How to See the Good in the “Bad” Kids

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?

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

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