Using Discipline without Stress to deal with an uncooperative student

In our second year of working with Discipline without Stress my teaching partner and I had a student with special needs.  Chronologically he was old enough to be in grade three but emotionally and cognitively, grade one was a much better placement for him.  Here is one experience with this boy that taught me a lot!


This past Monday morning when it was time to go to the gym for our regular Monday morning assembly, Casey had a photograph that a parent must  have given him outside; likely it was a snapshot of a birthday party that he had attended recently.  Being focused on the urgency I felt about getting to the assembly on time, I didn’t notice how much this photo seemed to have captured Casey’s attention.  As a result I got myself into a power struggle with him over putting it away.  I’m embarrassed to say it just got worse and worse!  Eventually it came to a point where I (foolishly) said that he couldn’t take the photo to the gym and from there, the situation really went downhill!

In hindsight, it would have been much smarter to spend just one moment longer to look at the photo with him, admire it, share his pleasure and then make the suggestion that it would be a wise move to put such a precious photo safely into a backpack.  But as they say, hindsight is 20/20!

Angry that I had told him to put the photo away, Casey refused to come to the gym.  To drive the point home, with great determination he ripped up his precious photo in my face.  Thanks to Discipline without Stress, I was able to send the other kids off to the gym unescorted, explaining: “Casey really needs me to talk to him right now. Do you think you can make it to the gym on Level D, all by yourselves?”

I asked Casey, “Who did you hurt by ripping up your photo?”  At first he said, “You made me do it!  It’s your fault!”  I ignored this and asked again:  “Who have you hurt by ripping up your nice picture?”    Well,  we went around in circles for a bit, but a moment later when I elaborated (“Who have you really hurt here?  Who’s the person who really cares about this picture?  Me or you?”) I saw a click happen in his brain.

He suddenly realized that indeed, he was the one who had been hurt by his actions––his picture was destroyed.  He became sullenly silent and started to walk with me to the gym.  When we got there he saw an opportunity to be uncooperative and said, “I’m not going in.  I’m going to stay right out here in the hall.”

Rather than get into another power struggle I said, “I can’t make you come in but I can’t leave you out here by yourself either.  I want to go in because I know the Grade 6’s are singing today and I want to see them.  I’ll just ask Mrs. Smith (an aide) to come and stand with you.”  Well, I’d piqued his curiosity with talk of the singing; he decided he would come in.

But before we got down the four stairs into the gym, he said to me,  “I’m not going to sit with the class.  I’m going to sit by you.”  So we stopped right there at the front of the gym and I said,  “I can’t make you sit with the rest of the kids, but you should know that if you sit beside me, away from the other kids in Grade One, all the people in the gym are going to be looking at you.  They’re going to wonder why you’re sitting with your teacher instead of with your class.  Is that what you want?”

Undaunted and still feeling contrary he said, “Well, I am going to sit with the class but I’m going to curl up in a ball on the floor,” to which it was easy to reply:

“I can’t make you sit up like all the other kids but if you curl up in a ball then everyone is really going to be looking at you and wondering what you’re doing––because that’s quite an unusual thing to do.”  He didn’t say anything more and just went to sit down––upright and in his proper place.


Here’s what I learned that day:

1. It’s important to take time to give genuine personal attention to a child who needs it in the moment, and;

2. There’s great value in responding calmly to a child who is angry––by pointing out choices and asking reflective questions.  Thank you, Dr. Marshall!