Expert Help with Student Acting-Out, Behavior and Classroom Management


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Our Behavior and Classroom Management Blog issues that answer your questions are always so popular. We  have listened to the many subscribers who wrote in, and will answer more of your questions again in this issue. Just like the participants in our live Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop, it is clear that subscribers like to set the topics, and get immediate solutions for their most challenging "kid problems."

As always, children and teens acting-out is a hot topic, but this blog issue also takes a look at child and adolescent self-harm, which can be thought of as acting-in.

classroom management expertThe questions featured in this issue come from our recent Breakthrough Strategies Workshops' participants. If you would like to attend one of our upcoming behavior and classroom management conferences, our professional development schedule is here.

I'm Youth Change Workshops Director and Professional Development Instructor Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. and I'm here to answer your questions so email us any queries you have.


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About Troubled and Problem Youth & Children


Q: Maryann is a school counselor in Pemberton, NJ. She requested "strategies to use for children who seek attention by acting out."

A: Maryann, we did a whole issue on this subject several months ago, perhaps before you were a subscriber, so it's too soon to devote a whole issue to this topic, but let me give you a couple favorites.

► There is an old saying: "children would rather be praised than punished, but they'd rather be punished than ignored." With that in mind, wait for the acting-out student to be properly behaved, and then offer attention. Although misbehavior compels the adults to give attention, it starts a cycle of misbehavior netting attention, so by acting out, a student can extract notice. That's the exact opposite of what you want to occur so catch your students "doing good" and offer attention then. You are eliminating the need to act out to be noticed. There are even stickers you can buy for younger students that say "Caught doing good."

► Class clowns are the classic example of students who chronically act out. Be sure that teachers have their class establish a recommended number of times to talk out, then expect students to follow that standard. Without a quantifiable standard, you are expecting students to adhere to a standard that is unspecified. That isn't fair or reasonable. For class clowns, work with them to learn about the proper frequency of comments, the correct type of content, and appropriate duration. If you can channel the input to be appropriate, you will give that student lifelong skills to be beloved in the work place for making light, well-timed, often much-needed, humorous comments. You have transformed acting out into a potential, major work place asset. Everyone loves the co-worker who can break up the staff meeting with a well- timed, wry comment or socially acceptable joke.

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Q: Theresa, who teaches kindergarten, wants more of a focus on younger children. She writes: "I'm not a new teacher (15 years) but, the behaviors I have seen and dealt with the past two to three years are becoming much more common. Out of a class of 16, 8 of them have really horrible behaviors. One even killed a cat this year! Thanks so much…I would love to come to a workshop if you are ever in Wichita, KS."

A: If you let us know that Kansas schools and children's agencies aren't facing desperate budgets, we may look at hosting a session in your state. We try to host classes in regions where youth professionals have an adequate professional development budget. Right now, the closest we'll get is Texas or Indiana, which isn't exactly close. You can always ask your school district, professional association, teachers' conference, or local Education Service Center to sponsor a class. It's been a while since one of the Kansas Ed Service Centers hosted us. Or consider the course online. Now, if you had taken our Breakthrough Strategies class, or if you have been very carefully reading this blog, then you would know the answer to this question. Theresa and everybody else: before reading further, stop and consider if you already know the answer to this query, because we have touched on the answer a lot in previous issues of this magazine– and we devote hours to the subject in class.

The most misbehaved children may be "conduct disorders." From past issues or class, you may remember that those words refer to a specific mental health category that describes the most out of control students. While only a counselor can diagnose, anyone can be concerned that a child falls into this category. Theresa, here is the critical element: you must work completely differently with these students. If you use conventional methods, you will find "nothing works."

For Theresa and others of you with very young students, here's more bad news: the younger the severe misbehavior begins, the worst the outlook. The good news: if more professionals could identify and correctly work with young conduct disorders, the better the chance of aiding that child to avoid that otherwise grim prognosis for the future. Sadly, without targeted intervention, conduct disorders are at high risk of violating the law, and ending up imprisoned. Properly working with that 5 year old conduct disorder today can have incredible impact on his future. That is why Theresa's question is so important.

Anytime you have a young (or older) child doing the most extreme behaviors such as animal abuse, that should be a "red flag" to alert you to consider using the specialized methods that work with conduct disorders. The second and third issues of this magazine offered you an glimpse into this large population, and Theresa, you use exactly the same type of methods with both older and younger students. You can read a lot more information from other Behavior and Classroom Management Blog issues in our detailed Blog Index. You can also just look in the brief Blog Index (at right) for articles listed under "Conduct Disorders." However, a few articles will not substitute for fully upgrading your skills with this growing population.

Anytime you have a young (or older) child doing the most extreme behaviors such as animal abuse, that should be a "red flag" to alert you to consider using the specialized methods that work with conduct disorders. The second and third issues of this magazine offered you an glimpse into this large population, and Theresa, you use exactly the same type of methods with both older and younger students.
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Q: Here is the email we got from Angela: "My topic suggestion is one that I do not think is addressed enough anywhere– self-mutilation. It is a far more common problem than once thought."

A: Angela, you didn't tell us your job, or where you were from, but wherever you are and whatever your job, you are correct. If you are a counselor, you may have noted the increase in the amount of disturbed youngsters, especially in the early grades. The answer we give to your query is going to depend on your job. We are going to play the odds and guess that you are a teacher since we have more teachers as subscribers than counselors. Let's hope we guess right.

If you are not a mental health professional, then whenever you have specific data to suggest active self-harm, you need to immediately notify your administrator or counselor. Only counselors and other mental health workers should be managing behaviors that could be– or become– life threatening. I am not saying that superficial cutting of the wrist automatically indicates a potential suicide attempt, but ensuring the child's safety must be the job of the mental health worker, and there are no exceptions to that– even if your budget-crunched school lacks a counselor. You will need their guidance, and there is no work-around that is worth risking a child's life.

Even though non-mental health workers must consult a counselor, you still need to understand what makes these children tick, and adapt how you work with them. Plus, other behaviors may really be, or border on self- harm. For example, extreme tattooing or piercings, reckless driving, and serious promiscuity are just a few examples. To understand these youngsters, remember that distressed children don't manage their distress in "appropriate" ways. They don't enter class and say "I feel neglected so I would like additional interaction and nurturance today." They manage their distress in primitive, inappropriate ways like self-mutilation.

For non-counselors, you want to adjust how you work with the child by striking the balance between your mission and the child's distress. That means that when the child is distressed, you may lower the expectations. On days the child is more functional, you increase expectations. You also observe for safety concerns and let your mental health worker guide you on all else. Even if you lack an on- site counselor, it is not wise to learn counseling by practicing on a distressed youngster. Instead of counseling these students, be nurturing, involved, alert, and available. Offer them time, and listen to what they say– and don't say. Ask them what they need.

Sometimes, these youngsters just want someone to notice. But leave the counseling to those trained to do it. Even if you have to move heaven and earth to arrange it, your energy is best spent ensuring that each hurting child has access to a capable counselor who knows exactly how to help.

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