Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Ridding Classrooms of Chronically Disruptive Students

Dealing with delinquents in the making

An eternally difficult problem that many school systems encounter is what to do with chronically disruptive students. One or two such pupils can rob an entire class of opportunities to learn.  Almost every teacher has had experience with a defiant child or teenager who demands constant attention.  I am not talking about the boy or girl who is a chatterbox, a “class clown,” or kids who must be reminded about completing projects or turning in homework.  I am referring to juvenile delinquents in the classroom.  These are youngsters who build themselves up by tearing others down.  They are constantly aggressive in the classroom and on the playground – pushing, shoving, and attacking.  At their worst, these students commit crimes in the classroom through acts of theft, assault, and vandalism.

As a teacher, you are always putting out fires, so to speak, when compelled to cope with this difficult student. He usurps time, attention, and resources that other children desperately need.  This is a student, who no matter what you do to try to interest him, no matter how hard you try to boost his self-esteem, he rejects you at every turn.  I recall a boy who was on probation telling me, “I really like school.”  When I asked why, he exclaimed, “I go to school to see my friends. I party my brains out at school.”  Most kids enjoy the social aspect of school.  However, this boy thrived by defying teachers and by turning the classroom into his private playground.  He was so disruptive that he had to be seated by the teacher’s desk, was often sent to the principal, had
e-mails about his misconduct sent to his parents. Despite all the trouble he caused, his teacher kept trying to help him and engage him in classroom activities. All to no avail.

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What to do with these chronically disruptive students is a formidable problem. Suspension leaves them unsupervised at home or on the streets (since usually parents work).  If they are placed in so-called “alternative schools” with others like themselves, little learning goes on. Their academic performance is not likely to improve, nor is their behavior likely to change.  All too often, alternative schools are simply dumping grounds for students who do not get along in mainstream classrooms.

It is a crime to allow these students to remain in regular classrooms and rob motivated students of the opportunity to learn.  It is a disservice to children who want to learn to have to come to school each day, terrified that they will be bullied, shaken down for lunch money, or terrorized in other ways.

For a minority of these trouble-causing students, mental health services may need to be provided.  Most likely, these kids will reject the help that counselors might provide.  From the point of view of these boys and girls, the problem lies not within themselves but with others who do not fall in line with their demands.

If students commit crimes in the classroom, it may be a matter for law enforcement to handle.  Otherwise, an investment must be made in special programs where these students are closely monitored in a strict environment, where a teacher (and perhaps an aide) is in charge of a small number of these delinquents in the making.  If they improve in their functioning in a highly structured classroom, they can earn their way back into an environment where boys and girls want to learn.  Such measures are costly.  But spending whatever funds it takes will pay huge dividends in educating boys and girls who want to be educated and possibly in turning around others who seemed hopeless..

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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