Simple Truth: Trying Kids Need Love, Too.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the interactions that I’ve had over the course of my career with ‘trying’ kids.  

You know the ones I’m talking about:  They talk over their peers, they use unkind words, and they show up late for class.  They sit in other people’s seats and refuse to move.  They seem to find a way to break rules at every turn.  You think about them all of the time — worried about what they are going to do next and you spend TONS of time talking to colleagues about the new and interesting ways that they’ve driven you nuts from day to day.

Used to be, I’d go full on Enforcer on those kids.  Punishment was my primary intervention.

Want to blurt out in class?  You’d better be ready to have your Pride Guide signed.  Using unkind words in class?  I’m going to fuss at you until you cry to show you what unkind words look and feel like.  Determined to break rules that other kids follow without question?  I’m calling you out in front of everyone, calling the principal, and then calling your parents.

Then — just to rub salt in the wound — I’d use condescending language like, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to follow the rules?” or “Sooner or later, you are going to figure it out.”

Most of the time, I believed that punishment mattered for trying kids — and I believed I was the right person to deliver those punishments.  “If these kids don’t learn how to behave,” I’d say, “they are NEVER going to succeed in life.  SOMEONE has to teach them that there are consequences for their actions.  SOMEONE has to hold them accountable — and if their parents can’t do it, I will.”


What I didn’t bother thinking a whole lot about was an argument that my friend Chris Tuttell makes all the time:  Trying kids aren’t TRYING to be difficult. 

Chris rightly believes that no child wakes up in the morning intending to be unkind or to use hurtful language or to be in trouble at every single turn.  And more importantly, kids who are struggling to meet our behavioral expectations have the same mental and emotional needs as the kids who please you the most day in and day out.

She writes:

Read that again, guys:  ALL kids want praise.  ALL kids want acceptance.  ALL kids want hugs and love and to know that someone is proud of them.  

More importantly, all kids DESERVE praise and acceptance and hugs and love and to know that someone is proud of them.

But is that what happens in our buildings?  ARE we taking steps to let every kid know that they have value and that we believe in them?  Or is our pride and praise reserved for the small handful of kids who act in ways that we expect?


The good news is that this is an easy fix. 

Find a trying kid today.  Take a minute to tell him the things that you love the most about him.  When you see him following rules, celebrate him — and make sure it happens in front of his peers, who have probably come to see him as more of a pest than a partner.  Call home and let his mom know that you believe in him and love him and are excited to have him in your class.

Doing so will help to redefine that child in the eyes of everyone. 

His peers will see him as an equal instead of as an annoyance.  His parents will appreciate and support you when you need their help.  And HE will start to see HIMSELF differently.  Because he feels acceptance from you, he will be less restless in your classroom and he’ll try harder to meet your expectations because he won’t want to let you down.

Doing so will also give you the emotional leverage to be heard in the moments where you have to deliver correction.  It’s a heck of a lot easier to point out misbehavior or to get trying kids to invest effort in changing when they realize they aren’t your target anymore.

But most importantly, YOU will stop seeing the trying kids in your class as annoyances and start seeing them as the amazing, inspiring people that they have been all along.

That matters.


Related Radical Reads:

Is Your School a “Rules First” or “Relationships First” Community?

Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to Be Noticed.

2 thoughts on “Simple Truth: Trying Kids Need Love, Too.

  1. Philip Cummings

    When I end up in the hallway with a trying child who’s being difficult, I typically start the conversation by telling them specifically what I value about them. Then, I very specifically tell them what the behavior is that I’m seeing from them and why it is not okay. I also tell them what message the behavior is sending to me or to others around them. Next, I say, “I’m sure I don’t know the full story; what am I missing?” Their response often provides me further insight into what’s really happening. Then, we talk about ways to make things right. We never go back into the room until we have a plan, and they know Mr. C is one of their biggest fans. I’d love to say this always works. That would be a stretch, but I do think it builds a relationship that helps things keep moving in the right direction.

  2. ctuttell

    Hey Bill,

    Thanks so much for reflecting on this. You know I am passionate about the kids that people tend to label “those kids” – while I know it is important for kids to understand that there are expectations in classrooms, schools, society, etc. I think we often lose sight of the fact that kids are often acting/reacting to something that may not even have anything to do with us — we need to be less egocentric and more kidcentric —

    Recently I heard a senior address her peers at a dinner we had for the Enloe Drumline and she said, “I want to thank you all for the last 4 years, I would not be standing up here if it weren’t for all of you – high school has not been easy for me but you all made me feel like I was part of something and I will remember you for the rest of my life. I will always look back and remember the impact you have made on me.”

    How many kids would say the same thing today?

    School has not been easy for me because (fill in the blank)

    I know teaching is hard work but I challenge ALL of us to remember that we are privileged EVERY DAY to spend our time with kids – they are: miracles, potential, joy, hope and so much more. If you don’t believe that, turn the mirror on yourself and reflect on whether or not you should continue in this profession.

    Thanks for always being so honest Bill…I am grateful and honored to call you a friend.

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