Getting Through to the Rebellious Student: Abandon the Us vs Them Mentality

Dealing with the Disruptive Student

The “us vs. them” mindset has got to stop somewhere if we ever want to get through to the problem student. This is another way I have found will win the most callous of minds over to your side. Even for a child who is willful and anti-establishment, if you get on their side, they cannot fight you. Here are some ways to do this, in the practical world and the public school classroom:

1) Some Rules are Meant to be Broken

This sounds like a teacher who is rebellious, and admittedly there is an element of rebellion in the best of teachers. But it is not rebellion without a cause, but rather learning how to not sweat the small stuff.

Stay committed to the most crucial rules: respect for others, doing what is right, not harming others, etc. Learn to let go of those that do not matter that much, like wearing caps in the building. I am not recommending that you break every rule in your school personnel manual. I am just suggesting that you look beyond the here and now to the picture in the future and what you are communicating to these rebellious students. As long as you are on the “other side,” you are the enemy.

If you allow them to wear a cap in your classroom, when it is against school rules, you are saying to them, “I was a kid once too. I know that that rule is silly. As long as an administrator is not here, you may wear it that way in my classroom. But since it is an administrative rule, when they come in, you must remove it.” This gives the kids some flexibility in the rules to where they feel you are more on their side. I have won over many a rebellious boy by doing just this.

2) Be Approachable

If you are the enemy, you will be the last to know if you student brings a gun one day and shoots up his classroom. If you have any hope of stopping this nightmare, you have to take action now. Have you ever thought about the fact that the only difference between the outcomes just might be the teacher? I firmly believe this, even in my role as counselor now. I moved to this role in order to have a higher level of involvement in what ails problem kids, but I still know that the first line of defense is our teachers. They are the ones who spend every day with these kids. But they have to be educated about the signs. And they must be willing to step up to the plate and get involved.

If you are a teacher who cares, and you have made yourself available to them, as well as the “good kid,” you may prevent some tragedy, keep a kid from hurting themselves or others, and set the kid on the right path. The reason this works is that statistics show that the kids who feel the world is against them, who have given up hope start a process a psychologist once called “the downward drift.” These people have given up on hope. They have given up on love. They have given up on a career, and on life. They are desperate. Some of them kill themselves. And others take others out with them. We have to be there for these kids, before they reach this point. Be the person they can come to and do what is necessary to help them, so they won’t feel driven to desperation.

3) Communicate with Parents

This must be done carefully, because you do not want the student to think you are trying to get them in trouble. This will destroy trust if you tell the parent something they told you in confidence. Follow the rule of counselors involving such matters and only tell the parent what is necessary to prevent danger to the student or other people. If it does not involve these issues, keep the student’s trust, but tell them at the beginning that, if anything they tell you presents a clear and present danger, you will have to tell someone. That way it is understood from the beginning.

Don’t just call parents to report bad news, but also inform them of a student’s positive progress. Then they will be more likely to be there for you to help if you call about something bad. Be a resource to both the student and the parents and you will find the coordination of efforts will play a big role in helping the student find their way.

4) Teach Anti-Bullying & Positive Coping Skills

If you have as part of your main class philosophy that you will not accept bullying behavior, and also take up for the rebellious student too, you will communicate that you value them, even if they are doing the bullying at times. The problem that drives many kids to bad behaviors is that they feel they have no one to talk to when people do them wrong. Even when you don’t agree with their actions, be a listening ear and hear their side and they will know you are being fair and not judging them, even if you do not approve of their behavior.

5) Separate the Criminal from the Crime

In order to help someone, you have to separate their behavior from them as a person. We need to communicate to kids that we do not approve of their negative actions, but we still care about them as people. This will go a long way toward diffusing anger of some kids, if they know at least one person cares what happens to them.

When a student says, “I hit him in the face.” Instead of being judgmental say, “What were you thinking about when he called your mother that name?” “Is there any other action you could have taken instead of hitting him in the face?” Then you are having a discussion with a student about what he could do next time, rather than being his judge and jury.

Winning over the rebel is never easy. They are a challenging, strong-willed type of person. They are sometimes bullies and they are always obstinate. But if you communicate that you still value them, and believe there is some good about them, you may turn a potential criminal into a valued member of society. Or you may get a kid on the right track where they can better channel their rebellion into an independent thinker. At the very least, you give them a chance, rather than being a part of the problem.


This post is part of the series: Secrets to Behavior Management

Managing a disruptive student’s behavior can be one of the biggest challenges for a teacher. This series explores how to effectively manage a classroom by showing students that you’re on their side and want what’s best for them.
  1. I. Behavior Management Doesn't Come from a Textbook
  2. II. Getting Through to the Rebellious Student
  3. III. Beyond Reward and Punishment
  4. IV. The Ultimate Goal in Student Behavior Management