How to Handle Troubled Students

Yesterday, I blogged about wise leaders who find the right words to say in conversations with students. I suggested a simple formula at the end:

The right word is about using the right term at the right time with the right team.

Today, I’d like to dig deeper on this topic and suggest practical ideas on how to leverage the right words with students. Let’s begin with some foundational facts:

  • At times, students need inspiration more than information from us.
  • At times, students need us to look past their faults and see their needs.
  • At times, students need us to speak to the heart, not just the head.

We’ve all experienced moments of conflict, where a student acts out and says or does something completely inappropriate. Our human instinct is to enforce the rules. After all, our campus or organization needs order. It’s in these moments of disruption that we’re all on alert: emotions are running high, the air is tense, and everyone seems to be watching our every move.

I have learned that this is when a counter-intuitive response can create a teachable moment. What if we saw this as an opportunity for progress, not just due process? What if our words were about growth, not merely about grading; about mentoring, not mere management?

What if we got past the enforcement of rules to think about the empowerment of students?

Variables that are in Their Control

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written much about utilizing the right words when we affirm a student. She talks about cultivating either a “fixed mindset” or “growth mindset” in kids, based on the words we use to encourage and praise them. She discourages statements like:

  • You are smart.
  • You are gifted.
  • You are the best.

Instead, she suggests using terms like:

  • I love how hard you worked.
  • I love the strategy you used on that problem.
  • I love how you look out for other students.

The first list of terms tends to develop a fixed mindset, one that the receiver either accepts or rejects. But either way, it’s a fixed idea. They begin to think: Either I’m smart, or I’m not; either I’m gifted, or I’m not.

The first represent variables that feel “out of the student’s control.” The second list represent terms that are more about effort—a variable that’s in a student’s control. Dr. Dweck believes if we’re going to empower our students, we must choose words that affirm controllables in their lives.

Speaking into the Context

There’s an old story about Teddy Stollard, a third grade student in Miss Thompson’s class. Teddy was a troublemaker, always causing chaos in the hallways and disrupting the classroom. The noise constantly drew attention to him.

Miss Thompson was at the end of her rope when Christmas break came along in December. She was ready for the holiday. On the final day, she allowed the kids to have a party and do a gift exchange. Some of the students brought a gift to their teacher. Miss Thompson noticed Teddy’s gift for her was crudely wrapped in newspaper. Not wanting to invite a conflict, she opened the gift and smiled at what was inside—even though she was a bit surprised. She pulled out a half-empty bottle of perfume. Then, she pulled out a pearl necklace with most of the pearls missing. Immediately, her students began to snicker. To prevent a further disruption, Miss Thompson quieted the giggles by trying on the necklace and the perfume. She told Teddy how much she liked them and that she was proud to wear them.

When the bell rang, all the kids left, except for Teddy. He remained to say something to Miss Thompson. It was their first serious conversation all year.

“Miss Thompson,” he mumbled. “I’m really glad you like the pearls. Ummm. You look just like my mom used to look.” There was a pause. “And Miss Thompson. I’m glad you like the perfume, too. You smell just like my mom.” Then, he walked out of the room.

She suddenly realized she needed to check Teddy’s files in the office to find out what was going on at home. Come to think of it, she hadn’t seen Teddy’s mom all year. When she examined his file, it all made sense. When Teddy was in Kindergarten, his mother had gotten very sick. By the first grade she was bed ridden. She died while he was in the second grade. Now, Teddy was coping with life without a mother.

Miss Thompson recognized she needed to leverage her words. She stopped just addressing Teddy’s conduct—and began addressing his context.

January was a transforming month. As Miss Thompson connected with Teddy, he responded in grand fashion. He stopped rebelling. He wasn’t a distraction anymore. In fact, by the end of the semester, he became a model student. He even helped Miss Thompson after class, erasing the chalkboard. When the school year ended, Teddy almost didn’t want to leave.

Years went by, and Miss Thompson taught many more third grade classes. She did her best to remember the lesson of Teddy Stollard. It became easy about a decade later. Teddy wrote her a note:

Dear Miss Thompson,

I just wanted you to know, I graduate from high school today. I bet you thought I could never do that. Thank you for helping me through the third grade. You are the reason I made it this far.

                                                            Love, Teddy Stollard

Needless to say, she saved the letter. Four years later, she got another one:

Dear Miss Thompson,

I just wanted to write and tell you, I graduated from college today, second in my class. I bet you thought I could never do that. Thank you for helping me through the third grade. I would not have made it without you.

                                                            Love, Teddy Stollard

Five years later, Miss Thompson got her third and final letter from Teddy:

Dear Miss Thompson,

I wanted to write you and tell you I am now Theodore Stollard, M.D. I graduated medical school today, first in my class. I bet you thought I could never do that. I wanted to thank you again for making such a difference in my life, when I was nine years old. You are the reason I made it here.

One other thing, Miss Thompson. This summer, I am getting married. I wondered if you would be willing to come and sit where my mother would have sat, in the ceremony. I can’t think of anyone I would rather have there. Please write and tell me if you can.

                                                            Love, Teddy Stollard

Miss Thompson did take part in Teddy’s wedding. It was a milestone and a reminder of the difference someone can make when they choose to give the blessing to someone else. The one who deserves it least is often the one who needs it the most.

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How to Handle Troubled Students