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Reclaiming Disconnected Kids



(L. Tobin )

Underneath their surface behaviors your most difficult students are young people in pain. Painful emotions including negative inner states like fear, anger, sadness and shame. Painful thoughts including worry, distrust, guilt, hatred and helplessness covered up by defense mechanisms like denial, blame, and rationalizations to cover the pain. And of course, pain based behaviors, their reaction to painful emotions they carry around on a daily basis.

Causing difficulties and more and more problems where ever they go and getting the adults who work with them caught up in endless "conflict cycles" often about issues that do not even touch the real problems.

Follow their anger.

Some turn their anger inwardly while others direct their anger outwardly on others.

They repay the pain of being a victim by victimizing others in an unconscious cycle that quickly gets the teachers and others in their lives caught up in endless cycles of hostility.


Externalizers of their pain


Untrained and unaware- adults quickly lose their patience and end up discarding these children or leaving these "kind of schools".

To be effective, you must dare to start over---to search for a whole new set of tools to reach through the facade of misbehavior to the troubled child hiding within. ( L. Tobin )

Before we see change- we must do something different. It is the adults who must change this interaction first---not the child.

The hurt that troubled children create is never greater than the hurt they feel. ( L. Tobin )


1. Listen and ask questions.

Seek first to understand then be understood. Show them a high degree of respectful behavior that you as the adult direct toward them. Respect between adults (us) and young people cannot be seen as reciprocal. Kids at-risk may become disrespectful at times as they struggle to handle difficulties we may not even be aware of, yet we as adults, must always remain respectful and treat these young people with dignity.  

Part of what we do as we forge relationships is to model respect to the disrespectful. It is an experience many of these young people will not have in their backgrounds.These young people need the experience of being heard, prior to them taking the time to listen to us.

2. Validate-

Validation provides psychological air. It gives people the sense of being “seen”, “heard” and understood. As you listen, re-state the content that you hear and label the feelings with-in the content. Much easier said than done and will require practice! The good news, you may practice on anyone!

Validating feelings does not mean that you agree, disagree, or condone inappropriate behavior. It simply means you recognize and reflect the feeling you hear.

3. Expect to Be Tested

These young people have had people come and go in their lives. Teachers that dip in for a year or two and then leave for a better district or an entirely new job ( think Teach for America )

They are very use to people coming and going in their world. They will not easily risk being hurt and disappointed again. Know yourselves adults! What are your intentions with these young people? Are you sticking around or are you dipping in and leaving?

Often these young people have been abandoned before. Recognize what it is you are committing to.

4. Sustained Positive Regard

It is critical to provide unconditional caring with these young people. Positive regard to the student as a person, at their core, is critical to reflect and demonstrate. Even when their behavioral choices are less than ideal, we continue to problem solve and not attack their person-hood. We can learn to set limits with caring and love and do not need to become angry and hostile to set a limit with a child. We must be honest and straight with these young people while also demonstrating that we may not be crazy about their “behavioral choices at this time, but we are crazy about them and believing they can do better.” They need consistency, predictability and structure!!

Provide fail safe relationships!!

Go slow. These young people have had many experiences in their past where they were “let down” by adults in their lives. Trust is built slowly over time and cannot be rushed. Be patient, take the long view and show personal interest in the student.

Show an interest and curiosity about the student and what their interests are. What are they into, what do they watch, what do they enjoy doing? Where might they work in the summer, what do they do? What hobbies may they be into? What might they be reading or viewing? Where do they hang out on weekends? What is their favorite food? What id their favorite movie? What clothes are they into, make-up, tattoos all kinds of things we can explore slowly with them?

As Walt Whitman reminds us: BE CURIOUS ,NOT JUDGEMENTAL!! We need to get a sense of their daily lives.


5. Help them Solve Problems

We must work hard to become good co-problem solvers. This does not start with lectures or advice, it starts with listening and follow up questions. Help young people clarify their thinking and feeling with questions.  Guide them as you work together to come up with solutions to problems and difficulties. Help them to make a plan and be sure to circle around and follow up to see how it is going. Circling around, and following up to see how they are progressing on their plan is never completed! Do check-ins and small bids of reaching out. BE DEPENDABLE!


6. Activate Hope

Hope is fostered through sustained connection, caring, demonstrating that even when the student messes up you will stick with them. These young people need sustained hope and the energy it brings for them to continue to get up every day and try again! Imagine for a moment the strength involved in that for these young people that are often struggling with things that many of us cannot even imagine!!  Go the extra mile. Show up at something they may be involved in and surprise them. Go the extra mile.  This humanizes education. It makes it real.

Communicate a consistent message: “I will not give up on you.” 



The Path to Connecting with Kids “at-Risk”

•      Recast all problems as learning opportunities.

•      Provide fail-safe positive relationships.

•      Increase dosages of nurturance.

•      Do not crowd.

•      Forced success.

•      Learn to decode the meaning of behavior.

•      Be authoritative, not authoritarian.

•      Model Respect to the disrespectful.

•      Notice small things.

•      Keep positive expectations alive.

•      Give seeds time to grow.

       ( Seita & Brendtro )

As always, do let me know what you think.

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Comments (6)

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Please share a PSA link to help grow public awareness of the impacts of developmental trauma. There are so many of us who’ve never heard of the overpowering, life-long impacts.   Click HERE for links designed to use in social media:

Louise Godbold... feel free to copy and past any of my posted work that may help.  I would also like to suggest sharing more and more the idea of teaching as a vocation in these places rather then a short term feel good about yourself mission.  I have been doing this work now for over 3 decades and what i am seeing in America's most desperate places will require much more!! These young people should really know what the research on resiliency says, what the basic idea of toxic levels of stress does to the brain and the idea of consistent care.

5 or 6 weeks in the summer will not do that.

These young folks need to know that.  Can you imagine, your kids and mine, being in a place that is unsafe, a place where it is dangerous to play outside, and being sent to a school with a group of young people who have usually grown up in very different places as their teachers? Can you imagine giving these young people 6 weeks of training and sending them into our most difficult schools? 

This is the best we can do?



Oh, I absolutely agree - it is far from ideal. However, we do have these young people - la creme de la creme of university grads - who are investing themselves in schools where there are many heroic teachers who provide inspirational modeling but also many teachers who are burnt out, and all of them working with the challenges of students as well as the system that further complicates and burdens. Given that these young people are in schools now, given that we have an opportunity to equip them with the knowledge and tools that will make their interactions more successful, I say, yes, let's work to change the system, but in the meantime let's give the TFA teachers all the help we can. 

Last edited by Louise Godbold

Hi Louise godbold. Hope this finds you well and thanks for the kind feedback.  I too have some experience working with the young people in TFA. I admire their desire to do important work. My issue is not with them, it is with the design of what we are currently doing in some of America's most difficult places!!  The students in these places need consistency of care and sustained relationships.  To create this requires adults to build relationships with relationship resistant young people very use to adults coming and going in their lives. Often building these relationships is an endurance event!! My experience with the TFA model is far from that.  I have seen the turnover rate with-in the organization exceed an already high turnover rate with in our most difficult places. What is your experience? How many stay? 


I love this! We're going to share it with all the teachers we serve - although Teach for America may find it a bit difficult as they were singled out as those who drop in and don't stay. Would you be willing to send me a version that doesn't name them directly? Each month we work with over 200 of their teachers and they are so genuine in their desire to connect with the students they work with and so eager to have strategies, I would love to be able to share this wonderful information with them without the potential of putting them on the defensive. What do you think?

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