The "Tool Time" Approach for troubled and troublesome students


There is a Tao saying, "Advice is stupid because fools won't use it, and wise men already know it". 

When I was a health education teacher, I always knew simply dispensing information and advice was never going to be enough. That’s why I became certified in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). I used what I learned to develop “The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life” approach for my classes. I always believed the approach could be especially helpful to the most troubled and troublesome students I had. 

When I retired from the classroom, I volunteered to teach the “tools” to the most troubled and troublesome kids at my wife’s school. The kids named the groups “Tool Time”. At the end of two years, my three oldest graduated on time. The one who had dropped out before received the “biggest turn around” award at a school assembly.


In a TV drama called “The Golden Boy”, a burly veteran detective tells a rookie, “Inside every person are two dogs fighting, one good, one bad. The one that wins is the one you feed the most”. We feed the wrong dog too often with troubled and troublesome students.

The last day with my oldest guys, Kyle said, “We were $%&#$ when you started group, but you never gave up on us. Why?” I told them, “Because I believed that inside each one of you was a kid that just wanted the kind of life he saw other kids have, and just never knew how to get that for himself. And may have given up hope. That’s the kid I went looking for every time we met, and the one I wanted to work with, and teach everything I know”. It's the part of each troubled and troublesome kid I think we should always seek out, try to give hope to, and help him/her find their way.

Mindset is key to dealing with those troubled and troublesome students most teachers don't like having to deal with. I invite you to read about the helpful mindsets that have helped me welcome and even seek out chances to deal with such students at:


These kids have a deep sense of powerlessness. It's why they so often give up, or have "mistaken" goals like power and control, and even revenge, and engage in behaviors adults and even other kids don't like, i.e. bullying. This powerlessness often comes from having overbearing, even abusive adults in their lives, and having many hurtful things said and done to them that they couldn't stop or defend themselves against. It can also simply come from not ever being able to feel the way they want to about themselves or anything else, and not being able to get their lives to turn out as they'd like, or like they see so many other kids' lives turn out for them. 


They have typically had a lifetime of believing and being told they don't live up to expectations, so they have a lot of shame. Unfortunately, many teachers think "The problem with these kids is they have  no shame", so they try to shame them into "behaving". That ends up being like giving an alcoholic booze to stop their drinking.

Shame has all kinds of untoward effects. It causes them to keep secrets, which can play out in some pretty destructive or self-destructive ways, including suicide. It makes them less likely to seek or accept help, for fear that doing so would reflect badly on them, and be more evidence they don't live up to expectation. Albert Ellis summed this up by saying "Shame blocks change".

Shame plays out as anxiety and anger. When you believe you don't live up to expectation, everyday life events become bigger threats than they are or need to be. Kids become "turtles" and/or "rattlesnakes" - they suck into their shells, or coil, rattle and even strike out at others. The second is often a common response to others comments. Both reactions are purely defensive, just like in the real animals. "Turtles" are frustrating for teachers, but they make the most mistakes with the "rattlers". Teachers take offense and what they do ends up being the equivalent of poking a real rattler witha stick. That never ends well for either party.


These kids often use anger like a drug for the false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection it gives them. The more powerless they feel, the more they've heard about what they've done wrong, the more hurtful things they've had said and done to them, and the more shame, guilt, anxiety and depression they struggle with, the more purpose anger will serve in their lives - and the more they'll resort to it. It's like an anabolic steroid for them in many ways.


There's an old saying "Look at your past, but don't stare at it". That's exactly what most troubled and troublesome students get stuck doing - staring at their past. And others usually encourage them to do more of that. Typical discipline interventions often end up being "Look what you did AGAIN!". The “Tool Time” approach is designed to deal with each of the problems listed above, but more than anything else, it's about their future, not the past. It encourages to look forward instead of back.


Let them know you have Unconditional Other Acceptance for them and every other human being - that you believe that anything we all think, feel, say and do is understandable given that we human, fallible, and what we have each been through.

You can read more about UOA, and USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance at:


Promise to teach them how to have real power and control over, and in their lives (and to be smarter in some very important ways than most other people). REAL power and control means being able to: 

a. choose if they're going to get upset or not 
b. feel the way they've always wanted to about themselves 
c. feel as good as possible regardless of what happens 
d. keep other people out of their heads 
e. defend themselves against people who have liven there too long rent free 
f.  stop doing unhealthy, self-defeating things they've always wanted to 
g. have their best shot at having their lives turn out the way they've always wanted

I also promise to teach them how to be smarter than most other people walking the planet, in some very important ways. (Most of these kids have spent a lifetime thinking everyone was smarter than them) 


Encourage them to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and how to do that - and to stop beating up on themselves privately. 

Shame creates so many untoward effects that play out in ways they are unhelpful for troubled and troublesome students, and that teachers and other students don't like. Beating up on themselves just makes them less likely to want to face things that need fixing. They have to be willing to face what might be "broken" to fix it. Dr. Albert Ellis always said "Shame blocks change". Shame causes students to keep secrets, which itself can play out in some unhelpful, even tragic ways. It also makes those who most need help less likely to seek it, or accept it if it's offered. The way to counter the unhelpful effects of shame is to teach and encourage students to have USA. Having and letting them know you have UOA can help facilitate the development of USA in students.


Talk about the things all people want in life, i.e. longevity, good health, success, good relations, freedom, control over their destiny

There's an old saying, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else". Most troubled and troublesome students have had "mistaken" goals for so long that they lose sight of what they really want. When first asked, they will struggle to put an answer together, or into words. It's important they refocus on what they really want, which are probably much the same things everyone else wants.


Teach them about "mistaken" goals and how to recognize them in themselves and others

Troubled and troublesome students will often have what Rudolph Dreikurs called "mistaken" goals that give rise to much of the behavior that teachers and other students don't like. For example, Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, Avoidance of Failure, and Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief. Mistaken goals get people off course from what they might really want in life. They often do achieve their "mistaken" goals so the behavior we don't like get reinforced, but in achieving their "mistaken" goals, they make it less likely they will get what they really want in the long run. 

You can read about "mistaken" goals at:


Teach them a simple and nonjudgmental way to evaluate their own thoughts, feelings and actions. 

This is important to counteract their tendencies to have "mistaken" goals, and beat up on themselves and feel ashamed and guilty. It involves simply asking three questions.

a) What do you really want?

b) How's it working for you to think, feel, say and do what you do now?

c) If you keep thinking, feeling, saying and doing what you do now, will it be easier or harder to get what you really want in the future?

You can read more about this approach at:


Teach them why change is hard, and what it takes to change

Many have tried to change, and failed because they simply didn't understand what they were up against, and what it would take. They still want to change for the better, but have lost hope of ever being able to because of past attempts that ended in failure.

We all develop cognitive, emotional and behavioral "ruts" in our brains from practicing and rehearsing thinking, feeling, saying and doing things the same way many, many times. "Ruts" make thoughts, feelings and behaviors automatic. "Ruts" can be good or bad things to have, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions they lead to. "Ruts" are why people recreate their pasts, and their histories often become their destinies. That can be good or bad news as well. The catch is that once we make such "ruts" in our brains, we can't get rid of them. We can only make new ones.

Learning about "ruts" also helps them learn to have USA. It helps us have UOA for them. 

You can read about "ruts" at:


Teach them the important role emotion plays in their everyday life - teach them a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model

They obviously know they have more emotion than is helpful or necessary, more than they want to have, more than is healthy for them, and more than they usually know what to do with. The exception is anger, because it gives them a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection that precludes them from seeing the "error of their ways". 

A THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat helps them see where they are at any given moment emotionally and behaviorally, and why they are there in terms of their thinking. It also shows them where they might want to be instead, and what it will take to get there cognitively. Therefore, it can be a valuable tool.

There's an article on this blog about how to construct one:

Or I can email you a copy. Contact me at:


Teach them to have an internal locus of control

The vast majority of people walking this planet, including troubled and troublesome students, have an external locus of control. They wrongly believe that it's what others say and do, and what happens, that makes them feel the way they do. This needlessly puts them at the mercy of others, and their life events, and usually ends with them feeling worse than necessary or helpful, for longer than they need to. More importantly, it causes them to miss many opportunities to feel better.

It's really what we each choose to think about what happens, and what others say or do that really determine how we feel. And we all have a host of cognitive choices that we make all the time. These are choices that we alone can make, unless we let others make them for us. People do that all the time, and it's understandable that they do. But people can be taught and learn to make these choices for themselves, and in better ways.

Learning to have REAL power and control over their emotional destiny can be very helpful for troubled and troublesome students. Developing an internal locus of control is an important first step in learning to have control over their emotional thermostat. The better they learn to self-manage, the better their life gets, and the easier our jobs get.  

You can read about how to teach them to have an internal locus of control at:


Teach them to recognize irrational thinking in themselves and others 

Ultimately, it's their thoughts that cause how they feel, and their attitudes about themselvves, others and life, and what happens to them are always the father of their behavior. Furthermore, their behavior will follow their emotions toward their life events. Learning to recognize and become more consciously aware of irrational thinking in themselves and others is an important step in learning to correct it. If they don't recognize it as irrational, they won't be motivated to correct it. 

Dr. Albert Ellis identified four basic types of irrational thinking: Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can't Stand It-itis, and Label and Damning. It's relatively easy to teach kids to recognize these types of thoughts in themselves and others.

You can read more about these four types of irrational thinking at:


Teach them how to correct that irrational thinking

They will continue to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion as long as they continue to think about themselves, others, life, and what happens to them, or has in the past the same way they always have. Their behavior will typically not change until these attitudes about things change. That's why learning to correct their irrational thinking is so crucial to their changing for the better. It's called cognitive restructuring.

There are a lot of ways to temporarily FEEL better. Some are healthy, many are not. Many troubled and troublesome students engage in all manner of unhealthy behaviors to temporarily feel better. GETTING better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of troublesome feelings. The only way to GET better is to change the way they think.  

You can read how to correct irrational thinking at:


Teach them a step-by-step approach to troublesome life events 

Troubled and troublesome students will have dysfunctional cognitive, emotional and behavioral ruts that they plug into automatically that cause them to react instead of respond to life situations in the same ways they always have. This predisposed them to have those situations turn out the same way they always have - which often isn't helpful. 

This is why teaching them a new an better way to approach any potentially troubling situation is so important. And having them practice responding to situations in a step-by-step fashion.

In mathematics, students are taught that if they approach new problems in the same methodical step-by-step way, they are more likely to get the right answer. That's true in everyday life as well.

You can read about Dr. Albert Ellis' steps at:


Teach and encourage them to assert themselves with I Messages.

Like most other people, troubled and troublesome students probably use YOU Messages when responding to others, especially when angry. Learning and practicing using I Messages can be very helpful in many ways. It can also be a way for them to put their behavior where they (and we) want their attitdes to be. If you practice talking to others with I Messages, it changes your attitudes and thinking for the better. 

You can read more about I Messages at:


Help them practice applying these "tools" to their daily struggles, to fix anything that might get broken, and build something better for themselves

Consider this. Suppose you had to contend with unstable furniture all day because of loose screws.  But you didn't own and had never used a screwdriver. If I gave you one, and quickly showed you how to use it, I'm betting you will immediately tighten all those loose screws and bring stability to your life. Troubled and troublesome students will do the same if we give them the right tools. And as I was always told when I worked construction as a teen, "Any job is easy if you use the right tool".

I actually made posters that summarized each of the ten "tools" in the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life, and hung them in the room we met in for my "Tool Time" groups. When we discussed an issue or problem that had come up in a student's life, I'd ask them to tell me which "tool" might help them make better sense of what things happened and turned out the way they did, and how they could "fix" what was broken.

You can read more about the steps of the "Tool Time" approach at:

You can read about how these same "tools" that can help any teacher get in the best possible mental and emotional place to deal with students effectively, especially the most troublesome ones, at:



17.01.2017 14:31

Esther William

Very useful and practical advice cum stategy

18.10.2015 13:44

Vijay Laxmi singh

Lovely piece of information

16.10.2015 08:24


Excellent info...
Good behavior management strategies...
Me gonna use them creatively...

14.10.2015 06:13


Very useful piece of information

14.10.2015 14:14

Ray Mathis

Thanks John. I've found it works very well. Just have to remember change won't follow a linear path. I invite you to read about MINDSETs that help at:

12.10.2015 22:26


excellent article, very helpful for adults as well

14.10.2015 14:12

Ray Mathis

Thanks Mary. If you haven't yet, I invite you to read the piece on MINDSET at: