How to Use Gentle Guidance Interventions With a Difficult Student

Dear Kid Whisperer,

My life this school year is miserable because of one student. He was recently out sick for a week, and it was the best week we had all year, by far. The problem is that nothing works with this student to get him to behave. I know that if I correct his behavior and tell him what to do, he explodes and I can kiss the next hour goodbye. If I ignore him, which I usually do now, his behavior gets worse, and then I tell him to stop, and he ends up exploding anyway! Help! -John, Sacramento, CA


What you describe perfectly here is what I call “The Impossible Choice:” it’s the binary belief that many educators have that there are exactly two choices when a kid uses behaviors that need to stop in order to preserve a positive educational environment:

  • Tell the student to stop.
  • Ignore the student.

The good news is that belief in “The Impossible Choice” is a false belief. There is a third option. Instead of making demands or letting behaviors slide until they get worse, you can use Gentle Guidance Interventions (GGIs) which gently guide kids back towards positive behaviors without ignoring or making demands. Here’s how I would gently guide your student:

Kid playfully and repeatedly taps a friend on the shoulder when all students are supposed to be working.

Kid Whisperer uses “Confused Eye:” He looks at Kid with a quizzical look, as if to say, “You are really cool and great, but that behavior is not cool and great. Therefore, I am confused.”

Kid resorts to whispering “Pssst…pssst” to his friend.

Kid Whisperer uses Reactive Movement: he simply moves toward Kid while continuing to teach.

Kid ups the ante by saying “Tommy…hey…Tommy.”

Kid Whisperer uses the Hover GGI by simply standing next to the student while adding a question that assumes intelligence from the Question Matrix.

Kid Whisperer (whispering) What should you do now?

Kid completely ignores Kid Whisperer and now starts to become belligerent since he is not getting the attention that he is craving.


Realizing that his GGIs have failed to produce positive behaviors, Kid Whisperer does what he knew he would have to do in the first place. He delays a Learning Opportunity:

Kid Whisperer: (whispered) Oh, boy. This is rough. I will help you to do some learning later.

Kid Whisperer keeps teaching.

Did you notice the trick? Though these GGIs will elicit positive behaviors from most kids, from your description of Kid, I know that he has been getting what he wants for a long time via negative behaviors. Therefore, I know that they will get worse at first, no matter what I do. I am not even trying to stop the behaviors with these GGIs! I’m merely stacking them up right in front of the delaying of a consequence so that I can give the consequence (Learning Opportunity) later, to teach him that when I say there will be a consequence, there will be a consequence.

Then, at a later date, when Kid starts messing around with behaviors, and I use a Gentle Guidance Intervention,  Kid is more likely to stop his negative behavior because he now knows that there is action (consequence) behind my GGIs!

Each time you go through this procedure, it makes it less likely that Kid will keep using these behaviors, instead of the behaviors becoming more likely through you ignoring and making demands.