Working through stuck-ness with problematic pupils…

Find out how to work through one of the most stressful elements of teaching…

So how are things going for you at this point in term? Darker nights, Black Fridays, and feeling like a rabbit in the Christmas headlights? It feels like just that last little bit before the uplift that comes when the end of term is in sight.

Wherever you are with it all, and whether you are working with pre-school, primary, tweens, teens – chances are you’ll have one or more kids you teach who you’re finding hard going.

Maybe it’s an inability to focus. Maybe it’s a resistance to following instructions. Maybe it’s disruptive behaviour, joking around or spoiling behaviour. Maybe it’s denigration, dominance, or unpleasantness to other classmates (and what a red flag that is for us!). Maybe it’s being slippery with work, deceitful, even. Maybe it’s chronic demotivation and cynicism being projected out into your well-planned activities…Perhaps it’s outbursts of inappropriate behaviour that make you feel like these lessons with this class and with this child are filled with landmines…

I suppose one of the incredibly stressful things about teaching is the notion that we should be in control of our class. And in part this is an important expectation, that we are able to create and maintain a safe and supportive…nay, even a dynamic learning environment…

But here’s the thing…The truth of the matter is that we can’t control other people. We can have concern for them, but we can’t actually make them want what we want. Or do what we say with good heart. And these kids are the grit in the oyster that remind us of that uncomfortable truth.

So what to do? How can we work with that grit, and create a pearl?

Of course, we can’t submit to this reality and allow our classrooms to be anarchic. We certainly can’t allow the mindset of one to infect the atmosphere and opportunity for all…

And what happens when you’ve followed the behaviour policy to the letter and administered the sanctions, but there’s still no traction. In fact, sometimes even the dynamic worsens?

Click through to the expansion of the article on my website for more:

One thing that helps enormously, is to refocus, away from the narrative of who that child has become as a result of their pattern of behaviour, the way their relationship with their learning, with you, with their peers is manifesting in their behaviour…And to gather your attention to what IS in your control – YOU – and how you show up around this young person.

What works: Contextualising and reframing what’s going on is an important way of re-setting ourselves, so that we can show up with a fresh perspective and begin anew with a less depleted mindset, more resourcefulness, optimism, and creativity.

  • Acknowledging the legacy of the pandemic and the rising tide of anxiety in the population at large – and how that trickles down into the lives of children. Recent research shows that though there were some gainers from learning in captivity, there were also a lot of young people whose mental health deteriorated. There has been a proliferations of Adverse Childhood Experiences. This means that there is a greater mental health vulnerability in this cohort moving through their education.
  • When children and adolescents are struggling, it most often manifests through their behaviour. As psychologist and founder of the Non-violent Communication movement, Marshall Rosenberg said “All behaviour is a communication. Of a skill not yet learned, or a need not yet met.”. When we detoxify the narrative we create about a young person’s bad behaviour and frame it as an unsolved problem, or a matter of lagging skills, as Dr Ross Green’s book The Explosive Child discusses, we can approach the relationship from a more focused and empowered standpoint, than creating the narrative that we all often do about situations that threaten our equilibrium or the equilibrium of our class…
  • We can catch our thought biases at work – eg mind-reading…and creating narratives of the young person’s intentions…Are they manipulative master-minds who are hell-bent on wrecking things? Are they? I am minded of this quotation from Mona Delahooke’s excellent book Beyond Behaviours… “We need to get beyond the notion that kids only use challenging behaviours to establish authority, test limits, or avoid tasks, to include the idea that challenging behaviours can be signals that the child is experiencing excessive stress.”
  • If we accept that challenging behaviour is the tip of the iceberg, and being able to have restorative conversations so that we can break the conflict loop of ‘crime’ and punishment, gather more information about the young person’s own thought biases, feelings, motivations, drivers…we might be able to achieve – again – what Mona Delahooke calls the paradigm shift to seeing the behaviour as useful information about the inner life of the child, and how to educate them.
  • We can only start to get beneath the behavioural tip of the iceberg by fostering and developing psychological trust with the child in order to work towards more authentic and vulnerable communication, in order to help co-regulate with them, so that their own ‘Window of tolerance’ opens so that instead of being defensive or withdrawn and unable to acknowledge or reflect on the situation, they are willing to take a look at what lies beneath the dynamic they are bringing to their relationship with you in class and in their work…So that work reframing and slowing down our frustrated, revved up adult brains is absolutely vital if we are to be able to create that vital connection – in order to get traction with the child, and enable the learner to appear.

Behaviour management systems have their place in school life – but the research does not recommend them as a disciplinary technique. This goes back to the origin of the word discipline – which is not about punishment or consequences at all. It is about learning.

And where we have pupils trapped in cycles of behaviour that is destructive to their relationships with staff and or peers, and also their learning and growth, they can become either gladiatorial, or shut down and unreachable.  We have to accept that they are always going to follow people first, not tasks. And the connection, or reaching out, is not going to come from them, it has to come from the grown-ups in their lives.

Essence of the process:

  • Develop trust by listening and developing rapport and understanding. This meets their need for acknowledgment, attention (of a different kind than they may be used to), and autonomy – in respect of what they want, what their choices are, what they can do…Enable the dynamics between you to become safer, more predictable, create a sense of routine in how you will (co) operate…
  • Develop engagement – your authentic, curious and creative engagement with them may be the gateway to you discovering what engages them…and to an extent, you can use that information to plan learning experiences that will gain leverage.
  • Increase positive experiences and optimism – helping dial up positive feelings – that they are safe, that they are seen, and understood, that their whole self is held in mind, not only the bad parts that can emerge in their behavioural habit loops.
  • Target their autonomy, don’t give them solutions, or tell them what to do differently. Get them involved in making decisions about what they want, what choices they have, what they can try next…Celebrate and champion those moments when they honour their choices and their actions bear fruit. But also notice and hold them to account when they fall short.
  • Double down on increasing positive ‘affect’ – positive feelings. Try to incorporate deliberately fun and more playful elements in your lesson planning. This will benefit all. Unfortunately when we teach a class with one or more ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ pupil, we can understandably become more tightly controlling in our approach. You want to get some laughter that everyone – especially your challenging pupils – can enjoy – this again develops traction because when we’re able to laugh together we increase a sense of belonging, which in turn stokes that sense of safety and trust.
  • Voila – a positive cycle…

Behaviour management systems with their points levelling up on the school database and converting into escalating detentions and exclusions, tend to have the assumption, Mona Delahooke says, that the young person’s behaviour is ‘top down’ – a deliberate, intentional, action as opposed to a bottom up (mal)adaptive coping method, coming from the unconscious, survival instinct in the face of stress, threat, uncertainty.

Dr Dan Siegel speaks most emphatically on this subject in his latest book ‘Intraconnected’ – how we have culturally been sold the lie of the separate self, and the emphasis on individualism…

He talks of three ways of being: Me, We, and Mwe… The ‘me’ response to each other is very much ego-driven. And I’m going to unpack that by applying it to the day to day world of teaching…

ME stance: I am disappointed in you. What you did was unacceptable. You know the rules. You are old enough to do better. I will impose this sanction. You will get on with the sanction and be responsible for never doing that disappointing thing again.

Here we can see there is a transaction. You did this. I’m doing that, now you need to do better. But there’s not such a great sense of how…or how within the relationship. And of course then there’s the issue of shame – punishment is administered, you did a bad thing, you’re a bad pupil. Bad pupils get detentions and exclusions.

The ‘we’ perspective very much honours that sense of relationship – we are going to collaborate, we are in this together…Here’s what we will do going forward…But again, that can have its pitfalls, it can mean that we could be puled very slightly out of role and into collusion, where for instance, we might make special concessions and overlook certain situations in order to pursue the development of that connection…It’s empathic, but as the title suggests, there’s a loss of the ‘me’ getting subsumed in the ‘we’…

The MWe stance as Dan Siegel coins it, is empathic, connected, but there is also a clear sense of the separate subjective self, grounded in purpose, values. Bringing this energy to stuck situations is important where you want to achieve engagement, acknowledgement of the situation, agency – to come together see the problem safely and more fully and empower the young person to take the higher path and be able to motivate them to do so through your connected understanding…

It contains both the borders and edges of what’s ok and what’s not ok, but also delivering on active compassion to get leverage on the points of struggle or suffering (theirs, yours, the class as a whole!)

In essence – ESPECIALLY where your more difficult pupils are concerned, we need to use conversations with this containing, restoring element more and systems-based behavioural approaches as a last resort…And if we want to restore, repair, uplift the culture within the school and re-instate a culture of kindness and compassion – the soft soil of belonging in order for hard learning to take place, we cannot just leave it to the Heads of Year, nurses and pastoral specialists. We’re all needing to model it in order for the kids to internalize it.

If you’re interested in going further with these ideas, please contact me.

I provide a range of training for whole staff groups as well as those who work in senior pastoral roles in how to have meaningful conversations with young people on difficult, delicate topics, and re-engage the hard to reach. This work is based on coaching techniques as well as practical self-regulation and co-regulation tools.

The bottom line when dealing with difficult pupils is this…Does my intervention increase, or decrease this child or teen’s sense of safety? That is the essential basis for growth, and I hope this article gives some ideas about how we can act as a facilitating presence for kids who are stuck in damaging habit-loops to start to feel their way towards re-inventing themselves.

Wishing you joy as the festive season at school approaches at pace…

With love and gratitude,


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