Secrets From a Behavior Intervention Pro: How to Get Your Students to Cooperate

22 December 2015
Open book in a classroom setting

“The kid needs to be paddled.”

“His mouth should be washed out with soap.”

“There are no consequences anymore. Bad kids just get one-on-one attention that reinforces their behavior.”

“Let the police deal with them.”

Do you ever hear comments like this in your work? Do you know staff who believe that kids who disrupt need to be dealt with severely at all times?

With over twenty years of experience as a Safety Assistant and Lead Instructor for Milwaukee Public Schools, here’s my philosophy on discipline, de-escalation, and dealing with difficult behaviors.

All behavior has meaning.

While I believe that there should be consequences for actions that disrupt a safe learning environment, my experience is that consequences only make a difference when we first—and foremost—address what’s causing the behavior.

Unless we know what the problem is, we can’t begin to come up with a solution.

So when I intervene with a student, one of the first things I do is get to the root of the misbehavior. What’s its cause, and what’s its function?

Then we go about dealing with it.

Effective intervention and consequences go hand in hand.

One cannot exist without the other.  

Here's the key to effective intervention and consequences:

In order for consequences to be effective, they have to be personally meaningful to the student.

Without powerful and meaningful consequences, a child will not learn how to develop self-discipline. And without self-discipline, a child will not develop the skills necessary to successfully maneuver this thing we call life.

For consequences to be effective, they must be meaningful to the student.

In fact, without self-discipline, a child will have a hard time with life in general, because in life, our actions have consequences—most especially our negative actions.

Kids need to understand this. Indubitably.

And I believe that in order to teach self-discipline, we need to deal with the difficult behavior, sometimes again and again until we get through.

Teach with concrete experiences.

Since young children especially learn through concrete experiences, we must have effective, immediate, meaningful consequences they can experience firsthand.

Think of a student who always skips everyone in order to be the first in line. A consequence for skipping the line is that the teacher guides that child to the back of the line, personally, while explaining that each time they skip, they will be taken to the back of the line.

Not only does this verbally tell the child what the consequences will be, it physically shows the child through a concrete experience that this behavior will not be tolerated.

After a few times, the child will learn that the teacher means what they say, and the child will start to develop more self-discipline.

Concrete experiences—not just verbal directions—are the most effective ways for kids to begin learning self-discipline.

The problem with zero-tolerance


I often see staff who want immediate consequences that usually involve suspensions.

Yet research shows that constant suspensions do nothing [PDF] to address or solve behavior problems.

In fact, a government report [PDF] showed that there’s a direct correlation between staff using constant isolation (suspension/expulsion) as disciplinary measures, and the high number of drop-out and incarceration rates.

This correlation affects students of color and students with disabilities at a significantly higher rate, as minority students are more likely to be suspended than other students.
Consider this.

Here are the Merriam-Webster definitions of the word discipline:

  1. punishment
  2. obsolete: instruction
  3. a field of study
  4. training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character
  5. control gained by enforcing obedience or order

Which form of discipline is more conducive to human growth and autonomy?

Teaching positive behavior depends on what part of the definition we focus most on, and what our ultimate goal is in working with children.

What we need to use instead of zero-tolerance

I don’t claim to have all the answers. But through all my years of working with challenging students and their behaviors, I have amassed powerful de-escalation skills, and the vital ability to be flexibly adaptable.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. It helps when I seek cooperation—not compliance.

Listening and verbal intervention are important because we as staff should not just be looking for a student’s compliance. We should be working toward receiving their cooperation.

Compliance is done when someone has to do something—it’s required.

Cooperation is done willingly—they do it because they want to do it.

Don't look for a student’s compliance. Work toward getting their cooperation.

2. I don’t take behaviors personally.

I can’t stress this enough. If our intention is to be great leaders and effective, skilled interveners, then we have to be sympathetic, compassionate, and NOT take kids’ behavior personally. When we do this, we’re able to rationally and effectively respond to kids’ malfunctions.

But we can’t do that if we’re unwilling to be flexibly adaptable to any given situation. We need to speak gently, listen intently, and figure stuff out as we go.

Because the cold, hard fact is that when it comes to intervention and de-escalation, what works one day, won’t work the next. And what worked for one kid won’t work for another.

That’s why finding personally meaningful consequences for a student helps us figure out what the real malfunction is, which helps remind us that, for the most part, their malfunction has nothing to do with us. And that helps us not take the situation personally.

With this, we must NOT plant our feet, get complacent, or avoid kids we deem “too difficult.”

Because we cannot pick and choose our students, but we can pick and choose our battles. And we can choose skills to prevent battles with our students.

Often, when I hear someone say that a kid’s mouth should be washed out with soap, or that a kid should be paddled, it’s because they’re taking something the kid said or did personally.

Then, I see that taking it personally pulls the adult into a power struggle, increasing their frustration to the level that they’re not able or willing to rationally detach, and as a result, they often become irrational and defensive themselves. This type of staff response most often results in a lose-lose situation.

Hurt people hurt others.

When we get our feelings hurt, we resort to defensive reactionary discipline.

However, if we stay in control of our own behavior and don’t take situations personally, we can use the moment to teach the child a better way of doing things.

Of course, this is easier said than done a great deal of the time. To make it work for me, I stop, breathe, stop, breathe again, and then respond.


3. I treat kids the way I’d like to be treated. And I speak to them the way I’d like to be spoken to.

Many of the students I work with carry enormous burdens of trauma. So I often ask this when I train teachers and other staff in how to intervene effectively:

If you’d never been shown care, compassion, and empathy, how would you know what it looks like? What it feels like? More importantly, how would you know how to give it to others?

Even when someone does know what it feels like to be treated with compassion and empathy, compassion and empathy go a long way in gaining that person’s cooperation.

After all, understanding the importance of being compassionate and empathic toward others is supposed to be what separates us from the animals. Though I’ve often seen great acts of kindness committed by animals.

Take, for example, my dog Charlie. Charlie is the most loyal, compassionate, and patient being I have ever come across. Regardless of what kind of day I’m having, or how short I may be to him, he is always lying in wait, patient for me to snap out of it. He is forgiving, he accepts me just how I am, and he gives me unconditional love and attention—especially when I need it the most, or am at my worst. He doesn’t hold grudges. He forgives and forgets immediately. And he is always willing to give me a second, third, and even fourth chance to get myself together.

I think of Charlie often, and try to be as he is, especially when I’m struggling to help a difficult child, or struggling to help an adult try methods that work.

4. I model desired behaviors consistently.

In all the years I’ve been working with children, these last five have been especially difficult. The difficult behaviors I see and deal with are escalating fast, and coming from children who get younger and younger every year. These kids we’re dealing with now are some of the most rage-filled, emotionally volatile children I have ever seen.

Sadly, very few are being taught how to deal with their anger in productive ways. 

But the good news is that each day is a brand new opportunity for us to model the behaviors we would like them to adopt. Every day is a day we can practice making things better, and doing things well. Every interaction we have with others can be a learning moment.

Each day is a new chance to model the behaviors we want students to learn.

Compassion, empathy, and positive behaviors have to be instilled and practiced consistently in order for children and teens to truly grasp the concepts and understand their value.

We, as the adults, as the educators, as the parents of these children, need to first and foremost, model the behavior we would like for them to possess.

How this all helps

In doing these things, I’ve discovered something about myself and my approach to modeling positive behavior:
The more time I spend with kids, the less I want to argue with them.

I really have no desire to use physical intervention, and would much rather talk my way out of any given situation. The more disrespectful and disruptive the child, the more intent I am on finding a way to reach this child. The more I want to show them different ways of doing things that are more conducive to their wellbeing.
Maybe this has something to do with what my husband calls “getting old,” although I prefer to call it “getting wiser and more mature.”
Maybe that’s why I’ve developed a knack for speaking to children so they actually listen, and getting them to cooperate with my directives.
But more importantly to me, I have earned their respect, and as a result, I have been able to help them get it together.

Quite honestly though, it’s more like they have helped me get myself together, to become the person I am. A person they needed me to be in the first place.

How about you? What are your favorite techniques for getting your students to cooperate?
Maria Navone is a Safety Assistant and Lead Instructor with over 20 years of experience working with children and teens in the Milwaukee Public Schools district (MPS). Maria is a Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Meritorious Instructor who has been training MPS staff in CPI programs since 1998. She’s been the Lead Instructor at MPS for the past 10 years, and is also the Lead Gang Investigator for her district. Listen to Episode 12 of Unrestrained for more on her strategies.