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How to Deal With Mean Students!


Children and adolescents can be mindlessly cruel to one another. Teachers are not safe either and it is becoming more common for educators to be verbally abused or even assaulted in the workplace. Not surprisingly, many new teachers are not prepared for the lack of respect they encounter. Many young people today have never been taught to show respect for elders, for teachers, or even for their own parents. It should come as no surprise that students come to school without this basic social skill. Consequently, teachers must take on the role of personnel managers in the classroom to ensure a safe and proper learning environment.

This post will focus on what educators can do in the classroom environment to improve student behavior. However, it is necessary to point out that it is never the teacher’s sole responsibility to deal with such situations nor is it ever acceptable to allow student abuse of an educator or of another student. Ultimately, the responsibility for teacher safety rests on the school administrator and on the local education agency. I will also note that the following suggestions may not be affective for every student. Unfortunately, some young people, like the general population, will have clinical level pathological, antisocial personality disorders that may make them simply unable to participate in general education classes in a way that is safe to all concerned. Again, teachers should not be expected to deal with these extreme or dangerous students.

What can teachers do?

Behavior is a visible symptom of internal thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings are formed from associations, homelife, genetics, and choices. Often, misbehavior is a sign that an individual is feeling anger, pain, hurt, neglected, abused, or unsafe. Furthermore, children are likely to see themselves as “not being good enough” or “flawed” in some way when they are mistreated. As a result, they may adopt aggressive behaviors as a defense mechanism to deal with these unpleasant emotions. In short, most students misbehave or engage in “mean” behaviors as a way of coping with their own perceived shortcomings, insecurities, or unhappiness. There is an old saying that sums this point up nicely: “Hurting people, hurt people.”

When we reframe our view of the misbehaving student in this way, we can respond from a place of compassion and understanding rather than from personal insult and anger. Educators should

ask the question, “Why did this student act this way?” Is this student hurting? Angry? Neglected? Unhappy? Afraid? It is a good idea to have a conversation politely, respectfully, and compassionately with the student away from peers. During this time, try to determine if the student is okay. Are they having trouble at home? Are they having a bad day? Just ask. It is shocking how quickly a student will turn their attitude around when they perceive that they are cared for and even liked. Use the appropriate behavioral intervention and supports systems in place within your school, local education agency, or community, if possible, to meet the student’s needs if necessary. Obviously, good old-fashioned discipline may be called for, but this discipline should be handed out for the good of the student and for the good of those watching, never out of anger or retribution.

The “Broken Student”

Some children are just made differently. They do not naturally fit into the public-school environment. Often, these young people find it difficult to sit still, be quiet, or focus. It is important to realize that these students may not have anything wrong with them. They are just not naturally different. In the most watched Ted-Talk of all time, the late Ken Robinson shared the sobering story of Gillian Lynne, a now well-known English dancer, ballerina, and choreographer best known for her work on the musicals Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Below is an excerpt of this story.

Gillian and I had lunch one day. I said, how did you get to be a dancer? She said it was interesting, when she was at school, she was hopeless. The school wrote to her parents and said we think Gillian has a learning disorder. She could not concentrate, she was fidgeting. Anyway, she went to see this specialist. She was there with her mother and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hand for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. She was disturbing people, and her homework was always late and so on. In the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said "Gillian I've listened to all these things that your mother has told me. I need to speak to her privately". He said, "Wait here, we'll be back, we won't be very long." And they went and left her. But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out of the room he said to her mother "Just stand and watch her". The minute they left the room, she said she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes, and he turned to her mother, and he said: "You know Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick, she's a dancer. Take her to a dance school." I said, what happened. She said, "She did". "I can't tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room, and it was full of people like me." "People who couldn't sit still. People who had to move to think."

This well-known account serves as a reminder that each student has an individual human story. Gillian was not a mean student, but I suspect that if she continued along the path she was on, she would have become so unhappy in school that she may have either become withdrawn or developed in to one. We must look at why students behave the way they do. Everyone, corporate employees, administrators, teachers, parents, and students all just want to be treated as human beings. Children need warmth, care, positivity, encouragement, and security to be happy. They may not get this at home. Educators can foster this environment in the classroom as a first step toward dealing with difficulty students and perhaps preventing these behaviors from manifesting.

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