How to Teach Troubled Youth

At some point, every teacher will have troubled youth in their class. These students may appear reluctant, apathetic, and/or disengaged. When working with these students, patience is critical, and building relationships is the ONLY way you will have success. These students trust no one, and it will take time for them to truly understand that you are concerned about them and their own best interests.

Here are some suggestions for interacting and reaching these students:

  • Since success is built on success and not failure, compliment them on their successes. This will give them hope—the most essential ingredient for success and something they have had very little of.
  • Be wary of using any of the seven “deadlies”: criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, or rewarding/bribing to control.
  • Use caring techniques of listening, supporting, encouraging, respecting, trusting, accepting, and negotiating.
  • If a youngster is angry, do not take it personally. Ask, “Are you angry with me or the situation?” The anger will always come from a frustration in which you are rarely the cause.
  • Use the three principles on a regular basis:
    (1) positivity
    (2) empowering students with choices
    (3) asking reflective questions to promote thinking.
  • Teach choice-response thinking regularly. (Situation/Stimulus/Urge–Choice–Response)
  • Teach impulse management.
  • When referring to the Levels of Development do not ask these students to identify a level. They will think you are being coercive. Instead, just drop a comment, e.g., “Lee, please take a moment and reflect on the level you have chosen.”
  • When giving an option or choice always give THREE. Giving only two options may seem coercive to these youth. THEY WILL NOT TOLERATE COERCION IN ANY FORM. Reacting negatively to coercion is their way of staying in control and exercising power.
  • Teach a procedure for everything you want the students to do. Assume they know nothing. Even with home assignments, have them practice in class before giving them any assignment to do on their own. When they have practiced and visualized exactly how to attack the assignment so they feel confident in completing it, chances of their doing it significantly increase.
  • Use the hierarchy for motivating both responsible behavior and learning.
  • Always EMPATHIZE with them and then ask, “How are we going to handle the situation?” This approach elicits a procedure which will help them to help themselves.
  • Have students write in a journal the very first thing upon entering the class. Assure students that you will never read what they have written, unless they ask you to and give you permission. Writing how they feel is a clarifying and cathartic exercise for these students who constantly undergo a perception of alienation and stress.
  • Along these lines, periodically drop in a word (but don’t teach a formal lesson unless asked) about the importance of a good night’s sleep; exercise; and the problem of too much sugar and lack of fruits, vegetables, and calcium in their growing bodies.
  • Regarding reading: Most of these students do not. You may find that some of them get headaches when they read or that reading is physiologically painful to them. A simple change in WHERE they read may have an effect on them, such as moving out from a standard classroom with florescent lights to outdoors or incandescent lighting. Some may have visual perception challenges such as scotopic sensitivity.
  • Ask each student privately if he/she finds it painful to read or gets headaches from reading. The following are two excellent sources on this topic:

Finally, you may be their last chance in their formal schooling for them to develop positive mindsets leading to responsible and successful lives. Make it your habit not to be critical about small things in other people.