The Truth About Controlling Students


Teachers are expected to control students. That expectation is a set up for needless conflicts with students, and for ones that do arise to end like the one in the S.C. classroom. The reason is very simple. It's based on an erroneous premise - that teachers can actually control students, and therefore should. But the reality is that they can't. Some think, talk and act like they do, and can, but they really can't. And there are always some students who will dare teachers to try, and who are ready to prove that teachers can't. It's the recipe for a lot of needless and futile power struggles, some of which can end like the one in S.C. 


Many teachers think, talk and act as if they control students. It’s inherent to an authoritarian mindset, one they often inherit from being parented and taught by people who thought the same thing, and acted the same way. But it sets them up for perceiving misbehavior or defiance in students as disrespectful, and as a bigger threat than it really is, or needs to be. If they believe they have to control students, and students have to show respect and obey at all times, they can literally plug into their fight or flight response and overreact emotionally and behaviorally when students don’t.


Meanwhile you have students who feel powerless and often have the mistaken goal of power and control. They seek to compensate for their sense of powerlessness by demonstrating that they do have power and are in control of their lives instead of adults.  Power and control over our own lives is something we all want. It’s probably built into human DNA to help us survive. When students feel powerless, power and control will become more than just something they want or desire. It will become a perceived need, something they think they need like air, water and food in their lives. They will often be willing to do anything to gain a sense of power and control regardless of the consequences, and will feel threatened by anyone they perceive as trying to exercise power and control over them.


Put an authoritarian minded teacher who believes he/she can and must control students in the same room with a student who feels powerless and his hell bent on having power and control over their own life, and not letting anyone else have it, and you’ve got the recipe for disaster. The authoritarian minded teacher will make him/herself angry and adopt the same mistaken goal of power and control, and even revenge. That should never happen when dealing with students, but it too often does because teachers have an authoritarian mindset that sets them up for both.

You can end up with a scene that looks like someone trying to kill a rattlesnake because it struck out at or bit them. It never ends well for either party, with real rattlers in the wild, or authoritarian teachers and defiant students in a classroom. It’s probably what set the stage for that incident in S.C. Except the female students had very little “bite” compared to the much larger police officer. And though he and the teacher and administrator involved may have perceived her comments as “venomous”, they really weren’t. It was their thoughts about her comments that made them seem that way.


The reality is that we never ever do control what other human beings think, feel, say or do. We only control what we do. Sometimes students give adults the illusion that they have control over them because they choose to comply or cooperate rather than risk the consequences – what we might do in response.


Many years ago, a ccounselor shared some videos on "Active Parenting". In them, the speaker talked about a formula they use to help parents see how life unfolds when they interact with their children. It's based on the work of Dr. Albert Ellis. The formula is:


Whatever their child or teen says of does is just an EVENT, as well as anything they imagine their child or teen might do. They generate thoughts about these real or imagined EVENTS. That's what the brain constantly does - tries to make sense out of what is happening. The meanings parents attach to the real or imagined EVENTS may cause some feelings to be generated, especially if what the child does is perceived as a threat of some kind. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. That's an important corollary of this formula. This e-motion is energy to move, designed to help people get what they want and need, and deal with threats. Their thoughts also can give rise to behavior. Attitude is always the father of behavior. Finally, their behavior will follow their emotions toward their life events.


Life unfolds in the same way for children and students. I like to draw a circle on the chalkboard (I'm dating myself). I divide it into two halves. In one half, I write the word "YOU" and in the other half I write "THEM". Then I write this formula around the circumference of both halves of the circle, going counterclockwise. The point being that what a child or student does is just an EVENT for a parent or teacher. They generate thoughts about what the child says or does, which can give rise to feelings and behavior. Their behavior becomes an EVENT for their child or student. Their child or students generates thoughts, feelings and behavior. The new behavior becomes another EVENT for the parent or teachers. And away we go!

Then I always ask two simple questions:

"Which half of this circle do you have control over?"

I've never had a student or teacher get this question wrong when it's laid out visually for them in this way. They always answer "YOU".

"Which half of the circle do most people spend most of their time, energy and effort trying to control?"

No one ever gets this question wrong either. They always answer "THEM".

Then I suggest that's why what so many people say and do doesn't work, and only invites others to defy them, resist or rebel. 


The trick is to use what we do control to influence what students choose to think, feel, and do. Like so many other things, there is a science and an art to doing so. We always want to say and do whatever we do in a reasonable and respectful, matter of fact, business-like way, preferably with as little emotion as possible. Definitely without anger. It’s emotional nitroglycerin and will make us overreact, even go ballistic and explode. The key to being able to do that is the mindset we bring to any encounter with students, and what we choose to think about what they say and do before, while and after they do it.


To avoid conflicts with students, and keep ones that do arise from escalating, it helps to have an internal locus of control. Most teachers have an external locus of control, and wrongly believe that what students say and do is what upsets them. That actually puts them at the mercy of what students say and do, and sets them up to feel worse than will probably be helpful or necessary. Seeing students as the cause of feeling ways they really don’t like or want to feel makes students seem like a threat that they really aren’t. Giving a student the status of a threat makes teachers more likely to plug into their fight or flight response and to react or even overreact to what the student has said or done. That is what fight or flight is intended to make us do.

It would be extremely helpful if teachers rehearse and practice the adage that “No one upsets me, I upset myself”. Some other statements they could practice and rehearse include:

“It’s my choice how I want to feel”.

“They’re not responsible for how I feel, I am”

“It’s not their problem if I get upset, it’s mine”

“It’s not their job to make me feel better, it’s mine”


The reason all these things are scientifically true can be seen in a formula for feelings.


Anything a student says or does is just an event in our lives. It’s what we choose to think about these or any other events that really determines how we feel, not the events. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. And we have all kinds of what I call cognitive choices, including how we want to look at what happens, and what meaning we want to attach to it. So it also helps to remind ourselves that we do have such choices. For example:

“It’s my choice how I look at things”

“It’s my choice what meaning I attach to what they do”

“It’s my choice how much importance I attach to what they say and do”

You can read more about how to develop an internal locus of control, and other cognitive choices we always have at:


Teachers have to be aware that believing that students upset them is well “rutted” in their brains from a lifetime of looking at things this way. So it will be automatic for them to look at things this way. They will also have all kinds of other cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” that they can easily slip into, and that make their thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. They’ll have a tendency to think, feel, say and do what they always have in the past, even if it didn’t work then, and probably won’t work now.

Unfortunately, once we create such “ruts” in this way, we can’t get rid of them. We can only make new ones. The only way to combat our tendency to blame students for being upset is to practice and rehearse these new thoughts until they become rutted and automatic, and can compete with our old ways of looking at things. But we can always slip back into our old ruts and wrongly blame students for how we feel.


Part of developing an internal locus of control is recognizing and reminding ourselves of what we do and don’t control. So it would also be helpful to practice and rehearse statements like:

“The only person I control is me”

“I don’t and can’t control what students say or do”

“Kids can think, feel, say or do whatever they want to”

“It’s their choice what they want to think, feel, say and do”

“I only control what I think, feel, say and do”

The more we rehearse such thoughts, the more automatic they become. It’s like rehearsing the lines for a play, poem or song. The more automatic they become, the more likely they are to combat any existing tendencies we might have to try to control students, and provoke them into needless and futile power struggles.


Dr. Albert always said that regardless of what the problem or issue is, or feeling might be, the real problem is that human beings have automatic irrational beliefs. Dr. David Amen calls these Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs, and says people have ANT problems. Both teachers and students can have automatic irrational beliefs, or ANT problems that cause them to get into conflicts, and escalate ones they do get into.  Dr. Ellis identified four types of automatic irrational beliefs people have. He called them Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Label and Damning. It is very helpful for teachers to recognize their own automatic irrational beliefs that might come into play with students and cause conflicts, or escalate ones that arise.


We all have a right to want whatever we want. Teachers have the right to want students to do what they ask, and act in respectful ways. Of course, students also have the right to want what they want, and sometimes what we and they want will conflict. When it does, it certainly will do no good to tell them or suggest they don’t have the same right we do. Better to respect their right and find a way for both parties to get as much of what they want as possible.

The mistakes people make according to Dr. Ellis is that people start to:

1)  Think they NEED things they simply want

2)  Treat their simple preferences as NECESSITIES

3)  DEMAND what they simply desire

Both teachers and students can do this. Put two people do this in the same room and you’ve got a disaster looking for a place to happen. Ideally, we’d want to help both teachers and student recognize, and learn to correct their irrational thinking. But let’s just work on the teacher side of the equation.

We can make demands of ourselves, others and life. Anger comes from making demands of others. When we make demands we use verbs like NEED (TO), HAVE TO, CAN’T, SHOULD, or SHOULDN’T. Some common examples might be:

Students NEED to be more respectful

Students HAVE TO obey the rules and do what we ask

Students CAN’T do that in my classroom

Students SHOULD be quiet while I’m teaching

Students SHOULDN’T have cell phones in class (which is what precipitated the S.C. episode)

The bigger the gap between our expectations and reality, the more emotion we generate. So if I simply want, prefer or desire a student to do what I ask, and they don’t, I’ll be frustrated, irritated or annoyed. How much so will depend on how much I want, prefer or desire them to do what I ask. But if I think they NEED to do what I ask, it’s a NECESSITY, and DEMAND that they do, I’ll make myself angry if they don’t. How angry will depend on how much I think they NEED to, how much of a NECESSITY I think it is, and how much I DEMAND that they do.

A teacher might also respond to defiance with demands of themselves. For example:

“I CAN’T let him/her get away with that”

“I HAVE TO teach them they can’t do that in my classroom”

Thoughts cause feelings, not events, but attitude is always the father of behavior. Such thoughts can lead to behavioral overreactions. If a teacher resorts to consequences, it can cause him/her to violate the 3 R’s of consequences: Related, Reasonable, and Respectful.


Most things students do are simply unpleasant, inconvenient or possibly uncomfortable for us. However, teachers will often turn their THINK thermostats up to seeing what students do as AWFUL. The reason is simple. If we didn’t get air, it would be awful. We’d die. Suffocating would be a real threat to our lives. If we think we NEED students to obey or their respect like we need air, then not getting their obedience or respect will seem like a threat to us when it’s really not, and we’ll think it’s AWFUL.


If we didn’t get air for more than a few minutes, we’d die. That’s proof that we couldn’t stand it.  But no teacher ever has or ever will die just because a student won’t obey or talks in a way the teacher deems disrespectful. However, if we think we NEED their obedience and respect like we need air, then we’re more likely to turn our THINK thermostat up to “I CAN’T STAND IT” when they disobey or are disrespectful.


Labeling and damning means name-calling, put downs, ridicule, criticism. It’s typically an example of over generalization about someone. For example, calling a student stupid because they did a stupid thing, or a “punk” because he did something we didn’t like. It’s condemning the doer instead of the deed. If we think we NEED their obedience and respect, and don’t get it, we’re more likely to label and damn them.

You can read more about the four types of irrational thoughts at:


So how can we turn our THINK thermostats down so we’re less likely to make ourselves angry and adopt the mistaken goals of power and control, or revenge with students when they misbehave? One way is to practice and rehearse asking some simple questions of ourselves. For the above demands, the questions would be?

“Why do they NEED TO be more respectful? They NEED TO, or you just want them to?

“Why do they HAVE TO obey the rules? They HAVE TO, or you just want them to?”

“Why CAN’T they do that in your classroom? They CAN’T, or you just don’t want them to?”

“Why do they HAVE TO be quiet while you’re teaching? They HAVE TO, or you just want them to?

“Why CAN’T they have cell phone in class? They CAN’T, or you just don’t want them to?”

“Why CAN’T you let them get away with that? You CAN’T, or just don’t want to?”

“Why do you HAVE TO teach them a lesson? You HAVE TO, or just want to?”

When first asked such questions, teachers will often start their answers with “Because….” and follow with all kinds of reasons. But the only correct answers are:

“They don’t HAVE TO. I just want them to”

“They CAN, I just don’t want them to”

“I don’t HAVE TO, I just want to”

“I CAN, I just don’t want to”

By turning our THINK thermostats down, from NEED to want, from NECESSITY to preference, from DEMAND to desire, we are less likely to see what students do as a threat, and less likely to make ourselves angry and try to control them in ways that provoke needless and futile power struggles.

If you practice and rehearse asking and answering these questions whenever you make DEMANDS of others, yourself or life, they will become “rutted” in your brain and automatic. They will become in your brain like like grammar check is on a computer. This will keep your THINK, FEEL and DO thermostat down, and help turn them down quickly should they go up.

You can read about how to correct the other types of irrational thinking at:


There’s another way to turn your THINK thermostat down from DEMAND to desire. It’s called putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be. In this case your verbal behavior. In other words, practice talking the way you want to start thinking.

I had a simple rule for talking to students whenever we were conflicting about something. I always forced myself to start what I said with “Please…” (the magic word) or “I”. Starting what you say with “I” is called using I MESSAGES. I MESSAGES always work better than the usual YOU MESSAGES (orders, threats, commands, put downs, name calling) that people so often use when angry. 

The reason YOU Messages don't work is in part because they are used in anger. Anger is threatening to others, and they will either be a "turtle" or "jackrabbit", or a "rattlesnake". When teachers get the "turtle" that's what gives them the false illusion that they actually can control students. But if they get the "rattler", it usually goes down hill from there. YOU MESSAGES also are called "solution" messages because they attmept to take away from other their right to choose what they'll do. They also usually involved pointing a finger at others. No one likes when other people do either.

In contrast, I MESSAGES simply give others information. For example, "I want you to sit down". It leaves it up to them what they want to do about that information. 

Of course, if you get angry, it’s hard to start what you say with “Please” or  “I”. You’re more likely to slip into old “ruts” and blurt out YOU MESSAGES. So doing the correcting work above is often a prerequisite. However, if you can force yourself to start with “Please” or “I”, and practice doing so often enough, your THINK thermostat will get turned down and be more likely to stay down.