How to Keep Your Cool When a Student Pushes Your Buttons

By Andrew Hawk

How to Keep Your Cool When a Student Pushes Your ButtonsEvery day, many teachers face one or more students who try to push their buttons. Students may do this because they want attention—children will take negative attention if they can’t get positive attention. Another common reason kids may behave this way is to avoid whatever task the teacher is trying to engage the class in completing. This is the real problem with negative encounters with students. They waste class time and can be very distracting to other students. When a teacher loses his or her temper, it stirs a range of emotions in all the students in the class, even if they don’t show it. It can be hard to dive straight back into learning content after a scene has unfolded between a teacher and a student. Here are some things that can help you keep your cool when a student pushes your buttons.

Defuse the Current Situation
First and foremost, avoid letting a situation get out of your control. How to do this effectively will depend on the individual student and his or her behavior. I usually try to make the student laugh to defuse stressful situations. Sending a student to the hallway or the office is the knee-jerk reaction for many teachers. It is my opinion that this should only be used as a last resort. The actions you take can be the difference between minimizing future problems or increasing them.

Develop Professional Detachment
Many teachers enter the field of education because they want to make the world a better place. We care, and caring people can have trouble detaching themselves from the more difficult events of teaching. Developing a sense of professional detachment will help you cope with negative interactions in the classroom and the troubling information that teachers sometimes encounter. The cornerstone of detachment is focusing on the things you can control and not letting yourself be bothered by the things you can’t. You can help students be successful, but ultimately you can’t control them. The negative feelings students can stir in you when they get under your skin can be draining and waste your energy. Stay focused on positive thoughts.

Be Willing to Take a Step Back
Take a step back, or even step away, from the situation. If you feel like you’re about to lose your temper or are on the verge of tears, go into the hall for a couple of minutes if you can or find another way to get yourself out of the moment. The problem is that trying encounters can occur right in the middle of a lesson. In these cases, have a plan in mind that supports how you teach. You could put a couple of math problems on the board for the class to work on independently or tell your students they have five minutes to start on their homework—whatever works for you. Keep something in mind for those situations when you need to step away.

Put on Your Poker Face
When I was working on my bachelor’s degree in elementary education, I completed several school placements as a teaching candidate prior to student teaching. One of these placements was in a fifth-grade classroom. The classroom teacher was in her thirty-ninth year of teaching. I went to meet her after school one day to review the expectations for my time observing in her classroom. During our meeting, she told me about a young man who had been pushing her buttons. The teacher told me that she could never let the student know if his actions really upset her or else she would be giving him the power to upset her whenever he wanted. This knowledge has proved invaluable to me throughout my teaching career. Put on your poker face and keep your cards close to your vest.

Give Yourself a Q-TIP
This modern day cliché is popular at teacher training conferences. I have personally seen it presented on two separate occasions. Q-TIP, in this context, is an acronym: Quit Taking It Personally. This is the place to start with students who try your patience. When students are acting up or trying to get under your skin, they are not attacking you as a person. They are responding to the position of authority that you hold over them. If you let yourself take encounters with students personally, you are much more likely to respond emotionally.

Do Not Engage in Power Struggles
My philosophy is, “If you have the power, there shouldn’t be a struggle.” Classroom discipline is about correcting behavior, not getting even with students. Classroom management is meant to create an environment that is conducive to learning, not to exercise control over students. You should have a classroom discipline plan in place in your room. If a student is in violation of that plan, give him or her the corresponding consequence. Teachers that engage in power struggles with students typically give away more power than they gain.

Begin Each Day with a Clean Slate
Students might hold grudges from day to day. In the teacher-student relationship, there needs to be one person acting as the adult. If you have a bad day with a student, go home and do something that helps you clear your mind. Then let bygones be bygones. I would even recommend starting the next school day by telling the student that it is a new day and that he or she has a clean slate.

Collaborate with Your Peers
Different students require different approaches. When we start a school year, it’s impossible to know everything there is to know about our students. If you find that you have one student who is constantly pushing your buttons, consider reaching out to the student’s past teachers. These teachers may be able to offer insightful strategies that will help you manage the student in the classroom.

Develop Your Relationship
This is usually the last thing a teacher wants to hear when a student has been pushing his or her buttons. Establishing the relationship requires spending extra time with the student. But as previously mentioned, students usually act out for attention or to avoid learning tasks. Working on developing your relationship with the student will solve both motives. Students respond better to adults if there is an established relationship between the two.

Reflect, Reflect, Reflect
It should be the goal of every teacher to be a reflective practitioner. Are your teaching methods meeting the needs of the student? Did your response to the student’s behavior defuse the situation or accelerate it? How could you minimize future encounters? Ask yourself these kinds of questions after a student gets under your skin to help yourself be better prepared for future encounters.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for sixteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


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