprehension strategies; this promotes intellectual discussion that increases understanding of the material being read.

This research is supported by a report from the American Federation of Teachers:  Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do.5

It states: “Research indicates that although some children will learn to read in spite of incidental teaching, others never learn unless taught in an organized, systematic and efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach.” (p.7)

The report warns that once students fall behind, “few catch up unless they receive intensive, individualized and expert instruction, a scarce (and expensive) commodity in most schools.”

It continues by pointing out that the incidence of reading failure among “poor minority children who attend low performing urban schools” is “astronomical and completely unacceptable.”  However, research shows that “the risk of reading difficulties could be prevented and ameliorated by literacy instruction that includes a range of research-based components and practices…” (p.9)

The big obstacle to success in reading instruction according to these two reports is the inadequate training provided by education departments at colleges and universities where it is common to have only a one semester, 3-credit course in the teaching of reading.  In addition, college textbooks on reading instruction are often inadequate.

In my own experience teaching a one semester only Methods of Teaching Reading class at the university level, I became convinced that this is a totally inadequate amount of time to understand even the basics of successful reading instruction. Such courses typically meet once a week during the semester. Students are sent out to a classroom once or twice a week for their practicum to learn first-hand what they can of reading instruction and to devise a few lessons to teach.  The knowledge they gain in this short, limited experience is too superficial to prepare them adequately for improving literacy during student teaching and then as novice teachers.

The need is great and the cause is urgent.  According to Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, “Scientists indicate that fully 95% of all children can be taught to read.  Yet, in spite of all our knowledge, statistics reveal an alarming prevalence of struggling and poor readers that is not limited to one segment of society:

  • 20% of elementary students nationwide have significant problems learning to read.
  • 20% of elementary students do not read fluently enough to enjoy or engage in independent reading.
  • The rate of reading failure for African American, Hispanic, limited-English speakers and poor children ranges from 60 -70%.
  • 1/3 of poor readers nationwide are from college educated families.
  • 25% of adults in the U.S. lack the basic literacy skills required in a typical job.” (p.7)

I believe a national movement is needed of educators at all levels, teacher unions, parents and researchers to organize for a dramatic change in teacher preparation, especially in providing more time to understanding and practicing literacy development at the K – 12 levels.  This effort would call for research-based texts and teaching methods, well-funded research-based staff development and expert on-going classroom observations and guidance to help teachers gain the expertise needed to make possible first-class literacy for their students.

If along with this national effort, teachers were given the opportunity and freedom to help create interesting and relevant curricula, results of such a movement would bring less frustration to teachers and students, better behavior, and the possibility of much more interest in the printed word.

The Child Who Is Not Learning

Teachers can become very frustrated with students who don’t advance academically.  No matter what you try—various techniques and strategies in reading, math, spelling and writing—they stay stuck.  They may be quiet, noisy, obnoxious, well-liked or outcasts, but the one thing they have in common is that they do not show progress in their classwork.

There may be many reasons for this, but one that is raised by Herbert Kohl in his fascinating book I Won’t Learn From You is the possibility that the student has made a deliberate decision not to learn.

Mr. Kohl says, “I have encountered willed not-learning throughout my 30 years of teaching and believe that such not-learning is often and disastrously mistaken for failure to learn or the inability to learn.

“Learning how to not-learn is an intellectual and social challenge; sometimes you have to work very hard at it.  It consists of an active, often ingenious, willful rejection of even the most compassionate and well-designed teaching.  It subverts attempts at remediation as much as it rejects learning in the first place.  It was through insight into my own not-learning that I began to understand the inner world of students who chose to not-learn what I wanted to teach.  Over the years I’ve come to side with them in their refusal to be molded by a hostile society and have come to look upon not-learning as positive and healthy in many situations.” 6

Mr. Kohl describes his own deliberate not-learning of Yiddish.  His father’s family spoke Yiddish and English; his mother and her family didn’t speak Yiddish at all.  Kohl did not want to be party to conversations unless his mother was included, so in solidarity with her he never learned to speak Yiddish.  In later years, he was sorry he had passed by an opportunity that would have enriched his life.

According to Kohl, children who are actively non-learning may be afraid of failure and rather than show their inadequacies, refuse to learn.  Others are bored and decide to shut down.  Some, even though they may know the work, reject the whole idea of being tested and measured against other students.  There are those, particularly children of color, who may be alienated from insensitive white teachers or a curriculum that does not reflect their history or culture.

Kohl believes that until teachers carefully analyze such students to ascertain what is the real cause of non-learning, and then experiment with ways to overcome their resistance, no progress will be possible.  Whatever the cause of students’ active not-learning which Kohl also calls “creative maladjustment,” it is possible with an open mind, serious efforts and creative thinking to break through the self-imposed barriers these children have created and to give them hope that they can learn and succeed in their studies.

A Helpful Resource

University students in my literacy development course found the book “The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing” by T. Armstrong very helpful.  It does not just describe the varied ways that students learn but gives many examples of how they can be implemented.

“Learning Disabled” Label:  Beware

There are some children who arrive in our classes with the label “learning-disabled.”  Do not take another teacher’s or even a social worker’s word for it.  We should beware of such labels for they may or may not be true.  Give the child a lot of encouragement and another chance at success.  Try different approaches.  Maybe one method will work and the child will begin to break out of his/her trap of academic failure.

Here is a story of a teacher who succeeded with a child, H. Stephen Glenn, who began life, in his words, as “a learning disabled child.”  He was dyslexic, and when he found that memorizing words would not be enough to learn how to read, that he would have to also learn letters (which to him were upside down and backwards), he became frightened.  His first-grade teachers called him “learning disabled.”  In second grade, he was able to get the answers to math problems but couldn’t tell how, so he became totally intimidated by the learning process.  He developed a stutter.  In third grade he couldn’t speak, write, read or do math.

By the time he reached fifth grade, H. Stephen Glenn says “I was about to die intellectually.”  Fortunately, his new teacher, Miss Hardy, had a new approach.  She told him he was not learning disabled but “eccentric”:

“I’ve talked with your mother and she says when she reads something to you, you remember it almost photographically.  You just don’t do it well when you’re asked to assemble all the words and pieces.  And reading out loud appears to be a problem, so when I’m going to call on you to read in my class, I’ll let you know in advance so you can go home and memorize it the night before, then we’ll fake it in front of the other kids.  Also, Mom says when you look something over, you can talk about it with great understanding, but when she asks you to read it word for word and even write something about it, you appear to get hung up in the letters and stuff and lose the meaning.  So, when the other kids are asked to read and write those worksheets I give them, you can go home and under less pressure on your own time do them and bring them back to me the next day.”

She continued: “I notice you appear to be hesitant and fearful to express your thoughts and I believe that any idea a person has is worth considering.  I’ve looked into this and I’m not sure it will work, but it helped a man named Demosthenes.”  [Demosthenes, who lived in the middle of the 300s B.C., had a serious speech problem and overcame it to become a great orator.]

Miss Hardy asked H. Stephen Glenn if he could pronounce “Demosthenes,” but he couldn’t.  Then she said, “Well, you will be able to.  He had an unruly tongue, so he put stones in his mouth and practiced until he got control of it.  So I’ve got a couple of marbles, too big for you to swallow, that I’ve washed off.  From now on when I call on you, I’d like you to put them in your mouth and stand up and speak up until I can hear and understand you.” 7

Mr. Glenn explains why this advice worked:  “Of course, supported by her manifest belief in the understanding of me I took the risk, tamed my tongue, and was able to speak.” 8

A child who was destined for failure had his life turned around by one teacher whom he was lucky enough to have for two years.  She was not deterred by terms like “dyslexia” and “learning disabled.”  She was creative and determined, and she even used her knowledge of history to reach a seemingly unreachable child.  Mr. Glenn summed up her success as her ability to convince him and her other students that they were “capable, significant, influential people who had the capacity to make a difference in life if we would try.” 9


I met Bill in my Adult Literacy class where everyone was a beginning reader.  He was a successful tailor, and I asked him why his reading skills were weak despite the fact that he was an intelligent person. He told me that he was a tall child and was always placed in a seat in the back of the room.  He struggled to learn until 6th grade when a teacher discovered that he needed glasses. By then he was very far behind and never caught up. He had been labeled “slow” and possibly “stupid” by his teachers.

As he began to read in my class, his confidence grew and his spirits lifted.  There was nothing wrong with Bill that a pair of glasses could not fix.


Although there are cases where students are placed inappropriately in our classes, using labels can provide an excuse to give up on them.  As Herbert Kohl writes, “The inability of regular classrooms to educate all children (and in particular minority and working class and poor children) has led to the creation of a profession that depends on children being pushed out of ‘normal’ classrooms and made pathological.” 10  He warns us that there is no physiological or medical condition common to all so-called “educationally handicapped” children who are often put in classes in which the curriculum and methods of instruction are not much different from what is taught in regular classes.  He advises us to beware of the term – Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  He has a thought-provoking analysis of students who are labeled ADD:

“Students designated as ADD often refuse to sit still and listen silently when a teacher or another person in authority is talking; they resist following instructions blindly; they refuse to do boring worksheets and other assignments if they feel they already know the material.  Interestingly enough, these conditions are positive qualifications for future participatory citizenship, and an argument can be made that ADD is one way that public school authorities are suppressing the spirit of democracy.” 11

(Kohl goes even further to call upon teachers to speak out against the tendency of blaming the victim and against the “institutionalization of stigmatization.”  He urges educators “to repudiate all categories and assume responsibility for changing their practice until it works for the children they have previously been unable to serve; to advocate for genuine educational choice within the public schools and to demand that teachers, parents, and other groups of educators should have the right to create small schools within the context of large public school systems, with the freedom and resources to operate effectively.”) 12

The Child Who Must Be Removed From A Regular Classroom

Teachers can face exhaustion, burnout and depression when severely troubled children who cannot function in regular classrooms of 25 to 30 students are nevertheless placed in their room. Despite the teachers’ sincerest efforts, they are not trained and don’t have the time to help such children.

Once I taught a combined 4th/5th-grade class where there was one child, Sam, who was totally out of control almost all of the time.  In order to keep him calm, I had to hold his hand all day long as he followed me around the room, or have him sit right next to me with my hand on his shoulder.  If I let go, he ran around the room getting into arguments and fights.  (Amazingly, Sam behaved well when he was one on one with an adult, but there was no one to stay with him all day long.)

When I went to the principal for help, he just shook his head sadly and told me to do the best I could.  After months of struggling with this problem, I was at an impasse.  So much time was spent monitoring Sam that I was not able to teach effectively.  Neither Sam nor my class was getting what they needed.

One day, in desperation, I said to the principal, “If Sam is in my class tomorrow, you’ll never see me again.” Sam was taken out the next day and eventually sent to a boarding school with specially trained teachers of disturbed children since there was no place in the local school system for him.

After Sam left, I was able to restore some semblance of normalcy to my classroom and to begin to turn things around. In retrospect I was sorry it took me so long to stand up for my rights, the rights of my students and for Sam’s.  I guess I thought that since I was an experienced teacher, I could eventually solve this problem, but I was wrong.

Getting The Help You Need

Long range solutions and the building of rapport between a teacher and a troublesome child can come from getting to know him and his family situation as far as possible, showing that you have confidence in his ability to improve, and that you don’t dislike him, only his behavior.  Involving him in the class in ways already described will also help.

However, teachers who encounter one child, or many children in the same room with problems ranging from mild to serious, face burnout unless they get immediate help and guidance from concerned administrators, peers, guidance counselors, social workers and parents or guardians.

An excellent book that goes into great detail on options for students who require high levels of support is Behave Yourself! Helping Students Plan to Do Better, K-12 by Ambrose Panico.  It calls for including the student’s views in any improvement plan and posits a team approach to solving difficult behavior so the teacher is not struggling alone. This team can include school specialists, administrators, the child’s parent, teachers who know her, i.e., anyone in the school or local community who knows the student and could provide insights on who she is and how she can be helped.

A key goal is to find out why a student is behaving badly and why she reacts the way she does.  It minimizes or avoids entirely punishments and rewards, which are often ineffective, and describes instead core beliefs and behavior-change tools that can strengthen teachers’ skills in solving serious disruptive behavior.  These beliefs and tools can also provide students with confidence and guidance in overcoming self-defeating beliefs and actions as well as developing more confidence and self-control.

The book provides information-gathering forms that make it easier to understand the student, analyze problem behavior and to craft a humane and effective plan of action.

Another excellent resource is the book Beyond Discipline, From Compliance to Community by Alfie Kohn.

Watching Our Own Behavior

This chapter has focused on special challenges that teachers can experience in the classroom. What we also need to consider is our own behavior.  Teacher friends of mine and I have discussed the need to be very patient, polite and caring but firm in our dealings with students, many of whom face very difficult problems in their lives and can lash out at their teachers and classmates.

But how are we behaving?  We have all seen colleagues and administrators who may not yell, but use sarcasm and negative remarks in their interactions with students and school personnel. These are people who want students to cooperate but don’t collaborate well with their own peers. They want students to be respectful, but they are not respectful and can be seen bad-mouthing students and others in the faculty lounge.

I once observed such a teacher of a 4th-grade class when I had come to watch a college student in my Methods of Teaching Reading course teach a lesson. Before she began, the teacher was getting her class ready for the transition.  She told everyone to get out a notebook.  Todd did not have one or any other materials he needed.  The teacher rolled her eyes and complained out loud that once again, Todd was not prepared. “Who will give him paper and pencil?” she asked in an exasperated tone.

In the post-lesson discussion with my student, I asked about Todd.  She said he lived in a homeless shelter and the teacher was always picking on him.  We both were appalled; I never put a college student with this teacher again.

We teachers and administrators who find such conduct objectionable need to get together with like-minded staff to figure out a way to address this unfortunate behavior in order to see that these teachers get the help they need to keep students from suffering in their classrooms. This is not squealing or going behind a colleague’s back. What you are doing is helping to take responsibility for a fellow teacher who may or may not be able to improve, and if the latter is the case, should not continue in teaching. You are stepping up to improve the school climate that directly affects school morale and students’ ability to learn.

If we find ourselves facing administrators who bully teachers and/or students, it is important to find other staff members and parents who want to solve this with you.  The more people who make a plan to address this issue, the more chance there is of solving it despite fearing repercussions. A teachers’ union can be of help or an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union.

A hopeful development is the Healthy Workplace Bill movement which began in 2001 to enact anti-bullying laws state-by-state.  This effort is supported by the National Education Association (NEA) due to their findings that the number of school employees who report being targeted by bullies is nearly 3 times the national average. This is explained in their publication “Workplace Bullying, A Silent Crisis, A Resource for Educators.”

Across the U.S., NEA affiliates are negotiating contracts with school districts that include language to curtail the intimidation of teachers and staff by school personnel including administrators.  They encourage teachers to report harassment to their union and to go to healthyworkplacebill.org for information, resources and activities.

Even the most dedicated of us can slip up and say something hurtful to our students or a colleague.  The answer to this is to monitor our own behavior and be able to apologize when we realize we have made a mistake.  This will not weaken our image in anyone’s eyes, but will model a thoughtful way to conduct ourselves in our daily lives.


This is illustrated by one of my former college students, Ofelia, who became an English teacher in an inner-city school.  She reported to our New Teachers Support Group, which was held once a month for graduates of our Rutgers/Newark Urban Education Department, that one of her students had yelled out to her across the room, “What you did was not fair!”

Instead of getting defensive, Ms. P. (as her students called her) led a discussion with the student and the class; her students’ decision was that indeed she had been unfair. She then said to her class, “I see what you mean.  I had not seen it that way. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

This admission did not diminish her power in the classroom because she had established a good relationship with them early in the semester. In fact, it helped to solidify her students’ view that she was a good teacher.


1Interview with the author. (In this chapter, all other quotes not appearing in the endnotes were from interviews with the author.)

2Canfield, Jack and Hansen, Mark Victor, A Second Helping of  Chicken Soup for the Soul, 101 More Stories to Open the  Heart and Rekindle the Spirit, “Cipher in the Snow” by Jean Todd Hunter, Heath Communications, Inc., 1995, pp. 204-207.

3Ibid.  “Three Letters from Teddy,” by Elizabeth Silance Ballard, p. 216-218.

4Highlights of this report can be found on line:  Summary of the (U.S.) National Reading Panel Report, Teaching Children to Read, prepared by the Division of Research and Policy, International Reading Association, 2002, 19 pp.

5This 40-page report, reprinted in 2004 can be accessed on line. It was prepared by Louisa C. Moats, Project Director.

6Kohl, Herbert, I Won’t Learn From You And Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment, The New Press, 1994, p.2.

7Canfield, Jack and Hansen, Mark Victor, Op.Cit., “Miss  Hardy” by Glenn, H. Stephen, p.213-214.

8Ibid., p.214.

9Ibid., p.215.

10Kohl, H., Op.Cit., p.150.

11Ibid., p.149

12Ibid., p.152.



How to Teach Without Screaming Copyright © by jcaliff. All Rights Reserved.

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