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How to See the Good in the "Bad" Kids

In a Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains, a heavyset monk posed this question:

“A child’s parents beat him, so he becomes cruel. Is it the child’s fault?”

This wasn’t a “sound of one hand clapping” kind of riddle; the monk had an answer.

“If he is a cruel child as a result of the beating, it is not his fault. It is the fault of the parents who beat him. If he grows up to be a cruel man, it is his fault.”

At some point, free will kicks in.

My mom is a play therapist. She works with children who throw rocks at other kids on the playground, kick and bite their teachers, and scream obscenities in class. My mom is as wise as any Zen monk I have known, and she would answer the riddle a little differently.

The child is not a cruel child, she would say, though he might do cruel things. He has a good heart, a pure spirit. That spirit may have become smeared with garbage, but the purity is intact. Her job as a play therapist, our job as teachers, is to clean off the garbage so everyone can see that child’s gifts.

Easy to say, right? What about the kid who drops an F-bomb during guided reading? What about a child who hurts other children, with clear intent, during recess?

It’s hard to admit that some of our students annoy us, let alone drive us to anger. The grisly nature of pre-Disney fairy tales, in which adults keep children in cages and gobble them up, may arise from that suppressed fury that grown-ups sometimes feel toward children.

So how do we gain the compassion my mom expresses with such nurturing grace? How do we see to the hidden heart of the rock-throwers, the F-bomb droppers, the whiny, the sneaky, the rude, the cruel?

Here’s my list. I plead, dear reader, for you to add your own.


1. Build one-on-one moments into the day.

My dad has a theory that people go into teaching because we think we like kids. Most of us discover that in actual fact, we like one kid—not a mob of 25 or a daily horde of 150.

Teaching goes best when I spend my day with one child, or a handful of kids, at a time. In the morning, I greet each student with a fist bump and a simple question that has nothing to do with behavior or homework. “How’s your new baby sister?” “Did you see Mexico play Ghana last night?” “When will you finish that clubhouse you’re building with your brother?”

There are plenty of one-on-one moments between that greeting and the farewell at day’s end, too. Reading conferences. Writing conferences. Conversations during group work, guided reading, with the handful of students I pull for help in math.

Often the kids who drive me crazy whole-class (because they need attention, or want to impress their friends, or just like to see the various shades of purple my face can turn) are much more enjoyable in a small group or one-on-one.

At the end of the day, I send my students off one by one with a hug or a high-five. These moments accumulate, gradual as snowfall.

They’re especially important with the hard kids. I need to remind that hard kid (and myself) that while he may have driven me crazy during math class, and I may have sent a letter home to his parents, I still like him as a person. I don’t hold a grudge, and tomorrow’s a new day.


2. Pay attention to what the kids do, say, and write.

I had a student I’ll call Peyton who drove me insane for a full month. My elaborate architecture of classroom management didn’t work. Meetings with his mom didn’t help. The personal behavior chart on his desk, broken down into 15-minute increments, was more trouble than it was worth.

Peyton wouldn’t write during Writer’s Workshop—nothing but drawings of his favorite video game characters—until the day he did. Seven pages, in a looping scrawl, called “The Story of My Life.” He wrote about his dad kidnapping him, and his flight with his mom across several states.

Suddenly Peyton made sense to me. Once I realized what kind of garbage had gotten heaped on his otherwise pure spirit, I got a glimpse of that spirit itself.


3. Enlist reinforcements.

The kid-to-adult ratio involved in being a parent isn’t so bad. Part of why my wife and I stopped at two kids is that we never wanted to be outnumbered.

The ratio for teachers is brutal. We’re always outnumbered, to the tune of 25-to-one. But to put a positive spin on that math, adversaries can become allies.

Back to Peyton. We had a class meeting about his behavior. I spoke frankly: “Peyton, I like your personality. I’m glad you’re in our class. But I figured something out about the times you behave badly. You’d rather get bad attention, like getting in trouble, than no attention at all.”

Peyton listened, fascinated, and slowly nodded his head that I’d gotten that part right. I turned to the other 24 kids.

“I can’t give Peyton as much attention as he needs. I need all of you to help me. When you notice that he’s sitting the right way at the rug, pat him on the back. When he’s working at his center during guided reading, lean over and whisper, “Good job.” Try to catch him being good.”

The kids took to their new role as assistant teachers with great enthusiasm. From that day on, every time Peyton settled himself cross-legged at the rug, two or three hands reached out to pat his back, and two or three seven-year old voices whispered, “Good job, Peyton.”

It worked. With a different kid, it would have failed miserably. Rafe Esquith describes students as cars in a parking lot. Each one has a key that will unlock his or her potential, but it’s our job as teachers to figure out what that key is.


It’s easy to like the cute ones. The kids with the ribboned braids, the quiet questions, the charming grins. But it’s our job to teach the hard kids, too. The ones who glower at us before we’ve said a word, who deliver a “yeah” so sullen it sounds like a curse, who seem to have no regard for anyone including themselves.

How do we come to like those kids? Even, with time, to love them? To laugh with Peyton and Evan, Jahlissa and Jade, to voluntarily seek them out for lunch in the classroom or a soccer game at recess, to praise their gifts and mean it?

Buddhists don’t buy the concept of “original sin.” They’re with my mom on every human being’s “original goodness.” The symbol of the lotus is used in so many Buddhist prayers and paintings because it’s a pure and beautiful flower that grows even in fetid swamps, from the most brackish mud.

We can’t do much about the mud that gets heaped on some kids’ spirits before they reach us. We all have students who have been neglected, abused, or hurt in a thousand ways, often by the adults they once trusted to act in their best interest.

We can see past the mud, though. We can dig down to that pure seed, watch for the first tendril to sprout, and then nurture it with everything we’ve got.


For a wonderful Read Aloud about seeing the good in “bad” kids, check out Edwardo, The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World


Mary Alice Callahan commented on February 7, 2014 at 8:41pm:

Uncovering the purity

I love the column and use the same techniques in high school. You are right that this is the hardest part of the job but it is also the best part. It is such a privilege to know our students well. Often we see the purity and beauty in the child before they can see it. Then we have to convince them that it is true. I have a student who is just starting to believe it now and it has taken 2.5 years. Good thing we teachers are relentless in the pursuit of beauty and truth. 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 10, 2014 at 2:00pm:

Seeing strengths

Mary Alice, thanks for this reminder of the "hidden harvest" nature of our profession--we often don't see the results of our involvement in our students' lives for years after they leave us.

I spend so much time with driven teachers who value the outside perspective on ourselves that you describe in terms of seeking constructive criticism, but it's essential to also seek outside perspectives to see our own strengths. You describe this with students--they may realize how intelligent, courageous, or generally wonderful they look through our eyes. But conveying this kind of positive feedback to colleagues can be critical, too, to become more aware of our strengths as well as our weaknesses/growth areas.

Thanks for writing and for sticking with this profession. You represent the best of us.

Wendi Pillars commented on February 7, 2014 at 10:00pm:

At the heart of teaching

At the heart of teaching lies relationships. Tolstoy says the "two most powerful warriors are time and patience", and although tested, it pays off mightily to use them to our advantage. 

Like you, Justin, and so many others, I've worked extensively with those students who are seen as misfits. Part of an "awakened" teacher works like a scientist, though, awash in curiosity, and developing acute observation skills for each of these kids. Finding out what lies underneath that "mud on their spirits" can actually be motivational--like digging and digging and digging, until--at last the tiniest nugget is unearthed that will change our perspectives, and in turn, the students'--as you did with Peyton. Persistence pays off.

I love the idea of the negatives being "smeared" on their spirits--that visual makes it so much "easier" to wipe off, in essence releasing any sense of intentional negativity. Separating the negative acts from the person. 

Hope-timism reigns, Justin. Your students are blessed to have you as their guide. 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 8, 2014 at 9:54pm:

Why I love blogging

Wendi, you make me think of the great line at the end of Charlotte's Web: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." You are both.

This is why I love blogging--because comments like yours remind me of what excellent company we're in as teachers, and because you take an idea or a metaphor to a place I hadn't considered but where it belongs.

I love your extension of the "wiping away mud" metaphor to be more like prospecting--sifting through, cleaning, until you see what gleams.

In my teaching program at UC Berkeley I worked with a wonderful teacher in a private school in Oakland, Mona Halaby, who expressed exactly that scientific sense of curiosity and inquiry that you expressed. She said when she gets a difficult child, she actually rubs her hands together in glee, looking forward to the complicated and satisfying work of figuring that child out.

Cristina M. Quintana commented on February 8, 2014 at 11:42am:

My soapbox: The muddy kids are worth the hassle!

Thanks for this endearing post.  I am one of the select few in my department that actually enjoys teaching the Regular (not the Honors) students.  I prefer the grimy mud over the pure and pristine.  Sure, it gets dirty sometimes working with these guys, but the payoff is so much greater.

These are the students who are great and well-behaved in my class, then go and act up in other classrooms.  I often get the question, "how do you do it?" from other teachers.  My response is always the same, "I see them for who they are, not who I wish they would be."

These are also the students who come back to visit.  The ones who keep a note that you gave them with words of encouragement tucked into their wallets. The ones who write college essays about you as the one person who believed in them most.  This is the payoff that makes my job worth it.

The trama that some of these high school students come to class with is heart-wrenching.  The fact that they made it to school that day, I consider an accomplishment.  I even have one this year whose mother is a prostitute and had to be removed from her custody.  Honestly, as educators we have a responsibility to see the good in them, their potential.  If we don't try to teach all of them, despite how they behave, well...then, we are in the wrong profession.

That's my soapbox and I'm stickin' to it!

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 8, 2014 at 10:00pm:

Christina, I wish we taught together!

I love everything you said, Christina. Your quote is wonderful about seeing kids for who they are, not who you wish they would be. That's exactly what makes my mom so gifted with the rock-throwers, the cursers, and the biters. She told me once that she think each child is absolutely perfect, and that she needs to convey that love and acceptance to them before they will change their (often far from perfect) behavior. I kept spluttering, "But that kid THREW ROCKS at you!" She can see past that.

I've seen the phenomenon you describe so many times, of a student who people warn you about, with significant rolls of their eyes, who ends up being mostly fine in your class. The reason is complex, because it's about that complex alchemy of classroom management--the acceptance, the effort, the emphasis on trust and respect, and, too, consistent consequences that don't strip that student's dignity away but don't let him/her strip your dignity away, either.

Thanks so much for writing. Quick question: Where do you teach?

Renee Moore commented on February 8, 2014 at 7:49pm:

Helping them see the good in themselves

I was really touched by this piece, but especially this line: "Her job as a play therapist, our job as teachers, is to clean off the garbage so everyone can see that child’s gifts"

It reminded me immediately of so many young people with whom I've worked who are caught in a vicious cycle of being identified by their behaviors, so they accelerate those behaviors (good and bad). Many of these children could not see themselves as anything other than the derogatory terms used to describe them. When a child's own mental mirror is covered with the mud of shame, fear, guilt, or hate, the results are often tragic.

Your three steps are effective ways to clear the vision of children and those who work with them.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 8, 2014 at 10:05pm:

The warped mirror

Renee, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond. I love your insight.

It brought to mind two images of "mirrors" I've seen:

1. An anorexic girl looking at her bony frame in the mirror and saying, "I'm so fat."

2. (In a class in college, The Sociology of the Black Experience," an image of a young African-American boy in a cape looking in the mirror and seeing the white Superman.

Seeing ourselves clearly is complicated in the best of circumstances, but it's especially so when that self-image becomes warped in some way. That warping can be what you describe--cruel comments from a family member or a peer--or it can be sociological (skinny Barbies, all heterosexual characters in Disney movies, a Senate that is frighteningly white and male.)

To extend the metaphor in the post with the insight you provide, sometimes our job is not just to see past the garbage heaped on someone, or to clean it off, but to clean the garbage off the mirror in which a student sees her/himself.

Craig Lindvahl commented on February 8, 2014 at 9:01pm:

seeing the good

VIrtually every time I decided something negative about a student it turned out I was the ignorant one.  The last five years of my teaching career I was involved in a class where the kids journaled every week.  I couldn't believe how little I really knew about what they were thinking and where those thoughts had their roots.

Wendi, you are so right.  Relationships are the key.  When you build those as a teacher, you just don't deal with a lot of the negative behavior.  Kids choose, more often than not,  to not act that way.  If they have something beyond their control causing the behavior, they know you care about them, and that'ss all they really need to know.

Great teaching isn't really complicated, it's just hard.  Thanks for the post, Justin!

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 10, 2014 at 2:08pm:

A marathon AND a sprint

Craig, you made this observation in another wonderful response to a previous post I wrote, that "Great teaching isn't really complicated, it's just hard," and it has stuck with me. I feel the same way about parenting--usually between my instincts as a dad, wisdom from other parents, and a combination of creativity and reflection, I can figure out what I should do. The hard part is doing it.

Parenting and teaching can both feel like a marathon AND a sprint.

I really like your idea of journaling as a window into kids' lives outside school. Your humility (the observation that whenever you thought something negative about a student, it was lack of knowledge on your part) is such a great approach to life in general.

When I was in elementary school, down the street from where my family and I live now, we had a custodian the kids called "Booger." He was always scowling at us (due, at least in part I'd imagine, to his nickname) and flipping these circles on a bulletin board that, once three were flipped, robbed you of that day's recess. I complained about him to my dad and he made a similar comment to yours: "You never know what's going on with someone to make them act mean or grumpy. He might have a son who's sick, or some other problem, that makes him act that way."

I never found out if there was some explanation like that, but I stopped being disrespectful toward the custodian whether he could overhear me or not, and every time he walked by, I'd look at him and wonder what was going on beneath the surface.

Tolstoy has a great quote about how people are not all good or all bad but are instead like rivers, narrow in some places and wide in others, shallow and deep in turns, rocky and sandy, as a way of describing the complexity of the mystery that is any human being.

Ariel Sacks commented on February 9, 2014 at 12:01pm:

Turning to the other 24

Justin, I was also touched by this post. One piece I found especially interesting was the story about how you reached out to the rest of the class to help give Peyton the attention he needed.  I've often thought that we underutilize the strong social motivations of kids in classrooms, and I really like the direction you've taken with it in supporting the "difficult" student. I will be thinking about this for a while. Thank you!  

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 10, 2014 at 2:11pm:

Positive peer pressure

Ariel, thanks for the kind words and your insight. 'Peer pressure' is a term I've always associated with after-school specials about the bad kids who offer you cigarettes, but I've seen so many positive elements to peer pressure. Once you reach a critical mass of kids who are working hard and being respectful to one another, it creates a climate that is hard for most (though not all) kids to resist.

I had a student with shaken baby syndrome who was in a Special Ed self-contained class for most of the day but came to me for an hour each day. I watched her through the window in her class once and saw her rolling around on the floor and kicking her teachers. But when she came to my class, she'd sit with perfect posture at the rug, listen to the story, raise her hand to ask questions or make a comment.

The difference was in the behavior of her peers--what was expected, what was accepted. Social motivation is a powerful force.

Lori Nazareno commented on February 10, 2014 at 10:05pm:

The ones who are the hardest to love...

Are the ones who need it the most! I ALWAYS return to this when I am struggling to understand a child's behavior.

I have also learned that every behavior is either an expression of love, or a call for love. In those challenging times, I also try to ask myslef, "What would love do?"

Thank you so very much for your touching and insighful post! Like Ariel, I too, loved the way that you engaged and supported the rest of the class in understanding the connections between them all. Not only did "Peyton" get the encouragement that he needed, the rest of the class, I'm sure, learned about how to focus on, and look for, the postive.

Children are, indeed, born of pure spirit. And sometimes we just need to help reveal their light.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 12, 2014 at 11:39am:

" expression of love, or a call for love." Beautiful.

Lori, your comment is beautiful.It's easy for me to see my own two-year old son and kindergartner daughter as "pure spirits" whose every act is an expression of love (unexpected hugs or "I love you, Daddy," out of the blue) or calls for love (tears, grumpiness, even anger.) It's much harder with other people's children. It reassures me about humanity at large, though, that we do come to care deeply about other people's children, and that we can develop the kind of compassion you describe.

When my wife was a teenager, she'd often come home and lash out at her dad. He would wait a few minutes, then come up and calmly place a hand on her shoulder and ask, "Did you have a hard day?"

She'd break down in tears and say, "Yes!"

I tried this with a 4th grade student who was being exceptionally nasty to me one morning, out of earshot of the other kids, and the same thing happened--tears, a confiding of her morning's woes, and then a calm following that catharsis that let her get back to work.

Young kids' emotions seem so turbulent to me sometimes, but I'm also amazed at how quickly they get anger/sorrow/hurt out of their systems, like flushing toxins out of their bodies.

Kids can learn a lot from older, more experienced adults, of course, but this is something we can learn from them, I think.

Thanks for your eloquent insight.

Julie Hiltz commented on February 11, 2014 at 8:53pm:

Don't forget the "other" teachers

Teaching in an elementary school has some advantages in these situations. As a media specialist I have the privilege of having the opportunity to get to know all of the students at my school in some way over the 6 years they are on my campus. Teachers like me, the music teacher or physical education teacher can provide homeroom teachers with valuable insight on reaching all kids.

We know their history, their triumphs, and their conflicts with other students and we know what motivates them. Best of all, we see them in their “unguarded” moments, when they forget they’re at school and engage in reading or playing or music. Our team still has times that we struggle reaching students but collaborating with their homeroom teacher and each other makes the job easier

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 12, 2014 at 11:42am:

Good point, Julie.

I also see kids connecting with custodians sometimes, or "lunch ladies," or the school nurse. Outside church, school is one of those few places that is an intergenerational village, and the network of relationships is complex and often a wonder to behold.

One thing I'd like to begin doing is finding times once a month or so to check in with my students' Specials (Art, Music, Computers, P.E....) teachers, because you're right--they often have an insight into a child about some facet of her personality that comes out differently when she's painting, singing, or playing Capture the Flag than it does in my class or recess.

Thanks for the reminder.

Brianna Crowley commented on February 12, 2014 at 10:07am:

Cross-Posted & Widely Shared!


As always, your writing engages my mind and my heart. The conversation you've evoked here is as powerful as your original ideas--bravo!

I have had students who were homeless, on probation, placed in and out of alternative placement, and all other manner of "mud-slinging" circumstances. It is so hard to remember their pain when I'm just trying to see past my own. Yet, if I do see past it, I realize that mine is discomfort and inconvenience while theirs is true pain. Kevin Honeycutt recently keynoted at a state conference I attended; in that message he reminded us to NEVER believe the facade or "front" of a student that appears intimidating or tough. That is merely their defense mechanism for the pain and "garbage" they carry.

I love Julie's reminder above about the way this translates to those we work with. Although they carry a greater individual responsibility for their actions (as your wise monk pointed out--we all grow up and have to own our actions), they are still marred by the mud and garbage in their current or past.

Here's the link to the cross-post. Thanks for continuing to write--you have a gift that I appreciate!

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on February 12, 2014 at 11:48am:

To the curator of our words and thoughts

Brianna, you are far too kind. You're the perfect person for this role as curator/disseminator of our blogs--along with being an eloquent writer, you're an "eloquent reader."

Why is it so much harder to see adults in this way? I'm thinking of His Dark Materials (Golden Compass on, by Philip Pullman), in which a person's spirit is outside their bodies in the physical form of an animal. When they become adults, this animal becomes fixed--until then, it metamorphoses from one animal to another as their moods and interests shift.

In his trilogy, he captures that elusive change that happens when we become adults. There's much gained--wisdom, discipline, self-control, and so on--but there's something lost, too. Maybe part of what's lost is wearing your heart on your sleeve, showing the root of your emotions so that they're easier to see and understand.

Once again, these remarkable insights in the comments section have pushed my thinking way beyond where it was when I posted the piece itself.

Ali Lauer commented on February 15, 2014 at 6:28pm:

ELA high school


Thank you so much for this post.  I really needed to hear these words this week.  I have a student that I am so worried about.  He is a very smart boy with a troubling home story.  And I can't get him to do any writing in my class--not quick writes, not letters to me, let alone more formal writing assignments.  I have been speaking to him in conferences frequently, encouraging him every way I know how, even asking him if he would like to adapt the assignments toward something he is more interested in (although the topics tend to be pretty open to student choice as it is).  But he won't write, and he won't really communicate about why that is.  

I think he respects and likes me; he has altered his behavior in class after a previous conference in which I invited him to consider his effect on others.  Since then, he has become a sort of advocate for listening respectfully.  And he and his friends have begun hanging out in my room during lunch.   Regardless of that, though, he chooses not to write.  I am just out of ideas of how to reach him and tempted to stop trying.  

But your post encourages me to carry on.

Scott Diamond commented on February 16, 2014 at 10:18am:

Treat them as if they were human!

The "bad kids" often lack a home life that provides a sense of the dignity of being a human being. The way to address this is to treat them (and each other) as human beings - with dignity.

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