Who Are Tough Kids and Why Are They Hard to Handle?

As a teacher, you’ve likely encountered your fair share of difficult students. Students have all sorts of different behaviors and personalities. Some are aggressive, others are reserved, some never follow rules, while others listen to everything. Just the same, you’ve likely come across some tough kids.

Your tough kids are students in your class that frequently misbehave or don’t comply. Most, if not all, of your students won’t comply or will misbehave at some point in time, but tough kids are a bit different. They’re students that regularly don’t comply with what you’re asking them to do, and often get angry, hostile, or worse in the situation.

Tough kids:

  1. Argue often with teachers
  2. Are frequently defiant to both their teachers and their peers
  3. Become aggressive and throw tantrums or fits
  4. Use coercion to get their way or solve a problem
  5. Are compliant less than 40% of the time to a teacher’s request.

Often, your first response when encountering a tough kid in the classroom is to react with shock, anger, or frustration which then leads to punishment. Other times, tough kids will use a coercion strategy of language and tantrums to get you to back down from your original requests. What’s important to note is that, while your tough kids might cause you all sorts of problems, that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

Why should you help your tough kids?

Tough kids face significantly higher rates of academic, social, emotional problems than their peers. Often their teachers give up on them, or behavioral systems don’t work to teach them the appropriate behavior they need to know. Because of this, that tough kid in your class faces some pretty stark realities. One, 65% of tough kids end up dropping out of school. Two, 45% of tough kids or behavioral disordered students are arrested within 2 years of leaving school.

Why does this happen to tough kids?

Tough kids practice something called “coercive pain control.” Coercive pain control happens when you try to reach your tough kid, only to have them ignore, delay, or respond aggressively until you give up on the process, and unfortunately the kid, entirely.

The basic coercive pain control struggle goes like this:

  1. You make a request to your student, framing it usually as a suggestion or question rather than using other compliance strategies. “Would you like to finish your assignment?”
  2. Your tough kid ignores the question and continues doing what they’re doing.
  3. You get more frustrated, so respond a bit differently, usually with something like “Please, I’ll help you out.”
  4. Your tough kid ignores again, but adds a delay this time. “Wait a minute, I’ll do it when I’m done with this.”
  5. Several minutes go by and your tough kid still hasn’t started their assignment. You’ve been through this before, and now you’re frustrated. You might raise your voice and threaten, saying something like “You better get your assignment done!”
  6. Your tough kid reacts to this, arguing back with you and making excuses. Because this has happened before, they bring up “you’re always picking on me” or simply say “I’m having a bad day.”
  7. Because you feel attacked by your tough kid you get more aggressive than you normally would. You yell at your tough kid to go to the principal now.
  8. Your tough kid explodes and starts throwing a tantrum or becoming aggressive.
  9. You’re so upset and flustered that you withdraw your request and sink into yourself. You think, “they don’t care, they’ll never learn.”

What problems does this cause for tough kids?

As a result of this, your tough kid is reinforced for all their disruptive behavior. But you’re also reinforced and rewarded for withdrawing your request. By withdrawing, you stopped your tough kid’s tantrum, and so, you feel as if it’s the easy and most efficient way of dealing with a problem.

All of this eats up classroom and instruction time. Your tough kids don’t do work, because they know they don’t have to, while you spend classroom time trying to get them to do their work. In fact, tough kids miss around 35% of additional instructional time! Even if it’s only small amounts of interruption a day, that time really adds up. As a result, your tough kids don’t learn the same social, emotional, and academic cues as your other students.

While tough kids can be frustrating for you to deal with, it’s important to remember what PBIS and other methods of behavior management teach us. Punitive consequences alone don’t change behavior, and you really can’t make or force students to behave. It’s important to understand your tough kids: what makes them tick, why they’re doing what they’re doing. By doing that you’ll have an easier to manage classroom, while also helping to build longer, more trusting and lasting relationships with your tough kids.

Linda Kutach is a behavior specialists working on the Behavior Team at Region 13. She specializes in School Safety and handling tough kid behavior.

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