One Way to Handle Defiant Students

“Raise your hand if you believe that social promotion is the problem with education in this country and should be stopped immediately?”

I reluctantly started to raise my hand, as did about a hundred or so other teachers in the room.

“Then why do we do it every 47 minutes every time a bell rings? DING! And students move to the next class on their schedule whether they learned the days objective or not, whether they did the assignment to the best of their ability or ignored it completely. We promote them.”

And with that, a light bulb went off above my head as the little teacher inside me shouted “Eureka!” and began frantically writing in my notebook and texting my principal about my latest and greatest idea to motivate reluctant learners.

To be fair, it wasn’t my idea. The speaker was Jack Berkmeyer, an absolutely HILLARIOUS individual not to mention one of the most inspiring and informative educational consultants I’ve ever heard speak. He's highly entertaining as you can see on this YouTube clip, and he'll be one of the Keynote speakers at this year's AMLE National Conference in Portland, OR (where you can also check out fellow Edunator Kista River presenting on how to "Teach Like the Terminator", cheap plug!) He went on to explain how he and his teaching team used to implement the plan my colleagues and I adopted last semester at our Middle School.

Educational Consultant and Humorist Jack BerckemeyerEducational consultant and humorist Jack Berckemeyer will be they Keynote speaker at the 39th Annual Conference for Middle Level Education in Portland, Oregon. For more info check out or

Let’s say I have a student refuse to do his classwork. I take pause for a second and consider the reasons. It couldn’t POSSIBLY be because my assignment is boring as all hell. No, no, all of my assignments are completely engaging, exciting to every teenage mind. </sarcasm>

Furthermore, there is NO WAY the student is refusing to complete the assignment because he lacks the necessary skills to do so. There’s also NOT A CHANCE that the student’s home and social life has left him feeling SO POWERLESS that his under-developed  pubescent brain has enacted a defense mechanism designed to quickly gain him control over ANY situation he can, as quickly as he can.

Or maybe he’s just hungry.

Having ruled out those potential causes for this inexcusable act of defiance, I conclude “This kid must just be a jerk” or “kids today are different…I blame heavy metal music” and proceed with the following.

“Hey, you, back there with your hoodie pulled over your head. Stop texting under your desk.”


“Jesus isn’t here right now, don’t call him unless you really need him. And if he was, he’d want you to do your Social Studies assignment.”

“Dude, whatever, this assignment’s gay.”

“My name’s not ‘Dude’ and I doubt very seriously your assignment likes members of the opposite sex, now get to work.”

“Huh? What! Whatever this is stupid!”

“Yep, and it’s going to get more stupid when you’re sitting here next hour working on the same thing.”

“But…I have Science next hour…”

“Not if you don’t learn what I need you to learn today. You’ll be sitting here with me all day.”

“Well, I’ve got Math the next hour, and you won’t make me miss that.”

“Sure I will, I talked to your Math teacher in our Team meeting. She’s doing the same thing with kids who might be coming to my class. Eventually, you’ll all learn.”

“Well, I’ll just sit here all day.”

“Cool, I’ll be here anyway.”

“Whatever. I’m still getting on the bus and going home.”BoredStudentSometimes all it really takes to get through to a defiant student is to not let them leave the room until the work is completed. It's a strategy that takes some communication and can't be abused, but it's effective in moderation.

“Since you’ll be sitting here during my plan period, you can help me call home and ask them if you can stay after school with me to get your work done.”

“You can’t do that! Only the principal can give detention!”

“What do you think she’ll say if we ask her?”


“C’mon man, get your work done. Want me to help?”

“No! I don’t need help! I know how to do it, it’s just stupid!”

“Then you need to stop disrupting the other students in my room who are trying to learn. So you can sit there all day and do your work eventually or you’ll sit there all year. Or you can, continue to cause a disruption and prevent them from learning at which point it’ll be an office referral, you’ll get ISS, and do your work there. Or, you can get it done now, and go to science class when the bell rings.”


“Need some help?”


So why do treat our students like Pavlov’s dog? The bell rang, so we must send them to the next stop? Yes, other teachers may not care for it, that’s why it’s important to discuss this with them (preferably before hand) and encourage them to do the same with students going to your class. Will principals get angry? Maybe, but if they’re not on board after you explain it to them then you need to find a new place to work. Will parents get angry? Usually the kids who pull this stunt don’t have parents making too many appearances at school, but I guess if you have one of those lethal combinations of a defiant student and an enabling parent, you’ll need to try and use some honey instead of vinegar to catch this fly (which you probably should have been trying anyway).

Honestly, it only takes once or twice and most students get the message. I’ve never had a student go longer than a couple hours before they snap and just do the work. If they did, I’d have to make good on my threats, call my wife and tell her I’ll be coming home late that night. As for all the kids stuck in the room listening to that conversation, and not working? Yeah, it’s a disruption. Once. Then word travels fast and I never have to have that conversation again. When the bell rings, I just say “Hey Tommy, stick around, you’ll be here next hour.”

I’ll let you fill in how the rest of that conversation goes from there.

Differentiating Instruction Using Layered Curriculum

Layered Curriculum 2nd Edition by Kathie NunleyLayered Curriculum, 2nd Edition by Kathie Nunley is a fantastic read that is largely responsible for saving my education career.

As you may have read elsewhere or heard me speak about in person, Dr. Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum® without a doubt saved my teaching career. The shortest workshop I’ve ever seen on Layered Curriculum is three-hours and most often it is taught as either a full day, two day, or multi-day “academy” so trying to explain it completely in a blog post may not do it justice. However, here it goes.

What is Layered Curriculum?

Layered Curriculum is essentially a method of differentiating your classroom to fit the wide range of learning styles and mixed ability levels a teacher might find there. It can be used at virtually any grade level from pre-school through college and can be adapted to fit virtually any subject being taught (though some are harder than others). Dr. Nunley’s website offers a Layered Curriculum in a Nutshell article which is providing the outline for this article, although I’m offering explanations based on her books, seminars and my own experiences with using it.

Step #1: Student Choice

Layered Curriculum begins with the simple yet revolutionary idea of adding student choice to your already existing classroom format. By giving students a choice of what assignment they will do to meet a given objective, students are given a sense of control over their learning they did not previously perceive.  This idea is difficult for many teachers to grasp initially, but ask yourself, “Do I really care how a student demonstrates to me that they’ve learned an objective so long as they have, in fact, learned the objective? The answer may surprise you.

Dr. Kathie Nunley is also accomplished in the field of Brain Research, so her ideas regarding student choice are supported.  As she likes to explain, somewhat comically, much of what we see as “disruptive behavior” by our students can better be explained the same way we explain monkey’s throwing feces in the zoo…”captive behavior”. By providing them control (or even the illusion of control) over the manner in which they demonstrate learning, students are automatically more vested in the assignment and the learning process.

Building further upon her research, Dr. Nunley illustrates that by providing choices that meet all learning styles (audio, visual, kinesthetic, etc) a teacher can accommodate a wider range of student needs while providing a sense of empowerment at the same time. She recommends an average of three choices per assignment; however one or two more could potentially be acceptable so long as it’s not overwhelming to the student. The idea is to provide a choice to meet every learning style.

Step #2: Accountability

After providing students with choice, the second step is finding unique ways to hold students accountable for learning.  As a teacher, find unique ways to shift the focus from doing the assignment to knowing the objective. Dr. Nunley gives Oral Defense as an example, though it is not an essential component in Layered Curriculum. However, it is effective for this purpose.  For example, rather than have students  working on vocabulary “Choose one of these three assignments and turn it“  instead have students choose from a given list of assignments and then ask them the vocabulary words orally. Click here to learn more about Oral Defense grading.

This can be marked (or graded) in any manner you wish and often it seems the grading practice is where teachers get hung up. Don’t worry about that initially, that’s a whole other can of worms. Instead, simply adapt the grading to match your current gradebook philosophies. If Oral Defense doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, don’t worry. Consider including self-assessment, peer assessment, or performance rubrics instead. The key is ensure students are learning not just doing material.

Step #3: Provide Higher and More Complex Thinking

Finally, Layered Curriculum is made up of three “Layers” aligned to depth of knowledge (DOK) or the old Bloom’s Taxonomy if you prefer. Taken directly from

C Layer:  Basic knowledge, understanding. The student builds on his/her current level of core information.
B Layer:  Application or manipulation of the information learned in the C layer. Problem solving or other higher level thinking tasks can be placed here.
A Layer:  
Critical Thinking and Analysis. This layer requires the highest and most complex thought. Create leaders, voters.


Traditionally these layers are referred to as the “C-Layer, B-Layer and A-Layer” as that’s the grade they most often represent; however aligning the layers with a letter grade is not an essential component. If you do subscribe to that model, it does provide a unique avenue for objective based grading however (by breaking down C-Layer into Objectives) and allows for schools that still hand out traditional letter grades to ensure those letters mean something. A grade of “C” would mean “basic understanding” while a “B” would mean students are able to apply or manipulate learned material. A grade of “A” would mean students are able to “Think Critically” regarding course content. Grading in this manner however, is again, not required to utilize the Layered Curriculum method.

It’s important to ensure that students progress through the Layers in order, and that students are expected to attempt all layers.

The Unit Sheet: Bringing It All Together

All of this information is laid out neatly and concisely on a Unit Sheet provided to students. The Unit Sheet outlines important grading details (however a teacher sees fit to assess), important dates (such as deadlines or tests), the objectives and assignment choices to be learned in C-Layer as well as the assignment choices for B-Layer and A-Layer. Feel free to // email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. " style="border: 0px; font-style: inherit; font-family: inherit; vertical-align: baseline; color: rgb(18, 130, 196); ">email me if you’d like to see Unit Sheets  I’ve used in my own classroom or check out the Layered Curriculum website which has dozens of samples from all grade levels in all content areas.

It’s important that the Unit Sheet provide a clear road map to success for students. It should clearly define expectations and give them a sense of ownership over their learning; however, it’s a constant balancing act. In my experience, a “busy” unit sheet can be overwhelming to a student (particularly an already struggling one). To combat this, I have at times handed out only “Objective Sheets” one at a time until students complete C-Layer, although I admit it’s not ideal it may work better for some classrooms.

Color coding the Unit Sheets can be extremely effective as well, as it helps students keep track of these important pieces of paper while giving each Unit an “identity” so to speak. Students will often refer to past units as “The Blue Unit” for example.


As I said in the outset, Layered Curriculum is a program that is usually taught in at least a three-hour workshop so if you’re considering giving it a shot and this seems overwhelming, it should. I’d highly recommend at picking up Dr. Kathie Nunley’s book “Layered Curriculum 2nd Edition” or at the very least spend some time perusing through some of the sample Unit Sheets available on her website or talking to somebody who has done it before, me included. Just remember, like anything else, it takes a bit to get it right so don’t give up on it if your first unit bombs. My first two did before I got it right.

Lest We Forget: School Sucks

It’s a shame that age and maturity have removed teachers from the agony of being a student. In all likelihood, a vast majority of teacher faux pas could be avoided, if only teachers remembered just how hard it really is to be a kid.

Relative to the kids it serves; the typical elementary school environment is staggering.  How many typical eight- year olds have a one-piece desk in their bedroom? Homes don’t have desks, because they’re uncomfortable and serve only one purpose – sitting still – inherently alien to most elementary aged school children. Scheduling in allotted time for movement is certainly beneficial to the learner, but even inmates in prison get time “in the yard.” It’s the restrictive moments between recess and free play that make elementary school difficult.

Of course “not moving” is perhaps only slightly less difficult than the other common chore demanded of school children…not talking. If you were to visit a close friend in their home and witnessed them insist that their eight year old make minimal noise and sit still in a one-piece desk as you talked, you’d probably find new friends. Of course, at least then they’d be prepared for the mountain of homework we send home with them, as if it’s actually helping.

Additionally, the pressure of “making friends” is often overlooked by teachers. We sometimes take for granted the ease of talking with strangers that comes with adulthood. We understand social norms and can take cues from surroundings as to how to behave. These skills are often lacking in early grade schoolers, who may be more concerned with when/where to go to the bathroom than with learning to read.

The pain doesn’t end in Middle School, in fact it probably gets worse. When we think of bullying, we often think of shoving kids against lockers, calling them fat or slapping books out of their hands -except the insults are far worse than simply “fat”. Some students openly joke about wishing other students would die, or discuss obscene topics with colorful language that would make a sailor blush. The use of the slur “gay” has reached epidemic proportions in FAR TOO MANY middle schools, providing a double edged sword: cutting those terrified by the social implications of being viewed as gay while simultaneously destroying the childhood of those still coming to grips with their own sexuality who may actually be homosexual. Regardless of your politics on this issue, recognize that it’s having a damming effect on straight teens, gay teens and the culture at large.  

We tend to forget that social exclusion is passive aggressive bullying. We’ve never known or have long since forgotten the feeling of being cast aside for wearing the wrong shoes. We don’t remember the awkwardness that came from simply walking past “the popular kids”.  And while we as teachers are thinking about Algebra or the Civil War, our students are most assuredly thinking about the boy or the girl across the room.

And now, courtesy of texting, Facebook and other social media tools, the intoxicating drug that is adolescent peer influence is now delivered with an I.V. straight to the blood stream, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Think you can protect kids from it? Guess again – students who don’t participate in these activities are further socially excluded. Better to teach them how to live in this world rather than try and protect them from it.

God forbid these clearly disengaged students don’t learn material the first time, for if they do fail, we’re likely to pepper them with questions about why they didn’t learn it or demand they “try harder”. For some kids, simply surviving this social hell is hard work enough.

All of this is not to excuse high school students, who while being bombarded with stories of “how easy today kids have it” they’re coping with all the social anxiety of middle school with even more sexual tension and even more obvious  economic disparity. While teachers talk to them about their plans after high school, they’re adolescent brains are preoccupied with tomorrow night. We tell them the future is in front of them, yet punish them for mistakes of the past rather than help them learn from them. Alcohol, drugs, sex, cars, cell phones and money are either a distraction because students have them or a distraction because they don’t. Even if they don’t want them, students are forced to explain “why” and deal with the ramifications of their answers.

This is all regardless of home life. Even the best parents can’t protect their children from much of this, though they can certainly support kids as they mature and go through difficult times. But what about students who lack that strong support system at home?

Home schooling may be an option for some to avoid this pain, but for many more it’s an unrealistic alternative with its own inherent shortcomings. We can damn the system we’ve created for these kids and tout vouchers and private schools as the answer though the same issues exist in those environments as well.

For all the research and all the witty ideas educators have developed to help them prepare students for the future, all the differentiation, attention signals and formative assessment in the world can’t alleviate the very real stress students feel.  Perhaps the best tool for any educator is to simply be conscience of this, remain sympathetic and remember how very difficult it really is to be a kid.

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