How to Gently Guide Students Toward Positive Behaviors

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I need some advice in dealing with a first-grade student who never listens to me. I tell him to not blurt out; he blurts out more. I tell him not to grab other kids while he’s in line; he does it more. I have tried everything. Nothing works. I’ve even had the nurse check his hearing. She says it’s fine. His grandma wants him to be evaluated for some kind of disorder. I’m at a loss. -Jessica, Columbus, Ohio



Pretty much every time teachers or parents tell me that they have “tried everything” and that “nothing is working”, the fact of the matter is that everything they have tried is a terrible idea and that it won’t work to get positive behaviors if the kid is anywhere along the “easy to extremely difficult” spectrum of normalcy. So, therefore, just as the hearing screening turned up nothing, I would wager that any screening for anything will also turn up nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, it could, and feel free to go that route. I am only suggesting that, since everything that you have mentioned is likely to reinforce the negative behaviors that you seek to stop, that many totally typical kids would be reacting to your attempts at getting him to be cooperative in the same way: not well.

By the way, there’s no judgement here. In my early days before I learned some skills, strategies, and procedures for setting and enforcing limits with kids, I tried to boss kids around all day long. A quick word on what you are doing wrong before I give you some things to do right:

When you tell High Control Need (HCN) kids what to do, they will either tell you or show you that you can’t control them. Either way, they are correct.

It is a near certainty that this kid is addicted to the adult responses to his negative behavior. He uses these behaviors to get control and attention, and the adults around him, including you, are giving him both every time. You, and very likely the other adults in his life, have become well-trained by this kid. Time to stop that.

Here are just two interventions that don’t give this HCN kid a feeling of control when he just starts to use a negative behavior. These interventions are for behaviors that don’t quite need a consequence yet, but can’t be ignored either.

Kid (looking like he knows an answer): Ooh! Ooh!

Kid Whisperer gives a brief pained expression and gives a very brief shake of the head, as if to say “Yikes. I know you know this, but I only listen to people who are silently raising their hands. I’m just going to move on and call on one of the people who are doing that. Feel free to become one of those people.”

Kid rolls his eyes and raises his hand.


Kid is in line and Kid Whisperer notices that Kid appears to be sneaking up behind an unsuspecting victim as if he is the Midnight Strangler. Kid has not done anything wrong yet, so Kid Whisperer speaks quickly:

Kid Whisperer (while wearing a big strange smile): Psst. Kid. What should you be doing right now?

Kid puts his arms by his sides where they rest peacefully.

These actions tell Kid and all other students that his and their antics won’t give them control over their teacher’s emotions, and that their potential obnoxious behavior will be more effectively utilized in music class.

By the way, these interventions are only part of the answer. You also need to use strategic noticing and consequences. You can go to to learn how to do this strategic noticing and use logical consequences. You can search “noticing” and “consequences”.