How To Deal With Challenging Students: Part 3 - Competence and Control

Competence and Control

There are two basic things that a child needs in order to feel comfortable and cooperative with learning. The first is a sense of control over their choices. The second is a sense of competence, the ability to perform what is being asked of them.

Giving kids a sense of control and ability is key to their cooperation

Giving kids a sense of control and ability is key to their cooperation

When people (not just kids) feel out of control, a kind of primal panic can set in. Imagine being caught in a crowded elevator that stops suddenly mid-floor. You don’t know how long you will be there, you feet claustrophobic, and there’s nothing you can do.

The next time your child or student begins acting out, remember they are feeling something similar to what you would feel in that elevator.

How Long Will This Take?

When a child does not know how long something will take, he begins to search for the exit ramps. This may mean literally looking at the door or out the window, acting wiggly or silly, or complaining.

Telling them exactly how many minutes you are going to do something is one way of giving them a sense of time. Letting them help decide how many repetitions to do at home is another way of giving them back control over the amount of time spent on the activity.

Can I do this?

Many children assume that they are incapable. They have not yet had enough life experience to know that just because something is new and unfamiliar, doesn’t mean that they can’t do it.

For some children, “I can’t do it” is reinforced by peers, siblings, parents, and even teachers who have given disempowering messages. These children will automatically assume they are incapable of doing what you are asking of them, because they have no internal sense of security or confidence. Their emotional “muscles” of resilience and self-worth have not been built yet.

Their resistive behavior is not about being naughty. They are trying to tell you they believe they are incapable.

How to Give Control and Competence

It does not work to shout “You can do it!” over and over. That has the effect of making a student jaded: “Parents/adults/teachers always say that.” Better to have pedagogical methods that accomplish giving control and competence without all the superficial cheerleading.

Here are five ways I’ve found to give more control and competence to a student:

  1. Be clear on structure

  2. Separate behavior from identity

  3. Go below their level

  4. Use games

Be Clear on Structure

When students know what the structure is, they can regulate their behavior better.

Communicate how much time you will be spending on something. For an hour long class I recommend the 25-10-25 rule, or 25 minutes of learning separated by a 10 minute break. The break can be a sit-down game, a snack time, a video, or simply a talking break. I like to use a 5-question break followed by chatting time (see previous article on 5Q break.)

Separate behavior from identity

“You are not a bad person,” says the teacher. “But some of your choices are making it difficult for others to learn. Do you understand why that is a problem?”

This is the kind of conversation I have had with repeat offenders who are disruptive. The reason why we want to separate behavior (“I made a bad choice”) from identity (“I am a bad person”) is that behavior can change but identity feels permanent, unchangable. It is disempowering to a student when they believe that they cannot change because they are simply acting from who they are. We can teach them that their behavior is not permanent, their habits are not set in stone.

When students feel in control of their own behavior, they will exhibit more control in a class.

When students feel in control of their own behavior, they will exhibit more control in a class.

Go below their level

Going below a student’s level can be done in two ways: 1) Assigning them to do something you know is easy for them, and 2) placing yourself below the student in some way, such as letting them be the teacher.

The first option is easily done: simply ask them to play something you know they are good at, or that they have already passed. Ask them to name some things they do now that they didn’t do a month or a year ago.

When you let a student teach you something, they instantly feel more in control, more competent. Competitive students especially enjoy this tactic.

Sometimes I will literally get below a student, as in kneeling down so my face is below theirs, or letting them sit where I normally sit, while I play on my knees. This is so effective for disarming them! Especially the reserved ones who operate behind a fortress of silence, I notice they will open up when I get at or below the level of their face.

Use games

Games are the best, because they feel like a break, they are fun AND they allow students develop skill

Games give kids a sense of competence and control

Games give kids a sense of competence and control

Games allow students a structure that they can control, such as choosing a card or rolling dice, taking turns with other students, and getting to a finish line. They feel more control and competence when the activities in the game are at or below their level of ability.

For example, taking out 5 pennies and telling the student they can keep them if they do 5 instructions, will dramatically increase a student’s level of satisfaction and accomplishment. This works especially well for boys.

It is easy to make your own games, but if you feel you don’t have the time or energy for that, here are two I use over and over: Leprechaun Violin Playing Cards and Twinkle Cards. Leprechaun is especially good for competence and control because they get to choose which color comes next.

Have some fun with this. Games feel like a break and you can still teach a lot of skill development. Students feel as though they are doing something fun AND developing self-identity of competence.


Stay tuned to this space for more ideas on games in future articles.

Related Article: Please Be Kind, Rewind on giving students permission to play easier material.

Tell your story! Use the comment space below to share how your child or student developed more competence and control. Readers will love to hear from you.