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Why Fear Tactics Never Work on Problematic Children

written by: Ellis Scott • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 3/14/2013

Have you ever held up your fist and told a student, “fear this, punk!" I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to keep your job, just wondering. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just scare students into submission? Even if it were possible to instill fear into your students, would it make them behave?

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    In the perfect world, students would be scared of us and would behave accordingly. They would do what was asked and expected of them for fear of getting into trouble. I think amateur teachers just entering the profession sometimes think this is what’s going to happen. If a student acts up (they think), I’m just going to threaten to call home or buzz the office. At that point, surely the student will shrink back and submit to authority… um… Yeah, that’ll be the day. This isn’t a perfect world and that isn’t how it works.

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    The Problem with Fear Tactics

    Hand to Forehead In the schools I’ve worked in, fear tactics simply don’t work. It’s not that these tactics aren’t backed by good intentions; it’s just that they don’t have enough power behind them to make them work. The problem with fear tactics is that when used on children who face good parenting at home, they appear to be working. This is because those types of students often do acquiesce. However, it is because they fear their parents… not you and certainly not the school. They don’t fear a detention per se, they fear their parents will find out about their detention. When those same methods are used on the students who are frequent fliers and deliberately disruptive, they don’t work. This can create confusion because what appears to be a good strategy for students turns out to be an illusion.

    Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to share a story. I was recently approached by a teacher who was having behavioral problems from a particular child in her classroom. The child would talk when he wasn’t supposed to (even sometimes using a curse word) and would also change seats when she wasn’t looking. He wasn’t doing his work and he was being disruptive to the rest of the class.

    When I asked her what she tried she said that she had called home and could never get in touch with anybody. Sometimes the number worked and went to voicemail; sometimes it didn’t work because the parent had run out of minutes for the month. She had also assigned detentions, which the student never showed up for. She had also referred to the office and had him removed from class. She explained to the student that she was not scared to write him up every day and have him removed if he continued to be disruptive.

    Profile of a Problematic Student

    Now let me give you some background on the student. He is 16 years old in a 7th grade classroom. He has a job that he works at consistently every night. His dad is in jail and his mom raises him and four other children. Mom works two jobs to try to make ends meet. He has also been in trouble with the law and is currently on probation.

    I understand the reasoning behind threatening a student to be good. While the intentions are good, the strategy is not. Here’s why. You can’t really threaten a kid with going “to the office" if the child has sat (more than once) in court and faced a judge. He could care less what you do.

    In addition to that, if you are teaching middle or high school students, being aggressive and confrontational with them will only work once you have won their respect. Even then, it’s not the best strategy. Otherwise, even if they do listen (such as in the case of the “good" children), they will resent you and find a way to make teaching miserable for you while you have them. Maybe they will be sneakier or maybe they will be openly defiant, but they won’t just submit because you threaten to give them some punitive punishment.

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    What Actually Works

    The best strategy is to learn some salesmanship and sell them on the idea of doing well in your class (or at least not disrupting others). You can call it manipulation, trickery, or something with a better connotation such as leadership. Whatever you call it, you’ve got to figure out a way to make the student want to succeed in your classroom. This is going to take time, effort, patience, and lots of creativity. Most importantly, it is about taking the time to build a relationship with the student.

    I know it seems cliché, but without a positive relationship with your problematic children, you can never hope to have their full effort. A student with a rough life and background will usually revert to habitual behaviors when threatened. But if you build a relationship they will feel threatened less often and when they do feel threatened, they will try harder to not disappoint you. One last thing, you cannot fake caring about a student. If you really don’t like a student, you must find some common ground and a reason to like them or they will see through your fake façade every time.