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Behavior Management: Teaching Tough Kids

Updated on January 20, 2017
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Tough Kids in the Classroom

As both general and special education teacher, I have had a variety of assignments throughout my career. I have taught in public schools on all grade levels from pre-kindergarten to high school. I have a lot of experience teaching kids labeled in the education world as Tough Kids.

The nine years that I taught learning disabled students were spent working with at-risk youths. Many of the students were minority males from impoverished backgrounds. In this type of student, cognitive problems combine with social issues that create co morbid, or multiple learning problems. This combination makes for very needy and very tough kids.

What Is A Tough Kid?

As a new school year begins and new teachers embark on their chosen career, my reason for writing is to share a special management system that can be very helpful for teachers in tough teaching assignments. Dr. William Jenson, Ph.D., educational psychologist, researcher, and co-author of a series of books called Tough Kids found that every year almost all teachers will have at least one student that will take up to 30% of their time in trying to get this student to be compliant. This statistic in turn is the reason why many teachers leave the profession within two or three years.

Kids labeled as tough kids are generally non-compliant 40 percent of the time. They are argumentative. They may be aggressive both verbally and physically. One or a few can cause lost learning for students and much stress in a teacher's life.

Although teaching in some areas is tougher than others, and certain populations, such as special education are more difficult to manage, behavior disorders in children know no single racial, socio-economic or gender stereotype. Biological factors affect how children behave as well as environmental ones. This supports Dr. Jensen's finding that tough kids make up about three percent of the population, increasing the chance of having at least one in every class.


  • positive reinforcement
  • negative reinforcement
  • differential reinforcement of alternative behavior
  • differential reinforcement of lower rates of behavior
  • Premack principal
  • response cost
  • response duration schedules
  • self recording and reinforcement
  • shaping
  • thinning

The Tough Kid Tool Box

Behavioral psychology is the science of changing behavior by arranging consequences that will increase a desired behavior or decrease unwanted behaviors. A parent rewards a child for doing chores with an allowance and increases the likelihood that the child will repeat the positive behavior. A mother gives a screaming child a cookie while shopping and reinforces the crying. It is those areas of behaviorism that can create tough kids or compliant kids in the long run.

The components of the Tough Kid Series work together to provide the teacher with interventions that are designed around applied behavior analysis (ABA). The Tough Kid Practical Classroom Management Strategies manual explains various behavior theories that the interventions are based around and how to implement them.

Some of these theories are listed in the gray box above, right. Teachers like "hands on" materials as well as students. The Tough Kid Tool Box is a resource of ideas and reproducibles that include charts, contracts, game sheets and monitoring forms that make increasing compliance in tough kids much easier and more interesting.

The behavior reduction techniques in the Tough Kid Series will not make those behaviors go away forever. Replacement behaviors need to be taught. Use the Tough Kids Social Skills book to directly teach social skills such as dealing with teasing or staying out of arguments. There are suggestions for discussions, role-play and group and activities such as goal setting to accomplish the objectives.

From the Tough Kid Tool Box
From the Tough Kid Tool Box | Source

Favorites From Tough Kids Tool Box

Here is a brief description of my favorite interventions from the Tough Kid Toolbox. Each of the interventions come with technique hints and troubleshooting tips to help design an intervention that is adaptable for different teacher's needs. It is suggested that the target behaviors that are to be changed, increased or decreased be specific and not general. For example, follow the classroom rules rather than improve your attitude. Strategies for tough kids that refuse to participate are given as well. I found that most if not all tough kids participated even if only part of the time.

  1. Mystery Motivators: A Mystery Motivator form has a square for each day of the week. Use an invisible ink pen and a developer with the Mystery Motivators. Starting with 3-4 days, write "M" inside the square with the invisible ink pen. If students meet a certain criteria during the day they get to use the developer pen to see if there is an "M" in the square that day. If so, they get the reward that is listed in the attached envelope. Several technique hints are given for variations of Mystery Motivators, like using with groups or teams. Thin out the number of days that have "M"s as time goes on.
  2. The On Task/Working Monitoring Form has 10 rows of 18 squares. Students are instructed to put a + in a box when they think about the form and catch themselves working or a 0 in the box when they are not. A contract can be used that will list the criterion for improvement, over what amount of time and what the reward is.
  3. A reproducible is given for several designs of Raffle tickets. Just duplicate them, cut them out (kids can do this) and pass them out when students are "caught being good." Kids love the raffle drawing. Do it at the end of each class or more and thin out to less often over time.
  4. A game-type spinner can be used to reinforce desired behaviors. The spinner is divided into 5 sections of different sizes with the most coveted rewards having the thinnest slice of the circle. The spinner can be used as a part of a contract or in conjunction with Mystery Motivators.

For ideas for all of these rewards think about the age levels of the tough kids and the things they like. Use free and inexpensive things. Extra free time is always welcomed at any age. High school tough kids would probably likr a choice parking space for the day. The best way to determine rewards is by providing a reinforcer menu that the kids help to form.

Dr. Jenson discusses the Tough Kid

About The Authors Of The Tough Kids Series

The Tough Kids Series of books for teachers is co-authored by Dr.Bil Jenson along with Ginger Rhode, Ph.D. and H. Kenton Reavis, Ed.D.

Dr. Jenson specializes in the management of severe behavior disorders. He has served as professor and chair of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Utah.He has published several books and research papers, as well as having managed several mental health facilities.

Dr. Rhode has served as the director of special education for a school system in Utah and has a background in teaching. She has published numerous journals, articles, book chapters and professional papers. Her topics of expertise include classroom and school wide management, social skills training and special education compliance issues.

Dr. Reavis is a specialist on behavior disorders and has served as Comprehensive System of Personnel Development Coordinator in the Services for At Risk Section of the Utah State Office of Education. His research and writings center around student management, school climate and pre-referral strategies for teachers.

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    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Interesting toolbox. I have my share of tough students. but this time they are all grown ups. :)

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      Interesting toolbox, I wish I had known about some of these game-based motivation aspects before teaching at high schools! These days my 'older' kids are too tired and worn out to be 'tough', although sometimes I think these techniques may help raise the enthusiasm levels!

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Good luck with the grown up tough kids. I haven't tried that bunch yet!

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Give them a try nifwlseirff, thanks for stopping by, and good luck with your older students!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I have no patience for tough kids and think the teacher is not paid enough to try to fix them nor should normal students have to put up with them. That said, I commend you on wanting to. Parents who raise children like this should have to spend the day with them until they are fixed I think, but then I see them spending the day with them out in stores all the time, lol, so guess that wouldn't work. I just know there should be special classes certainly and someone paid a salary worthy of the stress.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Well said, Jackie. Note that there is a book for parents of tough kids too. Let's hope lots of them get sold!

    • Trinity M profile image

      Trinity M 4 years ago

      Great hub rebecca! I have encountered some tough kids in my day.The ideas and methods outlined in your hub are fantastic! Thank you for this wonderfully informative hub. Voted up and useful.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks Trinity M. May your following days be tough kid free!

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 4 years ago from USA

      I love the idea of the "Mystery Motivators." I taught college students for a year, and my hat's off to anyone who teaches, much less for younger, troubled students who may also have difficult parents. Great hub.

    • shalini sharan profile image

      shalini sharan 4 years ago from Delhi

      in y school days, i used to woder the same, how do teachers tackle tough kids

      interesting hub

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks jellygator. Mystery Motivators are fun for all ages. .

      Thanks for stopping by Shalini sharan

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      I used to teach many years ago and did some work in the school's unit for kids with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, so I found this interesting. I was often surprised how different the kids behaved in a 1-1 situation in the unit to how they then behaved in the classroom. The idea of using games as motivation sounds like a good one and mystery motivator sounds particularly intriguing.

      Interesting hub, voted up.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks Melovy! Sounds like you have an interesting teaching background. Mystery Motivators, the spinner and other games work well with those kids. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      rebecca - Great article and amazing strategies. I have never taught except on the college level, but I cam imagine these techniques and approaches being very helpful. I was shocked when I read the statistic that one difficult student could take up 30% of a teacher's time. Hard to believe! And what if the class has a handful of difficult students?

      Great work. Sharing.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      That's right, it is a shocking statistic and I can testify that it is very accurate. You were wise to choose college level teaching. Thanks for the compliment and the share!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great article, Rebecca. You have given teachers and others some great ideas to use with "tough kids." I just retired as a teacher recently and had some of those "tough kids." They can also be a joy as well as being difficult. When you make inroads with one of these students, you really feel you have accomplished something. Thanks for an interesting and relevant article! Voted up! Also, very well written!

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I really feel you, suzettenaples. It is a great task but can really be quite rewarding. Thanks for stopping by to comment

    • Rolly A Chabot profile image

      Rolly A Chabot 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      Hi rebeccamealey... nothing but total and complete respect for what you have written here and what you do for these children. Much is centered around love and understanding and yet setting boundaries for what is acceptable and what is not...

      Hugs from Canada

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Sweet, Rolly ....Thanks so much> I actually don't do it anymore. Ha! I just write Hubs about it and hope to help other teachers, especially those new ones that get tossed to the wolves early in their career. I made it for a few! Thanks so such a nice comment!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for this look at helping tough kids think about the benefits of behaving themselves. This series looks interesting.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, that series is a life saver for the teacher of tough kids.....literally!

    • profile image

      Adama Gidado 4 years ago

      This is a great hub and a very useful information for those dealing with tough kids. Behavioral management is something I struggled with so thank you for this.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      It is great to know that you find the Though kid management program useful. Thanks for the comment and good luck!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Very useful info, tips and techniques for managing tough kids. Voted up and interesting.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      This was an interesting read. I am not a teacher, although it is a career I considered. I would probabloy fit in better in a college setting than in the grades. I went to high school in the1950s and it was a bit like "happy days." The adminstrators got upset over the most minor things back then.voting up and interesting. sharing

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks so much for stopping by1

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 3 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      Luckily my daughter who teaches 8 year old does not have any tough kids. However when she was doing temporary work she had kids attacking their helpers and generally causing fights ( she was teaching 5 year old). Funnily enough the subject of behavior came up at a church meeting as we have a child who attends without parents whose behavior is not good. I said that we had been reinforcing bad behaviors- giving her a drink to shut her up but that we should only reward good behavioral and tell her off (kindly) when she is not- for example she called another child weird- we should have said that it was not appropriate to call her that- instead we just got embarrassed and changed the subject- very interesting hub

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for commenting, I am glad you found this interesting.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 3 years ago from sunny Florida

      Much of my career at risk children were placed in my classes. And during many summers, I taught SED (severely emotionally disturbed ) children.

      My classes were usually loaded up with children that had moderate to severe behavior problems.

      And to reach them a very specialized system of behavior management skills were employed...most of them devised by me. As you know having taught children with such needs that you can read and try the recommendations of others but often you end up coming up with your own techniques for accomplishing desired results with children.

      I could read between the lines to see that you are very good for those children. Bless you.

      Angels are on the way ps

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I tried. Thanks. I hope I helped . Your comment and the knowledge that "you went through it too" are very meaningful to me. You are so sweet,

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 3 years ago from Nepal

      I don't have any kids, but I have a nephew who shows some behavioral problems. Thanks for this useful and informative hub. I'm going to look for some applications.

      Have a great weekend.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 3 years ago

      This is very helpful! My son has Autism. When he was in pre-k, the teacher couldn't understand him because he has phonological disorder. He was in private school because public school had a lottery and he wasn't chosen. Anyway, the teacher said it must have been my home life for the reason he couldn't speak right.

      What a time I had with her and that school!

      Fortunately, my son is now in public school, and has a full-day aide. He is doing very well and has had no problems.

      He did go through a behavioral management program last year which helped tremendously. Through structured guidance and routine, he was able to be mainstreamed this year.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I am so glad to hear that! Thanks for stopping by to comment.

    • Beth100 profile image

      Beth100 3 years ago from Canada

      Excellent tool box!! You're suggestions are awesome, and they definitely work when applied correctly.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for the endorsement!

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 3 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Some interesting ideas for dealing with tough kids here Rebecca! I'm sure my teacher son could use some of these-- I will send this link on to him. I recently watched a fascinating movie online called "Detached" about a teacher in a school that was full of 'tough kids'. It also showed some pretty terrifying 'tough' parents. This is apparently what we are reaping in this world of sorrow and violence. Thank you for your positivity.

    • rebeccamealey profile image
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      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for an insightful comment!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I used to have a neighbor who gave up her teaching career at the high school level because of the tough kids in her home economics class. She claimed that some of the kids parents were just as bad. She could probably have used some of these techniques had she known about them. Sharing this!

    • rebeccamealey profile image
      Author

      Rebecca Mealey 2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for sharing. I hope it helps someone!

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      Tough kids can be difficult to work with. Many of the kids I must deal with have behavioral problems and difficulty with social interactions. Definitely a challenge requiring patience.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 21 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I think kids are manageable but often, it's the parents who are more difficult because all of us think our kids performance is reflective of our parenting practices. Being attentive to kids can guide us in our intervention.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 9 months ago from Dallas, Texas

      These are interesting statistics and methods for dealing with this issue. It requires a great deal of patience and ingenuity to keep order in the class when interrupted with bad behavior. Those books seem to have many options and tools for the teacher.

      My classroom experience as a teacher was with adults, and strange as it seems, there was always that certain individual who couldn't seem to follow the rules. It is a challenging profession and I admire your skills.

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