Mindset is key to dealing with troublesome students


Dr. Robert Marzano says it's crucial for teachers to have "emotional objectivity" in dealing with students, especially the most troublesome. I like to say it's important for teachers to get and stay in the best possible mental and emotional place to be as effective as possible, especially with the most troubled and troublesome students. My mentor used to say your behavior will follow your emotions toward your life events. Get angry for example and you'll probably behave like angry people usually do. It's too hard not to because anger is emotional nitroglycerin. Generate anger and it can make an otherwise smart, well-trained teacher say and do stupid things with students, especially the most troublesome. YouTube has all kinds of examples of teachers doing so courtesy of student cell phones. I call anger the #1 enemy of effectiveness for teachers.


Dr. Marzano says the key to having "emotional objectivity" is "mindset". Despite what most people believe, it’s not what others (like students) say or do, or what happens that really determines how we feel. It’s how we choose to think about or look at such things before, while and after they happen. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. We always have a choice as to how we want to look at anything, including what students say and do. Some ways will make us feel better, others worse. Some ways will make it easier to deal with things we don't like, others harder. 


Mindset not only determines whether a teacher can achieve and maintain "emotional objectivity" or not, but also directly influences how we behave with students. Attitude is always the father of behavior. Certain mindsets will cause teachers to behave in ways that help them effectively deal with things they don't like. Other mindsets will cause them to say and do things that only make matters worse. Consider these two different mindsets: "These kids have to do what I tell them to" and "Kids can do whatever they want to. It's my job to get them to cooperate as much as possible". Which mindset a teacher has will certainly make a difference in how they approach their students, and the results they get.


I’ve had my share of troublesome students over my 40 years in education. For the first 33 years teaching health education, I got every student who passed through our school, including the Behavior Disordered kids. Many students have thought, felt, said or done things that I didn’t like, didn’t agree with, and that were not helpful for them. But it always helped to have the following mindsets when dealing with them – and even sometimes to share such mindsets with them. 

I used bold and italicized font to summarize each mindset. I've'created a summary list of all 17 for you at the end of the article.


I believe that anything any of us thinks, feels, says or does is understandable given that we’re human, fallible, and what we each have been through in our lives so far. Put others through exactly the same things, and they’d probably turn out much the same. Some might fare better, others worse, but most would end up thinking, feeling, saying and doing what we do. 

Imagine an experiment. On the day any of us was born, we took 100 other babies, and from that day forward, put each of them through every single life event we've each been through. What would they think, feel, say or do at this point? We'd probably see a "bell curve" distribution, with some faring much better than others, and some worse. But most would probably be in the middle somewhere. Is it possible we, or our troubesome students might even have ended up a the top of the class, but we'll never know because we never ran such an experiment?

I've alway believed we should all come with movies of our lives. If we did, and others watched them, would they see the understandable reasons we think, feel, say and do what we do now? Would we if we watched the movies of our most troublesome students?

This doesn’t mean I have to like, agree with or even tolerate what they do. But it helps temper my emotional response to what they do by defaulting to this way of looking at what they do. I can still be frustrated, or even irritated and annoyed. It just keeps me from making myself angry and reacting, or even worse overreacting to what they say and do. There’s two ways to make something you don’t like worse, do nothing, and overreact to it.

We see this happen naturally many times. A teacher complains to a counselor about a student’s behavior. The counselor shares some pertinent history and the teacher goes “Oh, I didn’t know that”. Sometimes a teacher might even say, “I’m surprised he's doing as well as he is given what's happened to him. I don't know if I would do well as well if that happened to me”. Of course, there are also teachers who simply say "Well, he still has to learn to behave like everyone else". Most troubled and troublesome kids are really “glasses half full” instead of the “glasses half empty” teachers sometimes perceive them to be, or they perceive themselves to be. A teacher's whole demeanor toward a student often will change after learning about their history. That doesn't men they'll like what the stduent does. It jumps helps temper the teachers emotional response to future behavior he/she doesn't like.


No one will ever be the first or last human being to think, feel, say or do something. He/she will always have a lot of company. No student will ever be the first or last kid in human history to think, feel, say or do what he/she does. Kids have been doing the same kinds of things that adults don’t like since the beginning of time. That just suggests that it part of being human (and being a kid) to think, feel, say and do what they do. Sometimes you'll hear teachers say "They're just being kids". Again, it doesn't mean you have to like everything they do, or even tolerate it. It just helps temper your emotional response to what they do by choosing to look at it this way, which in turn helps temper your behavioral response. Remember, there's two ways to make something you don't like worse, do nothing and overreact to it.

Of course, you'll never be the first or last person, or teacher in human hsitory to think, feel, say or do what you do either. So if you make mistakes with students, welcome to the human race, and the profession of teaching. Don't beat up on yourself. Just learn from it, make a committment to do better next time. 


I believe that people all do the best they can at the time given what their life experiences have been. We could all do better many times, but we all do the best we can at the time.

Here's a very personal example that I hope will show why this is important. My father drank a lot and let's just say it didn't help our family life. I knew he had been blown up by a grenade in WWII - he had visible scars all over his body, and missing fingertips - and that he had laid in a hospital bed for ninth months, but he never gave us many details. Then my daughter wanted to interview him about his war experience for school, and I finally got some of the details. He said he had trouble falling to sleep while he was healing. I know they didn't have Ambien back then so I asked him what they did. He said they gave him shots of whiskey until he fell asleep. I had one of those epiphanies. I could see a 17 year old kid, the same age as seniors in my school, laying in a bed in a foreign country, a long way from home, surrounded by strangers, and instead of worrying about his upcoming prom, worrying about if he was going to live or die, and what future if any he had. And someone taught him that if you're struggling with something, booze will help. It all made sense now. And it was certainly understandable.

From that day forward I chose to believe he did the best he could given what had happened to him. Joe South sang a song in the '70's that went "Before you accuse, criticize or abuse, walk a mile in my shoes". Good advice for anyone. Clinging to thoughts like "He shouldn't have...." or "He should have...." is called "shoulding" on him. I'm quite sure he also "should" on himself quite a bit because he knew the effect his drinking had on all of us. But continuing to "should" on him, or for him to keep "shoulding" on himself won't change what has already happened. It would just make it harder to make the best of what time we had left.  


No one's perfect, we all make mistakes. We’re all FHB’s, or Fallible Human Beings, who at times think, feel, say and do things that make our lives worse instead of better. Welcome to the human race. FHB is a term coined by Dr. Albert Ellis.


Taking these four views of what others think, feel, say and do helps me have what Dr. Ellis called Unconditional Other Acceptance (UOA). Taking the same view toward what I think, feel, say and do helps me have  what he called USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance. UOA makes it easier to live with and get along with others, including your students. It makes you the kind of person they'd prefer to be around when they are struggling with something. It also makes it easier for you to be there for them, and hang in there for them when others may give up on them. That might come in handy at some point.  It could even save a student's life.

USA makes it easier to live with and get along with yourself. It's easy for teachers to start believing they're not living up to the expectations of the job, especially with all the demands being placed on them today. At those times, having USA can be very helpful, even career saving. Getting along with yourself also makes it easier to get along with them. Modeling USA, and letting them know you have UOA will help and encourage them to have USA, and learn to live with themselves. That is always important, and could even be lifesaving for some. You can read more about UOA and USA in two places:




On the last day I met with the three oldest boys in my “Tool Time” groups, one said, “When you first started our group we were all jerks. But you never gave up on us. Why?” I told him that it was because I believe that inside every troubled or troublesome kid is someone who would just like the same kind of life they see others around them having, but who just never figured out how to get that for him/herself. Many lose hope, and just give up.

I have always used the term “Lost boys” from Peter Pan for troubled and troublesome kids. Any school has it's share of "lost boys", and girls as well. I believe that our best hope is to always seek out that person in each one of them and help him/her find his/her way. 

To follow up on this point, I always imagine such kids being lost in a forest. Too often what we do with them is like standing at the edge of the forest and yelling advice to them about how to find their way out. That wouldn't work very well. We need to go where they are, look around and see what it's like to be where they are, and then use what we know to help them find their way out. 

This mindset is the basis for the "Tool Time" approach I take with troubled and troublesome students. I was taught and believe that the further into discipline we get, the more positive it should become. The “Tool Time” approach is a way to make discipline more positive. The "tools" I give them help them undertand how they got "lost", and more importantly, help them find their way out. You can read about it at:




This quote comes from a now cancelled TV cop drama called “The Golden Boy”. It’s what a burly veteran detective says to a rookie. “Inside every person are two dogs fighting, one good, one bad. The one that wins is the one that you feed the most”. I believe that too often we end up feeding the wrong dog with the way we approach troublesome students. I always try to feed that good dog.

This is really nothing new. As a child I used to always hear my grandparents say, "You get a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar". It's the same basic idea. And this quote relates to MINDSET 5. That "good dog" is that part of a student that just wants the same kind of life he/she sees other kids having. Feed that part, and they'll love you forever.

I've always believed kids are born with an innate desire to please adults that's built into their DNA. It would make evolutionary sense that such a tendency be there because human children are so dependent on adults for survival for so long, and always have been. But too often, a child's early life events cause him/her to plug into his/her fight or flight response and develop survival strategies that end up being the thoughts, feelings and behavior that make them a "bad dog" in classrooms. Those attitudes, feelings and behaviors that we don't like as teachers are often simply what they learned to do to try to survive difficult circumstances early in their lives.

We need to seek out that part of them that naturally wants to please adults in their lives, and give it opportunities to express or manifest itself. We need to feed the lovable lab instead of the nasty guard dog (much of what they do is defensive).

There's a perfect analogy with "rescue" dogs. Many are abused and have some really "bad" behaviors in the beginning. But with love and patience, they often become loving pets in their adoptive families. Troublesome students often find one person in a building with whom they are a "good" dog. Why? Because that person feeds the "good" dog. Others need to follow that person's lead.


Behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. There is always a lot more going on beneath the surface. And what's beneath the surface is what you really need to be looking for and attend to, just like with an iceberg. 

Behavior is also a symptom rather than just a problem to be eliminated. Behavior teachers don’t like is a symptom of dysfunctional thoughts and feelings students have about themselves, others, life, and what has or is happening to them - thoughts and feelings that they need help with. For example, shame and powerlessness. Shame comes from being told and believing you don't live up to others expectations. Many misbehaving students have had a lifetime of being told and believing that, so they have a lot of shame they privately struggle with. It can manifest in paradoxical ways, like anger and lashing out at others. Teachers are often too caught up in taking offense at such behavior, and reacting to it that they will never consider that it might be the symptom that it really is.

Misbehavior is often also a symptom of a deep sense of powerlessness. Students often try to compensate for this sense of powerlessness by adopting the "mistaken" goals of power and control, or even revenge, and engage in all kinds of power or vengeance-seeking behavior. Many also use anger like a drug to get relief from this sense of powerlessness. Anger gives anyone a false sense of power, as well as a false sense of righteousness, permission and protection from how they feel. That can make it very attractive to students who feel powerless, and cause anger to serve a large purpose in their lives - like an anabolic steroid does for some who life weights and bodybuild. It helps to remember that anger is more often than not a secondary emotion - secondary to feelings like shame, guilt, anxiety, depression and a sense or feeling of powerlessness.

Too often teachers and schools focus too much on behavior, and trying to get students “to behave” using punitive consequences. Without knowing what is going on beneath the surface, such consequences can often interact with a student’s pre-existing thoughts and feelings in ways that only exacerbate them and make matters worse. Consequences just give kids reasons to behave, but they don't teach them how to better manage the thoughts and feelings they have in reaction to what others say and do. As long as they continue to think and feel the way they always have, they'll more than likely to continue to behave the way they always have as well, regardless of what we do to them. And, they will often even get worse.


Teachers need to be more like doctors when students misbehave. Doctors take a patient’s history, and consider signs and symptoms to make a diagnosis before prescribing a treatment. And if that treatment doesn’t work, they run tests to help them better understand what they are dealing with before prescribing further treatment.

Too often teachers approach misbehaving students like a doctor who automatically gives every patient the same treatment, i.e. detentions, suspensions, regardless of their history or signs and symptoms. And when the treatment doesn’t work, or the patient even gets worse, they prescribe more of the same, more often, and for longer durations. What would we think of a doctor who handled patients that way?

Doctors have an extensive knowledge of anatomy and physiology. That's necessary and helpful to them understanding what is wrong with their parents, and what can and can't be done about it - what the best courses of action would be if they intervene. Teachers should have a similar expertise in understanding why students do what they do, misbehave, or struggle emotionally and socially. They don't currently receive sufficient training in this area - nowhere near the equivalent of what doctors do about anatomy and physiology to do their jobs. A child development or developmental psych class is not enough, and in many ways too much of the wrong stuff. Teachers need something much more practical, i.e. Rudolph Dreikurs "mistaken" goals model. 


I like to say that you get either “turtles” (sometimes jackrabbits) or “rattlesnakes” when dealing with troubled or troublesome students. We all have all kinds of expectations placed on us, and place more on ourselves. Shame and guilt come from being told and believing that you don't live up to others expectations. Troubled and troublesome students have usually had a lifetime of being told, and believing that they don’t live up to expectations. Just try to imagine what it's been like to be in their shoes all their lives. I often heard teachers in the lounge say, "The problem with these kids is they have no shame". Actually, the exact opposite is true. They have too much. If you think the problem is that they have no shame, the solution seems to be to shame them into behaving better. But that ends up being like giving alcohol to an alcoholic to get him to stop drinking. 

When students believe they don’t live up to expectations, it’s easier to imagine they won’t in the future, and generate anxiety. Low self-esteem is really shame about the past, and anxiety about the future because of it. Everyday life events (i.e. school work, dealing with other people), and others comments start to seem like bigger threats to them than they really are, or need to be. Many even plug into their fight or flight responses because of this.

That’s how you get “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”. Some suck into their shells, and others coil, rattle, or even strike out. But it’s all defensive, because they feel threatened, just like it is with the real animals. The “turtles” are frustrating to try to teach, but teachers make more mistakes with the “rattlers”. They often take offense at all that posturing, rather than see it as defensive in nature. Too often what teachers do with the “rattlers” is the equivalent of poking a real rattler with a stick. That never ends well for either party, with real rattlers, or the student variety. 

I like to remember how the late Steve Irwin always was with venomous snakes, including rattlers. He knew the snakes just saw him as a threat, and that's why they reactred the way they did. So he tried hard to be, or at least appear to be less of a threat to the snake so it would calm down and let him handle it. The last thing you want to do with a “rattler” is keep poking it with a stick.


Everyone has cognitive, emotional and behavioral ruts from practicing and rehearsing thinking, feeling, saying and doing things the same way throughout their lives. Ruts make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic.

Ruts can be good or bad to have, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions they lead to. Ruts are why people recreate their pasts, and their histories become their destinies. That can be good or bad as well. It's important for teachers to realize that kids with crummy pasts will try to recreate them with teachers. It's like they want to reproduce a play they've starred in many times before in their lives with parents and other teachers playing roles, and will invite us to audition for a part. Teachers are often too quick to accept the invitation to play a part in their play. There was a book written many years ago called "Games Students Play". They are often anything but "games" in the fun sense so it's important for teachers to be aware of such "games" and learn to say "No thanks. I don't want to play". One of my mentors used to say we have Master's degrees in education, but many kids have PhD's in manipulating us into helping them recreate their pasts. Our dean used to always say that the reason he was so effective with students is that he never took what students said or did personal. A lot of it isn't. It's just them recreating their crummy pasts and asking us to be part of doing so. It all stems from "ruts".

An important thing to remember is that once we create ruts, we can’t get rid of them. We can only make new ones and hope they will compete for use with our old ones. But even after doing so, we can always slip into our old ruts, and probably will. People can change for the better, and then revert to their old ways anytime. Brain physiology is a doubled edges sword. It allows us to do so many amazing things, but when we try to change for the better, it can be a curse.

Knowing about “ruts” helps me have Unconditional Other Acceptance for students, especially when they regress or revert to their old ways. Too often teachers expect students to change in a linear progression, and then never revert to their old ways - and get upset when they do. That's an unrealistic expectation given that they have "ruts". When my kids would hang their heads and tell me they had a rough day or week, I would simply say, “Sounds like you just slipped into some of your old ruts. Welcome to the human race. Let's see if we can figure out how to keep it from happening again”. Tool #10 of the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life is "Why change is hard, and what it takes". Read about why change is hard at and what it takes to change at:


I think it's also important for teachers to recognize that we all come to the job with pre-existing cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts" from watching and listening to our parents deal with us, and any brothers and sisters we had. Some of those "ruts" will make some of us "naturals" at dealing with kids. But some of those "ruts" could cause some of us to make a lot of mistakes with kids, especially the most troubled and troublesome ones we can least afford to make mistakes with. For example, as a child, I often heard "Children should be seen and not heard". Imagine having that attitude in a classroom. Another one that is common, and could cause teachers to make a lot of mistakes is "Children should respect their elders", or something to that effect. We may not even be aware that we have such "ruts" until we find ourselves in difficult situations with students, and we end up sounding a lot like our parents. Some teachers will pick up on the fact that they do, and even say, "Geez, I sound like my father". But not all teachers do.  


I teach students a few simple rules. One is that everyone has the right to want whatever they want. A second is that everyone has the right to like or dislike whatever they want to.

We have a right to want students to cooperate and do what we ask. It’s when we start to demand that they do what we want that we’ll overreact emotionally with anger when they don’t – as some inevitably won’t. We have a right to not like what they say and do, but if we tell ourselves we can’t stand it, we'll needlessly inflame ourselves to no good end.

Dr. Albert Ellis called the first type of irrational thinking Demandiness. It’s always better to invite or request cooperation than to demand obedience. The latter sets us up for getting angry if or when they don’t do what we want them to.  The second type of thinking is called Can’t Stand It-itis because we needlessly inflame ourselves by telling ourselves we can’t stand things we simply don’t like.

The other side of this is that students also have the right to want whatever they want, even if I don't agree with it, or it might be inconvenient or conflict with what I want. If I want them to respect my right to want whatever I want, it only makes sense to me to respect their right to want whatever they want. If we take the position that they shouldn't want what they do, too often that just makes it a "forbidden fruit" and it becomes about power and control instead of what's best for them. But there are two important questions that need to be asked even if I do respect their right to want whatever they want. One is whether the way they think, feel, say and do things is working for them or not - is it helping them to get what they really want in the long run, or making doing so harder? And second, if what we each want conflicts in some way, how can we make it work so we both get as much of what we want as possible?


The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So many times in my career I've seen teachers say and do things to students that I know they would have been furious about if someone else had said and done the same thing to them. For example, if their principal had said and done the same thing to them at a faculty meeting in front of all their colleagues.

My mother used to always ask me, "How would you feel if something did that to you?" It's a good question for teachers to ask themselves about what they say and do to students. 

Another aspect to this is that teachers often behave just like students at times. For example grading papers (or worse reading a newspaper or checking emails) when someone is speaking at a faculty meeting or on an institute day. Those are the very kind of behaviors they would resent if students did them while they were teaching. There's an old saying, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander". 


The only person I control, and ever want to control is me. That’s a big enough job.

This is part of learning to have what is called an internal locus of control. We can't and don't really control what others think, feel, say and do. Many people want to, and think, talk and act as if they can, but we really can't. And by trying, you just invited others to rebel, and to even behave stupidly by saying and doing things that aren't good for them, just to prove they can, and that we can't stop them.

Too many people spend too much time, energy and effort trying to control things they can't, like what others think, feel, say and do. The more you do, the more out of control YOUR life will seem. They also spend too little time, energy and effort trying to control what they can; what they think, feel, say and do. That's a big enough job for most of us, let alone trying to take on what others do. The more you focus on learning to control what you think, feel, say and do, the more in control you'll feel, and the less fights you'll pick with students.

I have never wanted to control anyone, or have them think I was trying to. That just backfires in too many ways. There are always some students who are quick to adopt the "mistaken" goals of power and control, and seem to dare you to try to control them or exert power over them, just so they can prove to you that you don't and can't. When I sense this, I will deliberately make a point to admit publicly that I don't control anyone. For example, "I don't control you. No one does. Only you can do that. I don't want to, and know that if I try, you'll just want to show me I can't even more. I don't want to get into that. So please stop what you're doing". 

Here's a little test. Suppose a student says "I can do whatever I want to"? What would be your immediate thought? Perhaps something like "No you can't. You have to follow the rules like everyone else"? Mine is "You're right. You can". So which is really true? These are two theories about the way life is or should be. Every thought we have or comment we make is just that - our theory or hypothesis. The closer our theories match the evidence, the less emotion we'll generate needlessly. The reality is that kids can do whatever they want to. If we tell them they can't, it just invites them to do it just to prove to us they can. I usually follow with "So now that we've acknowledged that, how about we try to find a way to make this work instead of finding something to fight about"

Suppose a student says "We shouldn't have to do this"? What's your first thought? Perhaps "Well you do and that's all there is too it". Mine is "You don't. You don't have to do anything". Of course I'm also thinking "And neither do I", For example, I don't have to give the student a passing grade, or let him/her do what they want without a consequence.

This way of responding is actually called "Taking the wind out of their sails". Some students who are used to getting into it with adults in their lives will dare you to try to exercise power and control over them just so they can prove to you that you don't really have it. Saying things like the above are common ways such students will "bait" teachers. Too often teachers will "bite" and get "hooked" into a power struggle. Having the mindset that you don't really control them, and don't really want to, helps you avoid needless and futile power struggles.

You can read more about how to develop an internal locus of control in the following two places:




I don’t like when people say they have a “problem” with a student. I don’t like it for a number of reasons. I had teachers tell me that about my own daughter too many times, and I never like hearing it. I had to deal with the same kinds of simple misbehaviors as they did with my daughter, and they seemed to always make what she did into a much bigger deal than it needed to be. Labeling what any student does a problem is inflammatory. It’s inflammatory because it usually is the product of irrational thinking. Alfred Adler used to say, "A problem is a misbehavior that gets mismanaged". Misbehaviors get mismanaged because of irrational thoughts teachers have, just like so many other people do.

For example, a teacher thinking a student shouldn’t or can't do what he/she did, or that he/she should have done something else instead. For example, “They can’t/shouldn't talk to me that way” or “They have to/should do what I tell them”. Dr. Albert Ellis called this Demandiness, and "shoulding" on others, and sit sets teachers up for getting more upset than is helpful or necessary.

Labeling what a student did a problem is also usually the product of a teacher AWFULIZING, or thinking what a student said or did is awful, rather than just unpleasant, inconvenient or uncomfortable in some way. Awful implies the worse possible thing that they could have done, so it's more often than not an example of "making a mountain out of a mole hill". 

Third, it’s often a product of teachers telling themselves they can’t stand something a student did, instead of simply not liking it.  If someone truly couldn't stand something, they'd die or go crazy. So telling yourself you can't stand what a student did is needlessly inflammatory. Dr. Ellis called this "CAN'T STAND IT-ITIS" because we needlessly inflame ourselves by telling ourselves we can't stand something we simply don't like.

Finally, there is often what Ellis called LABELING AND DAMNING going on, if only in the teacher's mind. For example “That kid’s a punk”, or "He's really a brat". A student doing something we don't like doesn't make them a "punk", "brat" or anything else. Ellis called labeling and damning blatant over generalization, like calling an apple "bad" simply because it has a bruise. Or, calling a student "stupid" simply because he/she did a stupid thing. Smart people can do stupid things. It's condemning the doer instead of the deed. It never helps to label and damn others, or ourselves.

There’s a formula for how we all come to feel, say and do what we do.


Technically, anything a student says or does is just an EVENT in our lives. It’s really what we choose to THINK about such EVENTS that really determines how we feel, not what they say or do. Furthermore, attitude is always the father of behavior, and our behavior will follow our emotions toward our life events, i.e get angry and you'll act like angry people do. The point being that what students say and do does not make us do anything. It's what we think and feel about what they do that does.

So my mindset has always been:

“It’s not a problem. It’s just an EVENT. It’s just something I have to deal with, just like others do, just like I have in the past, and probably will again in the future”

And then I also remind myself that:

“It’s my choice how I want to look at things. Some ways will make me feel better, others worse. Some will make it easier to deal with what kids do, others harder. And I always have a choice”

Life is really just a steady stream of events, one after another. Some real, some imagined, and some remembered. And the mindset we adopt will make all the difference in the world in how we end up feeling, and how easy or hard it is to deal with such events, be they in the classroom or outside of it.


Many years ago, I was complaining to a counselor (and good friend) about what some of his counselees had done in my class that day. He finally got tired of listening to me rant and complain and said, “Look Ray, it’s your choice how you want to feel”.  I didn’t take it well, but he explained that it was really how I chose to look at things that made me feel the way I did. I then asked him “How am I supposed to look at things”. He said something I’ve never forgotten:

“Right now you’re looking at having those kids in your class as a problem. Why not look at it as a challenge, or opportunity to prove you’re as good a teacher as you and I both think you are”

From that day forward, that’s exactly how I’ve always chosen to look at things students do that I don’t like.

“It’s not a problem. It’s a challenge, and opportunity”

An opportunity to get better at dealing with troubled and troublesome students, and prove I’m good at doing it. 

Then I always take pride in being able to deal with things I don’t like, or with troubled and troublesome students better than I did before, and better than other teachers do.


"No one upsets me, I upset myself". I first read this statement in an article about cardiac rehab. It summed up what they tried to teach cardiac patients about their emotions. The reason being that if they needlessly disturb themselves, and start taxing their heart too much, they could go into cardiac arrest and die. They have a big interest therefore in learning how not to. That's about the same time I began taking graduate classes for educators in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Education (REBE) developed by the late Dr. Albert Ellis. Like my mentor always said, "My classes are cheap therapy", and they were. They taught me to have an internal locus of control, that it's really what I choose to think about what happens, what kids say and do, that really determines how I feel. It's not what happens, what kids say and do. Some companion statements I created for myself that are consistent with this mindset are:

"I'm responsible for how I feel, not others"

     (They're not responsible for how I feel, I am)

"It's my choice how I want to feel"

"It's not their problem if I feel bad, it's mine"

     (It's my problem if I feel bad, not theirs)

"It's not their job to make me feel better, it's mine"

     (It's my job to make me feel better, not theirs)

Rather than elaborate on how to develop an internal locus of control here, I'll simply refer you to links that I have already that will explain what it means, and how to develop one. Suffice to say that anyone can learn to have a great deal of control over how they feel, and their emotional destiny. We can't always control what happens, and don't control other people, but we can learn to control how we choose to think about such things, and thereby how we feel.



Perhaps the most important mindset of all is simply that I never want to argue or fight with kids, and always prefer to find a way to get along, or at least peacefully coexist (to borrow a Cold War term). When I sense students are hell bent on picking a fight for some reason, my first move is often simply to say "Please don't do this. I really don't want to argue or fight with you about this. I'd much rather find a way to make it work for both of us". I say the same thing to my wife and daughter as well. It works with anyone. 

At the very least, I will often say nothing. One of my rules as a teacher is "Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing". My mentor always told us, "It takes one fool to back talk, and two to make a conversation out of it". A fire will burn itself out if you simply don't throw fuel on it. Too often teachers do. I try not to, and starting with the mindset that I really don't want to fight and argue with kids helps.

I know where this mindset comes from. My family life involved a lot of fighting and arguing between my parents. I never liked it, and it always seemed so repetitive, pointless, and most importantly, avoidable. I guess I was motivated from early on in my life to try to be a peacemaker, to avoid unnecessary conflicts, and to try to quickly and peacefully resolve them when they arose. Reading "Blessed are the peacemakes" in the Bible probably played a role as well. You can get pretty good at it if you practice. But it helps to have the mindset that you simply don't want to spend your time on this planet arguing and fighting with people. As they say, "Where there's a will, there's a way".


There are some simple questions we can ask ourselves to evaluate our own mindets. amd ask students to get them to evaluate theirs. 

1) What do you really want?

What do you want to accomplish with your students, especially the most troublesome ones? What do you want your time with them to be like? How do you want to feel when you are with them, and after they leave? Do you want to be angry, or feel like you're actually making a difference in their lives?

2) How's it working for you and other teachers to think or look at things the way you do now?

It's always what you choose to think that really causes how you feel, not what kids do. Attitude is also always the father of behavior. Does the way you think or look at thing now help you get what you want with troublesome students, or make it harder?

3) If you and others keep thinking or looking at things the ways you do now, will it be easier or harder to get what you really want in the future?


JFK once said, "The problems of man are man-made". You've already read my position on the word "problem", but troublesome students are often seen as "problems". Troublesome students weren't born the way they are. They're man-made. Ultimately they are the product of what adults before you (and sometimes other kids) have said and done to them. What those adults said or did was ultimately the product of how they chose to look at things, and how they made themselves feel because of it, i.e. angry. In other words, it was a product of their mindsets before, while and after your troublesome students did what they did. Troublesome students are also the product of how they chose to start looking at what people did to them, the mindsets they've developed over the years. That's understandable given what's happened to them. We'd probably have done the same if adults in our lives had treated us the same ways. 

In the book "Changing Problem Behavior in Schools", Dr. Alex Molnar calls such mindsets "frozen" perceptions. Teachers have them about students, students about teachers, themselves and other students. He says that when we have chronic "problem" situations, these "frozen" perceptions are always a big part of maintaining things the way they are. 

JFK went on to say that "They can be solved by man". But Einstein said, "You can't solve a problem with the same mind that created it". 


One of my mentors said, "Sometimes we expect those who are least able to change to change first, and change the most". Too often teachers simply expect troublesome students to be the ones who change, and to change first and change the most. Yes, they will typically need to change how they think, feel, say and do things if they are ever going to have the life they would like to have. However, too often teachers and administrators continue to do the equivalent of poking a rattlesnake with a stick because they cling to their old mindsets. Keep poking your "rattlers" and they'll keep striking out. My mentor suggested that WE be the ones to make the first move, to change first. A good place to start is with our mindsets. 

There's a simple example of how we can do this called "The Miracle Cure". You simply pretend that your troublesome student goes home one night and takes a pill that turns him/her into the student you'd like him/her to be. How would you think, feel, say and do things differently with them if this happened? Then do that the next day and see what happens. You'd be amazed at how well it works. And then keep doing it no matter what happens, because remember that they will probably slip into to their old ruts. They will have a tendency to recreate their pasts, and invite you to help them. Don't accept the invitation, for their sake, and your own. You can read more about this simple strategy, and why it works at:



As noted in number 8 above, it's important to remember that we all create "ruts" in our brains for thinking or looking at things certain ways from practicing and rehearsing doing so many times in our lives. We also create emotional and behavioral "ruts" that follow from our cognitive ones. "Ruts" make our thoughts, feelings and behaviors automatic. And once we create such "ruts", we can't get rid of them. We can only make new ones, and hope they compete for use with our old ones.

We do that by first making a new connection or pathway between nerve cells in our brains for thinking, feeling, saying or doing something differently. Then we need to practice and rehearse that new thought, feeling or behavior until IT becomes a "rut" and can compete for use with out old ones for use. That’s what you might have to do to adopt these mindsets as your own, to make them automatic, and for them to compete for use with previous mindsets that may not have worked. But accept that you may slip into your old “ruts” at any time. After all, you've been practicing thinking, feeling, saying and doing what you do all your life. Just handle it the same way you would if you mindlessly took your old, less efficient way to work some morning. Either turn around, or just promise yourself (and perhaps the student) to take your new way the next time.


Chances are, if you’re like most human beings, you probably have four basic types of irrational thinking already "rutted" in your brain that cause you to feel worse than necessary or helpful, than you want to, and that make dealing with troublesome students harder instead of easier. That's pretty common for most parents and teachers, and understandable given our own upbringing and life experiences. The four types of irrational thinking identified by Dr. Albert Ellis are called Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can't Stand It-itis, and Labeling and Damning. Teachers will often get into the habit of demanding obedience from students, especially the most troublesome ones. They will awfulize about the behavior they do get, tell themselves they can't stand what such students do, and often label and damn them under their breath, or sometimes even out loud. You can read about these four types of irrational thinking at:


You can read about how to correct them at:


To keep these types of irrational thoughts from continuing to make you feel worse than necessary or helpful, and to react or overreact to what troublesome students say and do, you'll need to practice correcting irrational thinking in the way described. By "rutting" these ways of correcting irrational thinking in your brain, you'll begin to do such correcting automatically. This process will become in your brain much like grammar check is on a computer.


Here is the short list of the mindsets listed above I promised earlier. 

1. Anything any of us thinks, feels, says or does is understandable given that we’re human, fallible, and what we each have been through in our lives so far.

2. No one will ever be the first or last human being to think, feel, say or do something.

3. People all do the best they can at the time given what their life experiences have been.

4. No one's perfect, we all make mistakes. We’re all FHB’s, or Fallible Human Beings

5. Inside every troubled or troublesome kid is someone who would just like the same kind of life they see others around them having, but who just never figured out how to get that for him/herself.

6. Inside every person are two dogs fighting, one good, one bad. The one that wins is the one that you feed the most

7. Behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. It's also a symptom 

8. Teachers need to be more like doctors

9. You get either “turtles” (sometimes jackrabbits) or “rattlesnakes” when dealing with troubled or troublesome students.

10. Everyone has cognitive, emotional and behavioral ruts. Ruts can be good or bad to have. Ruts are why people recreate their pasts, and their histories become their destinies. Once we create ruts, we can’t get rid of them. We can only make new ones.

11. Everyone has the right to want whatever they want. Everyone has the right to like or dislike whatever they want to.

12. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

13. The only person I control, and ever want to control is me.

14. It’s not a problem. It’s just an EVENT. It’s just something I have to deal with

15. It’s not a problem. It’s a challenge, and opportunity

16. No one upsets me, I upset myself

17. I never want to argue or fight with kids, and always prefer to find a way to get along, or at least peacefully coexist 



12.02.2017 14:30

Sonjyia Bryant

Thank you!

02.11.2015 00:37

Annette Young

very interesting

27.10.2015 21:30

Hisham Menessi

it is ultimately important for teachers who have troublesome students to study and learn much about them. Teachers have to raise the students' morals and spirits and induce them to practise success.

23.10.2015 14:21

Mary Jayne Brown

This is an excellent article. Helped me to resurrect beliefs and practices that have fallen to the wayside over time. Thank you.

23.10.2015 14:36

Ray Mathis

I often make a list of such beliefs, or "rules". You could even copy and paste one from the article. Like keeping a map handy.

23.10.2015 14:34

Ray Mathis

You're welcomed Mary Jayne. It's easy to get "lost" and lose sight of our original beliefs when you get on that treadmill that is teaching and get a lot of challenges to boot.

18.10.2015 03:34

Barnaby Spring

These are all great seeds of wisdom and experience. Such seeds rarely take root in mental ground of the mind itself. Mindfulness practice and strategies fertilize the ground for mindsets described.

17.10.2015 15:01


Great thoughts on how to help build teacher resilience!

17.10.2015 15:22

Ray Mathis

Eldon, for resiliency, please check out the Teacher ESP - Effectiveness and Stress Prevention site - www.teacheresp.com

16.10.2015 09:00

Shanthi Vedanayakam

Good behavior management strategies, thank you for sharing

14.10.2015 01:26


Thank you for sharing; as expected, Dr. Marzano offers eye-opening insight into our lives as teachers.

13.10.2015 21:37


I have done some wonderful reading and reflections from this page- as a teacher it is the most useful refreshing reading I have ever done. Thanks.

13.10.2015 20:55


Excellent article. Much food for thought.