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Handling Difficult Students:
Lessons from Mrs. G

Voice of Experience

In this weeks Voice of Experience essay, educator Perri Gibbons pays tribute to teacher Deb Graudins, whose measured, consistent approach with the most challenging students -- and her genuine care for them -- wins respect from students and colleagues alike. Its an approach all educators can learn from.

This weeks Voice of Experience essay was submitted by Perri Gibbons, an instructional assistant in an urban Indiana school district. Gibbons has worked for several years with Deb Graudins, a master teacher with 25 years experience working with challenging students. Gibbons felt compelled to share the story of one student in particular, in the hope that some of the approaches Graudins uses might help other teachers deal with difficult students. For the purpose of this essay, we will call the student Kevin.

Kevin arrived at school after the school year was already underway. It should have come as no real surprise that he showed up at our door, since he has been enrolled in several schools -- including ours once before -- in the past two years. The word was out that, while enrolled in his last school, Kevin had accumulated an impressive record of poor academics and behavior. In one incident, he threw a chair at his teacher.

Soon after arriving at our school, Kevin was assessed by the school support team and introduced to our class. He entered our classroom with his low-slung pants, exaggerated "gangsta" walk and mannerisms, a lousy attitude, and an enormous chip on his shoulder.


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Six weeks later, he announced to our class, "At first Mrs. G. was my worst enemy; today she is my best friend."


Mrs. Graudins used a variety of strategies to reach out to Kevin and bring about the transformation described. Her first purposeful move was to reach out to Kevins mother and make her an ally.

Kevins mother, for a variety of reasons, had a lot of antagonism toward schools in general and toward our school in particular. For that reason, Mrs. Graudins had to focus on separating herself from the problems Kevins mother perceived. It was important for Kevins mother to know that Kevin was his teachers primary concern, not previous issues with other teachers, students, or the school.

Mrs. Graudinss years of teaching experience had taught her that no child is all bad, and that all parents need and deserve to hear positive things about the children they love. She provided Kevins mother with a regular flow of information. Whenever possible, that information celebrated news of good behavior and positive effort.

It wasnt long before Kevins mother began to respond to the conversations Mrs. Graudins initiated. Many people were surprised when Kevins mother showed up at school for a scheduled conference -- after a string of no-shows for previous conferences. Mrs. Graudinss effort to keep Kevins mother informed -- always done with respect and courtesy -- had paid off, it seemed. She showed up at the conference because she felt safe, confident that she would not be attacked or blamed or put on the spot.


With help from the schools support staff, Kevin soon had a chart on which his behavior was recorded at regular intervals during the day. Like all the other students in Mrs. Graudinss class, Kevin also had a "goal card;" punches on his goal card provided quick reinforcement of good decisions and behaviors throughout the day. Special attention was paid to Kevins behavior during recess, lunch, and such special classes as art, music, and PE; historically, those less structured parts of the day had been problem times for Kevin.

In Mrs. Graudinss classroom, a completed goal card carries a reward. Kevin usually chooses one particular reward -- the one that allows him to be Mrs. Graudinss teachers assistant (TA) for a day. All the students understand the importance of that job. They know how Mrs. Graudins relies on her TAs. TAs wear special nametags and sit in a place of importance by her desk. They perform important tasks, including some simple discipline tasks such as rewarding "reading pillows" to those who are on task during literacy time.

When Kevin chooses to be a TA, he takes pride in handling the job seriously. Most importantly, he seems to identify with the teachers role in helping students learn and behave responsibly. As a TA, Kevin has come to understand that he and his peers bring problems on themselves when they make poor choices.


Mrs. Graudins uses another intervention with students that I call "heart-to-heart talks. During her heart-to-hearts with Kevin, she always makes certain he understands that she likes him very much -- even though she might not always like his behavior. She lets him know that her responses to his behavior are part of her job. It is her responsibility to make him a better student and help him learn. He might be angry about what she has to do, and he might even be angry at her for doing it, but she always takes time to remind him that she is not angry at him and that she cares about him. She tells him this even when he seems to be tuned out or is having a bad day.

From time to time, Graudins announces to Kevin, I'm so glad you're in my class. And she means it! Now I'm willing to bet that's something he's never heard before!

This is not to say that Kevin doesn't still test Mrs. Graudins by acting out occasionally, but he is learning that she does not give up on him. She holds high expectations for him, and she lets him know that she thinks he is capable of living up to those expectations.

Mrs. Graudins works on the premise that all children need and deserve physical affection too. She makes sure Kevin receives his share of shoulder-to-shoulder hugs, back and shoulder pats, and plenty of high-fives and smiles. In the beginning, Kevin seemed a bit uncomfortable with that kind of attention and would stiffen his body. Mrs. Graudins didnt react to that rejection, however. She knew his reaction might be caused by pent-up anger. Perhaps he reacted that way because accepting such attention was counter to the tough guy image he attempted to put up. Or maybe he just didnt know how to respond. But it wasnt long before Kevin relaxed. Maybe other students responses to Mrs. Graudinss physical attention modeled the appropriate behavior for Kevin. In any case, now Kevin even initiates high-fives!


In the classroom, Mrs. Graudins teaches all students to understand the behavior of their peers, especially those who might regularly exhibit poor behavior. She even enlists students help in applauding one anothers successes and mentoring each other to make the best choices.

Recently, during reading time, Kevin and a group of his peers were discussing a passage about learning from mistakes. In the group, Kevin volunteered that he has had to learn things "the hard way." Mrs. Graudins didnt just let that revelation pass. She picked up on Kevins comment. She was frank with the class about how difficult his student record had been and how hard he was working to improve it. The students picked up on the pride in her voice, and they echoed it to him. In addition, Mrs. Graudins regularly has Kevin stand on his chair to receive special recognition from the class for a job well done.

Kevin still makes mistakes. He still makes bad choices sometimes. But he is shedding his "bad boy" label as Mrs. Graudins continues to search for and refine ways to reach him and other troublesome students in her class.

I wanted to share Mrs. Graudinss story because I'm proud of her achievements with all her students. She is one of many dedicated teachers who work so hard -- but receive too little recognition for their efforts. These are teachers who know they win their biggest rewards by making a difference in children's lives. These are teachers all of us can learn valuable lessons from.