The Toxic Teacher:Student Relationship

August 20, 2015



I spent 10 years employed in residential treatment, first as the day treatment therapist, then director, then vice president of programs.  I have seen my share of angry aggressive students.  In that setting, 100% of our students had at least 5 prior placements before coming to our school. Ninety (90%) of the students had a mental health diagnosis, such as ADHD, intermittent explosive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, just to name a few.  I have worked with some really tough students and have seen my share of negative interactions between students and teachers.


But how surprised I was when I began my consulting business, specializing in anger management and went into public and charter schools to set up anger management programs.  Not surprised by the student’s behaviors, that, I expected and had experience with.  What I was unprepared for was the number of teachers who actually escalated many situations.  I don’t want that to happen to you.


We are all human, and our emotions can often get the better of us.  But when you are dealing with difficult student behavior, or a toxic student, it is imperative that you remain calm.  Otherwise, you will be at risk of participating in, and probably losing a power struggle with the student.  Sure, you may win initially, by putting that student out of your class, or even suspending him/her.  But what about when that student returns? What then?  That toxic student can make your life miserable for the rest of the school year!


So what do I mean by a “toxic” student?  In this context, I am using the term “toxic student” to refer to a student who is constantly, and chronically disruptive.  It’s not that the student is personally toxic, but that their disruptive behavior is toxic to the classroom environment. 

I dislike putting a label on a (hopefully) temporary situation.  However, there are some students who, due to trauma, homelessness, poverty, mental health issues, anger issues, or home life issues, present a real problem in the classroom with their behavior... that is what I am referring to in this article.  


In my workshop “The 4 Archetypes of Misbehavior” I review four (4) categories of motivation for misbehavior that often occur in the classroom.  I have taken this information from Adlerian psychology that posits all behavior is goal directed, and all misbehavior has a motivation or a goal to be achieved as well. 


The 4 Archetypes of Misbehavior are:  Attention Seeking, Power, Revenge and Inadequacy.  Each behavioral category will be discussed in future articles.  This article is about YOU.  How can YOU be more successful when dealing with difficult student behavior no matter what “category” it is coming from?


First, reflect on last school year, what students did you have the most problem with?  What behaviors “pushed your buttons”?  The likely hood of you encountering that same behavior this school year is high, so it is better and begin making some changes now.  Here are a few suggestions:


1. Many youth of today have an “I won’t respect you unless you respect me” attitude.  If you have too authoritarian of a stance with them it will back fire on you.  Try to relax and consider showing an attitude of mutual respect, using a “Best Coach” tone of voice.  Keep the focus on behavior and not on the student personally.  Many students who present with difficult behavior have authority and power at home or in their neighborhoods.  They are not about to give up that “street credibility” in your classroom.  It’s better to get them on your side early with a mutually respectful attitude. 



2. Observe the child’s behavior in detail.  What specifically is the student doing that is disruptive or toxic to your classroom?  Is she talking too loud?  Telling jokes?  Ignoring your instruction? Being willful and defiant?  Observe his/her behavior from the first day of class to see if there are any specific triggers that you can identify.  Perhaps you can remove the trigger or alter it.  


3. Be psychologically sensitive to your own reaction.  Exactly why does this behavior push your buttons?  What are you saying to yourself that keeps you in a state of upset with this behavior?  Understanding and managing your reaction to difficult behaviors is a must to be successful with toxic behavior.  Are you contributing to the situation?


I hope you have a great school year and are more successful than last year in dealing with toxic student behavior, and make this your best school year yet!


What are your suggestions for dealing with toxic student behavior?  


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