They had hard pasts, lots of trauma and more than their share of tough breaks. Feeling sorry for them was not going to be the answer. They could zero in on a softie a mile away. They knew ways to manipulate that I didn't even know existed. These kids take a special kind of management style.
Here's a few that have helped me...
1. Be consistent. Then be consistent again. Then be even more consistent. When it comes to kids who have had multiple family situations (tossed around from place to place), consistency is going to be your best friend. My girls didn't know what to do when "no" actually meant "no" and "yes" actually meant "yes." It took them a while to get with the program, but that consistency told them that they were safe and that they were important.
2. Celebrate the small successes in a small way. I'm not one to reward the behavior of one student for something that is expected of every other student in the room. Why should my kid get a piece of gum for sitting at her desk, when every other child is sitting at their desk without a piece of gum? Don't get me wrong. Getting one of my girls to sit at a desk was a big accomplishment, but I don't think the road to that accomplishment needed to be littered with candy and small toys. Kids from hard places need something more than "stuff," they need praise. Use your words to reward that student. Praise her in front of the class and watch her beam. Put your words onto a sticky note and stick it to her desk. She will treasure that little yellow square of paper more than any candy or trinket. I promise.
3. Don't believe everything you hear. Actually, don't believe anything you hear. I'm not an expert, but I've travelled this road three times. Each time I've walked this road with an incredibly convincing liar. I'm not talking about your run of the mill kid lies. I'm talking about some intricate, well thought out lies. Who knew a nine-year-old could be that conniving? When a kid grows up in a less than ideal situation, lies sometimes become part of how they cope with life. My girls used lying to meet their needs and stay out of trouble. Who could blame them? It's all they knew. When it comes to that hard-to-handle kid in your class my advice is, check their story. Every time.
4. Use a pleasant voice even when you want to scream. Remember the commercial that gave this advice: "Never let them see you sweat." That's the attitude you need to take with these kids. They are used to people not liking them. They are used to people yelling at them and saying harsh things. If you really want to make an impact, say everything with a pleasant voice. They won't quite know how to take you. More importantly, they won't know what buttons to push if all the buttons lead to a gentle voice that answers calmly. Score one for the teacher.
5. Treat everyday as a new day, even when you don't want to. Think about that kid in your class that is hard to manage. You probably don't like her very much. You probably secretly hope she is absent. She made yesterday horrible for everyone, especially you, and you don't have high hopes for her behavior today. Smile at her anyway. Tell her you think today is going to be a great day for her. Tell her that you believe in her, because the truth is, one day she just might be able to do it. We never know. You may be the only one in her life right now telling her those things.
The bottom line is: These kids are hard. They're hard to get through a lesson with. They're hard to control during transitions. They're hard to supervise during independent work. They're hard. A kid like that can be managed. They just have to know that your answers are firm, your praise is sincere, you will check their stories, you don't have any buttons to push and that tomorrow they get to try again with a clean slate.
That's all? No problem. I'll get right on that. If only life played out as easily in the real world as it does in my head...