Just Say "No," Don't Throw!
How to Work with Students
Who Use Violence
to Refuse to Work in Class
In this issue, we focus on a question posed by a subscriber to the Behaviors and Classroom Management Blog. You can contact us with your question and you just might see it featured in a future issues. You can email me, Ruth Herman Wells, Director of Youth Change Professional Development Workshops or click Live Help on the bottom of any page on our website.
Suzanne is a teacher who emailed me for help teaching her students who are work refusers, but unlike most students who try to do nothing in class, some of Suzanne's students are becoming violent about it. If you are used to students who are more passive about not wanting to work in school, you may find it a whole different ball game when working with students who act out while making their refusal known.
Here is what Suzanne wrote:
"At our school we have been having difficulty dealing with children who when faced with work will throw things, or act out in very dramatic ways. How do you go about helping the child while protecting the education of your other students?"
Students Who Refuse to Work
2 Types, 2 Sets of Strategies
At the risk of a bit of over-simplification, there are probably at least two major reasons why student will act-out dramatically when faced with work. You can't necessarily use the same interventions with different types of work refusers. Well, you can use the same interventions but they won't work equally well with different kinds of students. Just as you can't use a single math text book or reading technique with every student, you can't rely on a single style of intervention, consequence or talk to work with the variety of students who refuse assignments.
Here is the first type of student who refuses to work in class. If you've been a longtime subscriber to The Behavior and Classroom Management Blog, you should find yourself on familiar turf and ready to move forward. This youngster is a student who we've covered many times before in many articles in this blog, so we'll just touch on this student this time, then move on to the second reason. If you want to review some of the previous articles on work refusal, check out our huge assortment of free educational professional development articles on the topic in our Educational Articles Index.
One reason that students may engage in extreme behaviors when faced with a task, is that the student has a mental health problem called Conduct Disorder. If you have been a subscriber to the articles in this blog, hopefully, you remember what you learned in past issues when we covered this topic.
The key points that we hope stuck with you from reading those articles are these: Children with conduct disorders (C.D.) lack a conscience so they do what they want, when they want, to who they want. C.D.s are your most misbehaved kids so there is a chance that if someone is routinely throwing items and is utterly unremorseful, that child could be conduct disordered. A child with C.D. can engage in serious misconduct at any time, but certainly, when faced with a distasteful task, that task can easily prompt bad behavior.
As you may remember, you must use a completely different set of techniques with C.D.s so the way you prevent and manage misbehavior with this portion of your students is very different from how you accomplish that goal with the rest of your group. So, Suzanne, for the possible C.D.s in your classroom, use the techniques we've offered you in previous issues. Can't locate those issues? Here again are our introductory training guides on Conduct Disorder. Want more details than offered in the two introductory articles? You can purchase our Conduct Disorders and Anti-Social Youth book, ebook, audio book or online training course to get all the information you need for this portion of your students.
As you may recall from the past issues, C.D.s are usually at least 11-14% of a typical mainstream classroom, so you can expect to always have at least a few to manage in every setting. So, it's well worth your time to have top-notch skills with this very difficult-to-manage population of students.
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The second major explanation why a student will chronically and violently refuse work is that the youngster is overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, upset, or hoping to avoid the chore. This youngster is like a pressure cooker who can explode. Years ago, families more thoroughly and reliably taught their offspring how to behave and manage frustration, and students' conduct reflected that.
With this group of misbehaved youngsters, you will have to teach them the self-management techniques that they did not master at home. You will also need to equip them with the motivation and attitudes that would foster better conduct. Our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop and books have hundreds of strategies on self-control, accepting assignments, and anger management. We have included a few of our favorites below:
Your Mama 101
If you don't have a class with the title of "Your Mama 101," then maybe now is the time to start one. This class can teach youngsters all the skills they need to manage their anger and aggression.
What are some of your youngsters learning about anger control at home and in the community? At home, anger may be screamed away, or drugged away, or dishes may be thrown. None of those behaviors are acceptable at your site, yet that is all the anger management that some children know. Until you teach your students to manage their anger, many will continue to be unable to behave in a socially acceptable manner.
Even though teaching anger control perhaps should not have to be your job, you may want to make it your job. Until you do teach those skills, you may find that there are no consequences, no rules– no anything– that will work as a substitute. You wouldn't expect math skills until you taught those skills. Similarly, you can't shouldn't expect anger control skills until you teach those skills. While, in theory, you can expect or want any behaviors you wish, until you teach students how to perform those behaviors, you probably won't see those behaviors.
Here's an example of a ready-to-use intervention that helps younger students who often lack patience and act out aggressively when frustrated. Use this silly mnemonic device to gently help students use more socially acceptable ways to attempt to decline a task: "Just say 'no,' don't throw."
Find Work With a Temper Like That
This strategy remains a favorite at our live workshops, so we will include it here. Ask your students to name all the jobs that they can do and throw things (or lose control) whenever they want. There are none. When your students figure that out, ask them if they will ever need to work.
Pro-Active Skill Training
Don't wait for the book to sail through the air. Pro-actively teach all your students the self-control skills they need. For Suzanne's situation, she could teach students what to say when they don't want to do a task, they don't know how to do it, or they need help.
You may assume that most children are able to say "I don't want to do it," which is a much better way of communicating than throwing a book. Be careful about that assumption. Children are not little adults. They may not know how to properly say that they'd prefer to forgo the chore. Give them the sentences they need so they can properly communicate with you.
Be very sure to address all three of the circumstances mentioned above. We recommend that the sentence begins with "yes." For example, you could give your students sentences such as "Yes, I know you want me to read that story aloud but I don't want to do it."
We recommend the "yes" as adults often appreciate that initial gesture of willingness, and including that word may make that sentence work successfully with a wide variety of teachers, coaches, parents, etc. rather than just with you.
Many teachers post their recommended three sentences on the wall of the classroom. A sample sentence: "Yes, I will do it but I really don't want to." Be sure to cover all the skills needed to manage work in your setting, not just the three circumstances noted here. So, for example, be sure to cover managing boredom during tasks; what to do when you are upset; managing frustration during a task; what to do when you hate a task; and so on. Remember: Any area that you do not cover, will remain a problem.
Talk About Work Refusal
Chances are that you have never even discussed with your students how often they should decline work. That means that your students are expected to adhere to a standard that you have never quantified for them. Assist students to identify how often work refusal is permitted each day in the work world, then help them establish a standard that is fairly similar. Now, your students have a quantifiable standard, and appreciate the logic behind it.
When you give an assignment to a youngster, no child will ever reply: "I watched Dad beat my Mom last night. Science just doesn't seem very relevant right now. Can I postpone this task?" Few youngsters will neatly identify their pain and request an accommodation so you have to provide them a way to gain relief on days that they are particularly troubled. Without a socially appropriate way to gain relief, some troubled students will act out.
Here are some methods that can eliminate the need to act out. For older kids who you suspect may face serious problems, allow them to identify "good work days" and "bad work days."
For younger children, you can make a mock- up of a traffic light, and have red be a "bad work day," yellow would be an "okay work day," and green is a "good work day."
If you worry that distressed students may take advantage of your accommodations, don't worry. You'll become their life line, and they won't jeopardize that connection. They will work as hard as they can on days they are able. Isn't that really all you should ask of a child who lives in pain?