Tips for Intervention

My work has focused on various aspects of teacher-student relationships since the early 80s. Although when I started speaking, I offered a variety of topics, the one that grabbed the most attention—and accounted for nearly 100% of the work I did—was on discipline and student behavior.

The programs that were available at the time were almost universally reactive and punitive. (Even calling punishments “consequences” doesn’t remove the punitive, sometimes vengeful energy in the outcomes established, or the ones being sought.) And my career grew on the backs of these programs because aside from being costly and unwieldy, they were almost entirely superficial and ineffective—often making things even worse.

So I started looking at how to deal with behaviors that tend to be far less prevalent or frequent in a positive, win-win classroom environment. A few practical suggestions follow:

• Think prevention. Although no one can predict every possible opportunity for disaster, many problems can be avoided by taking the time to anticipate what you and your students will need, considering any possibility for misunderstandings or difficulties and setting very specific limits ahead of time.

• When something comes up, try to isolate what’s bothering you. Are you reacting to a personality trait, attitude, or value conflict, or is the student’s behavior actually interfering with the teaching or learning process?

• Attack the problem, not the person. Mentally separate the student from the behavior. It’s the interruption that’s annoying—not the student.

• Minimize your reaction. Count to ten, or at least to five. Use this time to remind yourself that you don’t have to get angry, lecture, criticize, interrogate or punish. (Often, you don’t even have to get involved!) Staying calm can help you avoid compounding the problem at hand. A brief pause can also allow the student to resolve or correct the problem behavior on his own.

• Deal specifically with the behavior—not the morality of the behavior, previous incidents, or the personality behind the misconduct.

• If your reaction starts to create a win-lose (or no-win) situation, stop and back off: “Wait. This isn’t the way I want to handle this.” If necessary—and possible—withdraw for a few seconds to regain your perspective.

• At all times, stay responsible for your actions and words. We are most vulnerable to negative adult behavior patterns in the presence of negative or disruptive student behaviors. Regardless of our commitment to maintaining a positive, win-win environment, there will be times we will most likely slip up and say or do something hurtful or destructive. At those times, be careful to model responsible language and not blame the student. For example, avoid statements like, “You make me so angry,” or “If you hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have said that to you.” If you act or speak in a hurtful way, apologize and switch to more a constructive approach—just like you would want the student to do!

• Look for ways to offer many choices and positive outcomes for cooperation, building in incentives and motivators. This is a proactive and positive approach that will eliminate many of the incidents that arise when students are competing for power.

Withdraw the privilege or positive consequence as soon as a misconduct occurs. Keep your tone and body language as neutral as possible. A statement like “This isn’t working” can help you intervene decisively without attacking or criticizing.

• Whenever possible, invite the student to reclaim his privilege or possession as soon as the misbehavior ceases: “You may return to the group as soon as you can control your talking,” “You can continue playing with this game as soon as you finish cleaning up the area you just left.”

• If correcting their behavior will not give the students immediate access to the privilege or possession, let them know when it will be available again: “Please return to your seats. Let’s try (working together) again tomorrow,” or “Please put the puzzle back on the shelf until you finish your seatwork.”

• Provide support, feedback, guidelines, and limits to help, but leave the responsibility for the student’s behavior with the student.

• If instruction and activities would help in areas such as problem solving, social interaction, or handling anger and frustration, for example, save them for a non-crisis setting. Likewise, if you feel that you and your students could benefit from the administration or support staff (counselor, school psychologist, social worker), invite them to conduct or participate in these activities. These individuals may also be available to discuss particular problems and help you brainstorm possible win-win solutions, and will be especially helpful when you can provide documentation and don’t attempt to dump the responsibility for the problem on them.

• It is not necessary to hurt your students or make them wrong, even when they really mess up. This goes agains our cultural “revenge” instinct, and the inclination to blame. Consider an intention of teaching rather than punishing.

• Likewise, resist the temptation to label the misbehavior. Telling your students “That’s unacceptable” or “You’re being rude” does not give them the information they need to change their behavior. Be specific about what you want and use your time and energy to instruct instead of label or shame.

• In problem-solving activities and discussions, keep coming back to win-win: “How can we both get what we want?”

Excerpted from chapter 12, “Create a Win-Win Classroom,” from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2010, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.

© 1990, 1997, 2008, 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

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Related resources:

Guidelines for Offering Students Choices
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Behavior
Teacher Self-Assessment
Dealing Successfully with your Students’ Parents
Getting Away with Success
Motivating Cooperative Behavior

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2 thoughts on “Handling Negative Student Behavior

  1. I’m a college lecturer interested in Jungian psychology. I work with my shadow in order to improve both my teaching practice and student behaviour. I have converted my shadow dialogues into a series of animations which are available on my website Here is a dialogue with my inner rebellious teenager. Healing this part of my shadow had a positive impact in the classroom.

    1. Negative student behavior is certain to trigger some common unresolved “shadow” responses. This is an important piece of the healing that can offer all students an emotionally safe, accepting learning environment, one in which a lot of the acting out we see is less likely to occur. Thank you for your comments.

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