Working With Tough Kids

tough kids

Every year, there’s always that one kid who just drives me batty!  For whatever reason, I can’t find a connection with THAT kid.  I don’t get them, they don’t get me, and we just don’t work well together.  I have learned that I better find a way to LOVE that kid or I’ll suffer the rest of the school year. (And the kid would suffer, too.)  Today, I want to talk about those kind of tough kids and offer 5 strategies for making things a little better!

Just to be clear, this post is NOT about “fixing” the kid.  This post is about changing your own perspective on the situation and your attitude toward the child.  But I will say that in my experience, when I’ve changed my attitude toward a “problem” child, the child begins to show less of the behaviors that were so problematic to begin with. 

So what do you?  Here’s my arsenal of strategies.  One of these, or some combination of these, has helped me get through some rough situations.  🙂



Step back from the child you know now and imagine him or her as a toddler or baby.  Think about the sweet innocence that once existed in this child.  What did the world do to him/her that created the kiddo you see today?  Find that loving place in your heart that feels compassion for all children and hold on to it!  Sometimes, just imagining the child as a “kid” rather than a “student” can help bring on the love.

One incredibly impulsive and talkative little guy in my class had me on edge.  Big time.  I was ready to explode.  He just never stopped and we were always at odds!  A trip to the school book fair inspired me to see him in a new light.  He was so excited about the different books.  His eyes lit up and for just a moment, I saw him as a “kid” rather than the student who constantly interrupted.  This kid loved learning!  He was so sweet and innocent and genuine.  So many great qualities.  As the year went on, this guy became one of my favorites. I started to think of him as my little buddy, my side-kick, and he knew it.  And as my attitude toward him changed, his attitude toward himself changed.  I don’t know if he felt happier or more secure or what it was, but he became calmer in class and more willing to listen to me.  The blurting out and impulsive behavior became less and less of an issue as we learned to work together as a team.


Jump ahead twenty or thirty years and picture this child as an adult.  Who will they become?  Who do you want them to become?  What will they remember when they think back about you or school or your class?

I once worked with a feisty little girl who was stubborn and a big ‘ole know-it-all.  She drove me bonkers in the classroom!   It was during her parent-teacher conference that I had a big realization. Her parents wanted to know about her behavior.  Was it okay?  Was she working hard? And the truth was: Yes!  She WAS working hard.  She WAS a good student.  I realized that the same traits that made her hard to “manage” now were the very traits that would help her grow up to be an amazing and accomplished woman.  Yes, she was opinionated.  Yes, she spoke up when she didn’t agree.  Yes, she was a perfectionist.  This girl is going to do great things one day and the very traits that made her seem “difficult” now, would be the same traits that helped her overcome any obstacles in her future.  I started thinking of this girl as a kindred spirit, rather than a thorn in my side, and it made all the difference!  I focused on giving her more challenges rather than trying to “put her in her place.”


Whether you are a parent or not, try looking at this kid from a mom’s point of view.  Now that I have a child, I know how scary it is to send your kiddo out into the big wide world.  Will people be kind to him? Will they like him?  Does his teacher care about him?  Will others see the special things that I see in him?

I am fiercely protective of my child, like any mother.  When dealing with a difficult child, I find it helpful to conjure up that protective instinct I feel for my own child.  I don’t know if it’s some kind of hormonal mother thing, or just the need to protect those smaller than myself, but it has worked for me!  The kid may be a tough one, but he’s MY tough one!

tough kids

Love this quote from Joy of Mom!


One year I had a very impulsive little boy in my class who was constantly “messing up.”  He knew it, the other kids knew it, even his parents said it.  This poor kid faced multiple failures every hour.  It was exhausting for me, for him, for the class, for everyone.  His classmates were no longer kind or friendly and his parents were beyond frustrated.  After trying all kinds of interventions and strategies, it seemed that nothing would make a difference.  Then during a behavior meeting on this fellow, I started talking about how he must feel.  I wondered aloud what it must be like to constantly fail, to disappoint everyone, to try so hard but always say or do the wrong thing.  I got so choked up I had to take a break!  After seeing the world from his little eyes for a moment, my empathy multiplied.  I found myself being more kind to this child and loving him for who he was, rather than who I wanted him to be.  And when my attitude changed, so did the attitude of other kids in the class.  Soon we were his cheerleaders rather than the spectators to all his mistakes.


Last but not least, do whatever it takes to find a connection with that kid.  One school year, things started off with the Behavior Specialist plopping down across from me and smacking a GIANT stack of file folders and paperwork on the table.  “You’re the winner!” she said with a wry smile.  According to her I was going to have the most difficult child she’d ever worked with in my room that year.  I tried to keep an open mind about this kid, of course, but just to be safe I made a point of having lunch with this kiddo the first week of school.  Just us.  I asked him questions about what he liked to do, places he liked to go, favorite foods, etc, just looking for some kind of connection.  And then by accident, we discovered that both of us loved the same TV show.  (And yes, it was a highly inappropriate show for a child to watch, but he watched it and so did I and it was all I had.)  This became our “thing.”  We were “Walking Dead” buddies.  I made him promise not to talk about it around the other kids (too scary!) and from there our relationship grew.  Soon, all I had to do was crack a little joke or give a look and he was back on track.  I’m not exactly sure why the connection made such a big difference.  My gut says it’s because he trusted me and knew that I was on his side.

SO, I can’t say that these are magic tricks that will work every time, but I do know that when you have a tough kid you can choose to fight against the kid or fight for the kid.  And in my experience, fighting against a kid NEVER works.  The best you get in that situation is basic compliance to avoid punishment.  So instead, find ways to fight for the kid.  Be on their side and let them feel your love and support.

It’s tough!  I know…  But good luck!
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6 thoughts on “Working With Tough Kids

  1. Suzy Q

    Must try a couple of these…I have a student this year who is immune to anything I say or do. Will try to find a way to connect.

  2. Pamela Smith

    I know this post was from awhile ago, but boy, do I need this! I have a little boy that has been in my class for two years and he is a handful. He is so smart, he is bored. I love him to death, but he can be so frustrating. Just today, he started to cry and said he was bad. I just wanted to cry! I have never said this to him, and neither have his parents (to my knowledge), but it was just how he felt.I am going to try to have him tell me positive things about himself, but I am going to remember these tips too. Because you know, I will have another one next year! Thanks so much!