When teachers look over their class lists for the coming year, they will often consult with colleagues who had the children the prior year, just to get a “heads-up” on which children will be the most challenging. While it’s true that classes will generally settle into the “90 percent rule,” which means that the most difficult ten percent (or so) students in each class will disrupt instruction from time to time. Interestingly, even if the most difficult ten percent are moved to another class, or are sent to a behavior adjustment class, they will slowly be replaced by the next most difficult ten percent. While there are many risk factors associated with difficult students, three that transcend socioeconomic lines are teacher rapport, ability level and home environment. Students who are suffering in any or all of these three areas will prove to be the most difficult in a teacher’s classroom.
Building rapport with students is one of the most important tasks awaiting teachers at the beginning of each year (Kaiser and Rasminsky). A friend of mine was teaching English III in an urban district near Dallas, with almost 80 percent of the school qualifying for Title I federal funds, and he had heard that one student, in particular, would be disruptive in his class. However, the first week in class, that student did what the teacher considered to be an unusually good job on a short assignment, and so the teacher e-mailed the student’s mother about it. The student came to class the next day, beaming, and thanked the teacher. “I’ve never gotten a call home from a teacher about a good thing!” he chortled. After that, the “troublesome” student actually served as my friend’s disciplinary assistant in the class, telling everyone else to be quiet when it was time to talk. Building rapport can bring students to your side before they can become problems.
Ability level is another factor that can cause students to be disruptive in class. If a student is either far above or below the level of the work you are doing in class, boredom and/or frustration will set in (Kulik). It can be difficult to tier your assignments so that they match the different learning levels of your students, but the effort will pay off. Even if you just tier the number of problems or questions that each student has to answer, or if you set up ability groups so that peers are helping peers in your classroom, the likelihood for disruption will go down as engagement goes up.
Finally, home environment is a third factor that can influence a student’s likelihood to be difficult in class. While this may seem to be more of a factor in socioeconomically disadvantaged school systems, the truth is that parent involvement and the home environment are crucial factors for students at all points on the wealth spectrum (Kellaghan, et. al. ). Even if the child lives in a lavish home, if the environment is chaotic or unstable in some way, or if parents are not actively involved affectively with their students, the children are more likely to be disruptive in class, as the disruption is an attention-gathering mechanism.
Disruptive students make life difficult for every teacher. However, by building rapport with students who may be likely to cause problems later on, teachers can head off many difficulties at the pass. By paying attention to a student’s home life and by tiering assignments to meet the different ability levels in a classroom, teachers can be proactive in terms of discipline, increasing their likelihood of turning their classroom into a smoothly running educational environment.
Kaiser, Barbara and Rasminsky, Judy. Challenging Behavior in Young Children:
Understanding, Preventing and Responding Effectively (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc.
Kellaghan, Thomas, et. al. The Home Environment and School Learning: Promoting Parental Involvement in the Education of Children. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1993.
Kulik, Chen-Lin, and Kulik, James. “Effects of Ability Grouping on Secondary School
Students: A Meta-analysis of Evaluation Findings. American Educational Research Journal Vol. 19 (3): 415-428.