How To Manage Challenging Students: 4 Tips From A Child Psychologist

Key Takeaways

  1. Kids do well if they want to can. Shift your thinking about those “challenging kids” to be in a better position to help them improve their behaviour
  2. Identify unsolved problems. Catologue problem behaviours, their drivers and pre-cursors to give you a fact-base for helping students.
  3. Solve problems collaboratively. Combine ‘Plan B’ with ‘Plan C’ to prioritise and solve problems with students, rather than imposing solutions on them.
  4. Use three steps to solve problems collaboratively. Empathise, define and invite the student to work with you on solving the problems driving their behaviour.

Behaviour can be a huge problem for teachers and school leaders. Teacher survey data in the UK suggests that disruptive behaviour is driving people away from the profession and may be contributing to early-career attrition in teaching.

It often feels like lots of behavioural issues come from a handful of your students, and it’s hard to know what to do about it. Clinical psychology has some answers. Ross W. Greene is a clinical child psychologist who specialises in children with challenging behaviour. In his book Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, Greene provides a fantastic framework for supporting “challenging kids” at school. Let’s have a look at how you can help those kids that you secretly wish were absent every day.

Kids do well if they want to can

The first step in helping challenging kids is to make sure you’re thinking about them in the ‘right way’. We’ve already made a common faux pas a couple of times, including in the title of the post – they’re not “challenging kids”, they’re “kids with behavioural challenges”. Divorcing the behaviour from the child is critical if you want to help students improve their behaviour, but it’s easier said than done. Greene suggests we shift our thinking about why challenging behaviour occurs in children.

A common approach is to assume that students do the wrong thing because they don’t want to do the right thing enough. This approach leads to a motivation response – teachers and school leaders work to motivate students using incentives and disincentives to change behaviour. When a student behaves well (adaptively), she is rewarded. When she misbehaves (behaves maladaptively) she receives some sanction or punishment.

Greene says this is the wrong way of thinking about behaviour. Instead, you should consider that students will do well if they can do well, but that some students lack important thinking skills and this makes it harder for them to do the right thing.

From Lost at School:

“Doing well is always preferable to not doing well, but only if a kid has the skills to do well in the first place. If a kid isn’t doing the well, he must lack the skills. What’s the most important role an adult can play in the life of such a kid? First assume he’s already motivated, already knows right from wrong, and has already been punished enough. Then, figure out what skills he’s lacking so you have the clearest possible understanding of what’s getting in his way.”

Challenging behaviour tends to happen when the demands placed on a student exceed his capacity to respond adaptively. The first step in Greene’s method is to identify the situations where this is happening and understand what “lagging skills” are preventing a child from responding in an adaptive manner.

Changing your mindset like this flips a lot of the usual explanations used to understand challenging behaviour. For example, instead of thinking that a student “always wants attention” you can start to realise that he may lack the skills needed to seek attention adaptively.

It’s more productive to frame behavioural issues in terms of what students are struggling with. For example, we might say that students “have difficulty persisting on challenging and tedious tasks” or “difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty and/or novelty”.

Identify unsolved problems

Student misbehaviour doesn’t occur in a vacuum – lagging skills alone won’t lead to a child swearing, screaming, hitting or punching. Instead, challenging behaviour comes when a student lacks skills, and an environment (teachers, parents, peers) demands those skills.

Once we’ve considered the lagging skills that may be contributing to problem behaviour, we then need to understand the specific conditions or situations (often called “antecedents” and “triggers”) that preceded that challenging behaviour – Greene calls these “unsolved problems.”

From Lost at School:

“If you don’t identify the problems that are precipitating a kid’s challenging behavior, it will be hard to know what you’re working on, the problems will remain unsolved, and the kid’s behavior will persist. But if you identify the kid’s unsolved problems, you can work with him to solve them, and his challenging behavior will subside”

Unsolved problems may include things like “transitioning from recess to English”, “Working collaboratively with Joseph on their research assignment” or “Persisting with the distributive law worksheet when she gets stuck.”

Unsolved problems can’t be too general – “Following teacher instructions”, or “hearing the word ‘No’” don’t tell you enough about the specific circumstances that lead to the challenging behaviour, or the reasons that situation is difficult for the student.

From Lost at School:

“Whether a kid is sulking, pouting, whining, withdrawing, refusing to talk, crying, spitting, screaming, swearing, running out of the classroom, kicking, hitting, destroying property, or worse, you won’t know what to do about the challenging behavior until you understand why it’s occurring (lagging skills) and pinpoint the specific situations in which it occurs (unsolved problems). Lagging skills are the why of challenging behavior. Unsolved problems are the when.”

So, unsolved problems and their associated lagging skills drive problem behaviour, but how do we understand this for each “challenging kid” we encounter? Greene provides an an excellent tool for this – the ALSUP.

ALSUP (which stands for Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems) is a tool that you can use to table the different things going on for a young person with challenging behaviour.

The ALSUP is great for getting everyone on the same page. Without a tool like this, it’s easy to be working on mismatched problems. The adults in the situation are “fixing” one thing (like the kid’s lack of respect for authority), and the kid is still struggling with another thing (like his difficulty moving from one learning space to another) – the result: more frustrating behavioural issues and everyone gets angry.

Here is a ready-to-print/fill copy of the ALSUP from Greene’s website. Begin by sitting with the child (and ideally their parent/carer and any teachers and school leaders working with the student) and working down the list of lagging skills. Don’t do this without the child and don’t be tempted to pre-fill the form – that defeats the whole collaborative purpose of the thing.

Importantly, the ALSUP is not a behaviour checklist, threshold mechanism or diagnosis tool; it is a discussion guide. The ALSUP will help you work out what’s going on for the young people you’re struggling with and begin to work with them on their unsolved problems. Wherever possible, these problems should be split rather than being “clumped” collections of different issues.

You are now armed with a detailed understanding of what is causing problem behaviour and when and where it is happening you’re ready to pick two or three high-leverage unsolved problems and get to work on solving them collaboratively with the child.

Solve problems collaboratively

There are three options for doing this – Greene refers to these as Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Let’s have a quick look at each one.

Plan A

In Plan A, adults solve problems unilaterally. This generally involves imposing their will on a student. Often, we start these conversations with something like the words I’ve decided, e.g. “Because you’ve done x, I’ve decided that y will be your consequence”

This sort of response from adults can easily trigger kids to fly off the handle further. This is because the solution is uninformed. It’s based on adult theories about the cause of the problem and doesn’t include any information from the person whose behaviour you’re trying to change: the student.

Plan B

In plan B, teachers and students solve the problem collaboratively rather than unilaterally. This sees the student and teacher work together to understand and co-design a solution to the problem.

There are two ways to use Plan B – Emergency B and Proactive B. Wherever possible it’s better to use Proactive B. Because behavioural issues are usually highly predictable (something you’ll find once you use the ALSUP), it’s possible to predict most problem behaviours and help students solve them before they become a problem.

Emergency B is needed when we haven’t proactively solved a problem. It’s still more effective than Plan A, but after an incident has happened, young people with behavioural issues are usually emotionally heightened, and this can make it hard to collaboratively problem-solve with them. (If you work in a classroom, we’re not telling you anything you don’t know here – “emotionally heightened” can sometimes mean “bat shit crazy”).

Plan C

Plan C involves setting aside an unsolved problem. You don’t need to consider this as “enabling” or “giving in” to problem behaviours. Instead, Plan C is about prioritisation. This lets teachers and students focus on improving the highest leverage unsolved problem(s) first, and not overwhelming students with too much at once.

You don’t teach students to multiply numbers and multiply algebraic terms at the same time – you set aside the pronumerals until a student has his multiplication tables covered. It’s important that you scope and sequence behavioural skills in a similar manner.

Use three steps to solve behavioural problems collaboratively

So, we know that Plan B is the best approach to helping students learn lagging behavioural skills, but how do we do it? According to Greene, there are three important steps to doing Plan B well. Let’s check out each one.

1.      Empathy

The goal of this step is to quickly achieve an understanding of the student’s concern or perspective on a given problem. Adults should start this conversation with something like “I’ve noticed that….” and end by asking “what’s up?”. For example, you might say: “I’ve noticed it’s been difficult for you to move from whole-class-teaching-time into independent practice in our History classes, what’s up?”

After this initial inquiry, you then want to respond with empathetic listening strategies to drill into the problem from the student’s perspective. Green provides a superb cheat sheet on the whole conversation structure here.

2.      Define the problem

Only after you’ve got a comprehensive understanding of the student’s perspective of the problem, should you declare your perspective of the problem. You want to be careful not to focus too much on your ideal solution instead of the concerns you’ve just heard from the student. Housing your concern in one of the following two categories is a good way of doing this:

  • Explain how the problem affects the student
  • Explain how the problem affects other people

3.      Invite the student to solve the problem collaboratively

Now you have two sets of concerns on the table, the student’s and your own. Only now should you enter any discussion about how to solve the problem at hand. The invitation is critical here – this problem solving is not something you’re doing to the student, but rather something he is doing collaboratively with you.

Start this step with a  restatement of concerns that were identified in the first two steps, usually starting with the words “I wonder if there is a way…” before describing to the student a situation where the problem doesn’t exist and then finishing with “Do you have any ideas?

Following from the example used above, you might say “I wonder if there’s a way we can do something about you not knowing how to start the writing tasks in History so that when we’re finished whole-class-teaching time you can get straight to your desk and get started. Do you have any ideas?”

It’s crucial in this step that the adult isn’t using ‘pseudo-consultation’ – you need to be genuinely open to ideas from the student, rather than having a clear idea of the outcome you want. If you do this process knowing it needs to end up at your idea, you’re not really doing Plan B, you’re sugar-coating Plan A.

Good solutions need to meet two criteria – they need to be realistic (i.e. both parties can do their part of the solution) and mutually satisfactory (i.e. both parties’ concerns will be addressed by the solution)

From here, you can start looking at some options for solving the problem together before agreeing to try something out and return to a ‘Plan B’ type conversation if it doesn’t work out. Again the cheat sheet has some great sentence stems to help you in this conversation.

Plan B conversations aren’t easy, but they will be much more effective in helping students change their behaviour than simply plastering a ‘Plan A’ band-aid on a complex behavioural issue.

Key Takeaways

  1. Kids do well if they want to can. Shift your thinking about those “challenging kids” to be in a better position to help them improve their behaviour
  2. Identify unsolved problems. Catologue problem behaviours, their drivers and pre-cursors to give you a fact-base for helping students.
  3. Solve problems collaboratively. Combine ‘Plan B’ with ‘Plan C’ to prioritise and solve problems with students, rather than imposing solutions on them.
  4. Use three steps to solve problems collaboratively. Empathise, define and invite the student to work with you on solving the problems driving their behaviour.