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Connecting with Challenging Students


Connect with challenging youth by Dr. Larry Brendtro

I have been very fortunate to have connected with some excellent mentors over the years and Dr. Brendtro is one of my all time favorites. If you work with kids that are challenging you need to know the work of Dr. Brendtro!! 

Although he is no longer affiliated with Reclaiming Youth International... do check out the work : by Brendtro, Brokenleg, Van Bockern., Reclaiming Youth At Risk; Our Hope for the future.

Here is a sample of some of Brendtro:

Turning risk into resilience

Blending brain science, resilience research, and best practices with youth at risk suggests practical strategies for turning problems into opportunities in order to develop their strength and resilience. These involve disengaging from destructive conflict and creating positive bonds.


These strategies enable one to build positive connections with youth at risk so they can solve problems and develop strength and resilience.

1. Reach out to guarded youth.

Rather than wait for problems, one practices “preemptive connecting” with wary youth. This should be unobtrusive so as not to create impressions of favoritism. Connecting does not require a major investment of time; bonds can be built in natural moment-by-moment interactions. Small doses of connecting behavior are most effective. Forcing intimacy only frightens away youth who already are in an approach-avoidance conflict with adults. Those with histories of negative encounters with adults are strongly influenced by small cues of respect, humor, and good-will. The emotional brain signals, “This person is safe.”

2. Avoid a judgmental tone.

Two centuries ago, pioneering educator Johann Pestalozzi suggested that the crowning achievement of education was being able to correct a student while at the same time communicating positive regard. We don’t ignore problems, but criticism conveying anger or disgust only drives youth away. To be effective, criticism must be delivered in tandem with empathy and positive concern. To avoid adversarial encounters, one responds to needs and searches for strengths.

3. Connect in times of conflict.

All children have natural brain programs motivating them to attach to trusted persons when they are upset or in trouble. In crisis, the child’s brain is signaling “find somebody who is safe,” but traditional discipline by punishment or exclusion only creates further threat. Conflict and crisis present unparalleled opportunities to build trust, respect, and understanding. There are now specific training programs which provide mentors the ability to connect with youth in conflict and develop their strength and resilience.


For example, Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI), Response Ability Pathways (RAP), Positive Peer Culture (PPC), and the EQUIP program all use problems as teaching opportunities.6


4. Understand behavior.

This is not as simple as it might seem. Many behaviors of youth confuse and disturb us, and it is easy to make incorrect assumptions as to “what motivated you to do that?” Intense emotions overwhelm children’s ability to think and act rationally. They need someone who can help them identify, understand, and sort out their feelings and thinking. Trying to reason about consequences of their behavior while their “emotional brain” is still in charge may frustrate them further.


This is especially true in instances where the current experience triggers past pain or trauma. As we understand the behavior from their perspective, we become sources of safety and encourage the “thinking brain” to assume control.

5. Clarify challenging problems.

The human brain is designed to make meaning out of chaos and confusion. This usually does not require formal counseling but an understanding mentor who can help a youth sort out “what happened.” By using the brain’s natural inclination to try to find meaning in events, we help a youth learn from problems. By exploring what happened in some conflict, such as getting kicked out of class, we help a youth develop more effective coping strategies. These conversations give us a window on the youth’s private logic and goals. The youth examines how this behavior serves to meet personal goals and how others are affected. Resolving problems is the foundation for building resilience.

6. Restore harmony and respect.

Inner conflict and interpersonal discord trigger painful emotions in the brain. We help youth resolve problems and restore harmony. This entails building internal strengths and providing external supports. Examples of internal strengths are self-control and empathy for others. Examples of external supports are an engaging curriculum, respectful relationships, and positive expectations. Traditional discipline uses pain-based methods to motivate change.


Restorative methods seek to restore broken bonds and build a climate of mutual respect.




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