When Crisis Prevention Institute talks about managing student behavior, it goes much deeper than student management. It’s about building the character and independence of students. It’s about a student’s ability to stay rational rather than emotional; to be innovative and persistent when presented with challenges. Importantly, CPI acknowledges that no two students are the same. Strategies that work for one student might not work for another. As an educator with years of experience, I appreciate this. CPI doesn’t try to give me a singular philosophy that would guide my future classroom management; instead, it equips me with a variety of tools I can use when interacting with students of any age, helping me to get the best out of their unique and diverse personalities.

Participants in a CPI course learn that we cannot always control the behavior of others, but we can influence the behavior of others with our own behavior: negatively or positively. This same overarching philosophy is at the core of managing student behavior.

Common Themes of Student Behavior

While every student is unique, behaviors can fall into common themes that can provoke an emotional response from even the most experienced teacher. Behaviors that I am all-too familiar with.

Previous Experience. A student’s history might affect the way the student is perceiving work in my class. I can hear a chorus of my own past students telling me that “my last teacher never made me show my work.”

Ugh.

When students say things like this, it triggers an emotional response. I could be frustrated with the student for challenging my expectations, or I could be frustrated with the student’s past teachers for not doing things in a way that I believe is the right way. Many educators would agree that these emotional responses are possible on the regular during instruction, but many of those same educators would agree there is no place for emotional responses when one is trying to teach a class.

Demanding to Know Why. Another example that can invoke an emotional response is when a student says, “Why does this even matter? When will I ever need to use this in real life?”

Again, students can invoke an emotional response from experienced educators (like me) when I must prove the validity of my subject. A smart approach to managing student behavior is for educators to control what they can control (myself) before even delving into tools they can use to manage students.

It Starts With You

Managing student behavior involves ways to, obviously, manage students. But only until we’ve settled on ways to manage ourselves as educators. Dr. Rick Dahlgren encourages teachers who feels plagued with challenging classroom behaviors to keep their cool, disrupt the disrupter with silence or redirection, or just move on. These reminders encourage educators to remain rational in emotion-inducing moments and to address poor behavior at a later, more appropriate time.

Reminders like this would have been especially helpful early in my career.

For the first twelve years of my career, I was a high school English Language Arts (ELA) teacher. I remember once—in my haste to record student responses—misspelling a word on the board. I don’t remember what the word was, but I know it was a word I should have known how to spell. One of my students chuckled and called out to the class something along the lines of, “Dude wants to teach us English but doesn’t even know how to spell!” Instead of taking a CPI Supportive Stance, collecting myself, and calmly changing my spelling, I cringingly remember belittling this student in front of his peers, suggesting that he could correct my spelling once he had an “A” in the class. My response was emotional and inappropriate; as you might expect, my relationship with that student never recovered.

As educators, we need to manage ourselves before we can even begin successfully managing student behavior.

The Role of Adverse Child Experiences

We also need to understand the thinking of students before attempting to manage them. Meeting students where they are means accepting that they don’t always arrive at school focused on success. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) may negatively affect a student’s academic performance, attendance, and/or behavior. Understanding where our learners are emotionally and mentally is a critical step before we attempt to use any one tool to manage a student’s behavior.

Unfortunately, too many of students have experienced ACEs for the existence of these circumstances to go unacknowledged. Managing student behavior doesn’t mean that we must address ACEs by openly discussing these traumas. Instead, we need to observe and to interact with students to find out those buttons that, when hit, spark trauma reactivity. Take time to get to know each student’s proclivities. Some students have big traumas that spark only minor academic, attendance, or behavior issues; other students have minor trauma that sparks major academic, attendance, or behavior issues. The key is to remain nonjudgmental; the goal is to create an environment of trust with your students.

Managing student behavior requires us to be mindful of the existence of these traumas and pushes us to be cognizant of strategies to build rapport (rather than damaging it) in situations where students become adversarial towards us.

I’ll never forget one of the harder moments of my career when many of the students closest to me experienced the trauma of losing a classmate. Aside from being an ELA teacher, I was a swimming and water polo coach, and this young man was with these students and me every afternoon for about six months of the year. He was a senior in high school; we had all gotten to know him really well. After his death, some of the students needed to talk, some needed to be left alone. We went through weeks where some students were a little more likely to be reactive to one another and to me.

I remember one moment when I was pushing the team to get back to business as usual (I thought it was the best thing to do), and when I challenged this student about a routine play, he mouthed an expletive and retreated to the locker room. In that moment, I believed most of the team was benefitting from me trying to create a “back to business” environment where they could forget about our shared trauma for a while. However, some students, like this one, just needed more time.

In that moment, I knew not to take the challenge (or the expletive) personally; I knew the trauma we all had recently been through. However, this moment continues to serve as a reminder to me that students respond to trauma in so many ways. It also reminds me that we don’t often get to know the trauma a student is experiencing, like I was able to know and understand the trauma in this example.

Bringing Emotional Regulation into the Curriculum

To many of us in education, we have core values that absolutely want to acknowledge past trauma and to build rapport with our most challenging students. However, this is easier said than done when emotions get in the way. Promoting emotional self-regulation and modeling prosocial behaviors can help students communicate clearly, make constructive choices, and achieve optimal outcomes.

Recognize that emotional control impacts student success. Adults know the potential consequences of letting our emotions have gotten the best of us. Not all children do, which can negatively impact their likelihood of success as students. It’s vital to understand that emotional self-regulation is just as critical as any other skill in becoming adaptive and functional.

Work with the other adults in a child’s life. A child’s emotional development should not be left to a single professional or parent. Aim to create consistency in adult-child interactions, applying the principles of emotional self-regulation across a range of settings and situations.

Weave self-regulation language into academic coursework. It’s important to maximize critical instruction time but guiding the emotional development of your students as you teach helps them establish an awareness of, and a consistency in, their behavior.

Kevin Mabie, Ed.D. is a Global Professional Instructor at Crisis Prevention Institute, and an educator with over 20 years of experience as a high school teacher and administrator. Dr. Mabie also facilitates trainings for the National School Reform Faculty.