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Discipline By Design Series – Part 10 of 12 – Dealing Positively and Decisively with Difficult Adolescent and Teen Children and Students

Last week we discussed some positive ways to discipline junior high and high school adolescents and students that attempted to understand their stage of development and show them dignity, respect, and trust with responsibility as a means of preventing major disciplinary disruptions from occurring in the first place.

But what do we do when we are dealing with a student, a child’s friend, or our own child who seems determined to cause us trouble, possibly even violent or illegal actions?

Again, we want to deal with this issue in a positive manner. That doesn’t mean we enjoy it or it is particularly fun. This means that we are helping this individual work toward a place of healing. Most times this begins with identifying what emotion or experience(s) lies at the core of our students’ misbehavior:

Anger Fear Show unconditional love. Demonstrate and expect appropriate behavior.
Disrespect Imitating our culture, and it comes in many sizes, from overt to insidious Create a classroom or home that is counter to the popular culture. Have them say or do it again properly. Model respect for them at all times.
Verbal or physical abuse Perhaps the situation the individual is living in and terrible, hidden situations are epidemic in our culture Love them and love them some more. Listen. Look at their hearts and try to see their actions in light of what is really happening in their lives.
Disruptive behavior Need for attention Stop, wait, and start again. Never negotiate.
Defiant behavior Fear of not being loved Model what you expect.
Bullying Again, fear. Often it has been modeled for them, either at home, school, or by the media/culture Show zero tolerance.
Cliques The need to belong Show zero tolerance. Find places for students to belong that are more positive. Be part of the solution and not part of the problem.


In working with young men who had committed violent crimes, adolescent psychologist J.E. Garbarino consistently found histories of neglect and abuse. He speaks of these young men having hidden their souls in order to protect themselves from further hurt.

Unconditional love is a critical element in helping these boys survive. These young men are capable of developing and desperately need to form new, positive attachments with other adults.

Fortunately, there is an emerging body of research-based literature that provides guidance to school personnel for developing strategies to reduce the incidence of violence and effectively respond to violent activity when it does occur.

In 1995, Brendtro and Long identified the following four factors that lead to chronically violent behaviors.


Historically, extended families or tribes provided social bonds. We have lost the tribes, the extended families, and even the nuclear family in many cases.

Today, divorce, abuse, poverty, drugs, and other forces interfere with normal parenting and disrupt many families. Adults whose own lives are chaotic cannot effectively monitor and manage children’s activities or affiliations. Nor can they spend time with children, teach conflict-resolution skills, or communicate consistent behavioral expectations.


Stress and conflict in small doses are normal products of living. Most children learn to tolerate them reasonably well (Brendtro and Long, 1995). Teach them stress-management skills and constructive conflict resolution through systematic cooperative learning activities (Johnson and Johnson, 1991, 1992, and 1994).

But when stress is severe and prolonged, some students are overwhelmed and respond in self-destructive and antisocial ways. They develop defensive behavior patterns and display hostility toward adults. Schools are a major source of stress for reasons such as fear of failure, not feeling connected, or having to respond to authority figures.


Educational researcher Larry K. Brendtro has found that educators often overlook neurologically triggered aggression while concentrating on learned violence. Only an intact, rational, sober brain can control angry impulses.

Violence, however, is frequently a byproduct of intoxication. Mental illness due to neurological trauma, disease, or chemical imbalances can also cause impaired thinking and perception. In fact, half of the youths on death row have histories of brain trauma and dysfunction. Alcohol and other drug abuse chemically alter brain states, leading to loss of self-control, angry outbursts, and deadly violent acts.


There is a pervasive pro-violent message in our culture that includes the presence and proliferation of weapons in our homes and schools, violence and depressing stories on every channel’s daily news reports and in every newspaper.

Moreover, entertainment is no longer entertaining but jars the senses and psyche with a steady stream of violent movies accompanied by loud music and dark characters. To the extent that children are allowed to immerse themselves in the current pop culture, real life is no better. The continual message and image is of dissipated and lost lives.


Dealing positively with students and children with real damage and difficult tendencies can be extremely taxing and often does not end with much satisfaction. But we must continue to love them and do whatever we can to help ease their pain.

Remember the chart at the beginning of this post, and work to uncover and heal the hurt that lies at the core of any struggling individual child or student.