The Unmanageable Child: How can you get through to them? Make sure not to miss their signals.

The kind of child that gets called a troublemaker in anger. If you’ve got one of those and you’re not sure what to do, you might find some inspiration in the story of Timmy, a gifted boy with ADHD.

This article was originally written for special education teachers, but it is also for parents who might find themselves in tears over their child. And that’s true whether your child is neurotypical or neurodivergent. They might be calling out to you: Mom, Dad, help me.

The article was published in the Czech Republic in a journal called Integration and Inclusion in School Practice. The author is Timmy’s teacher. The child’s name has been changed for reasons of privacy.

The most important aspect of inclusion: your heart as a teacher. That is the only thing that can manage an “unmanageable” child.

Like many of you, I am a special education teacher. I would like to speak to your heart in this article.

The heart that pounded when you sent in your application to become a special education teacher and hoped you’d get in. The heart that skipped a beat when a dyslexic student came up and showed you the first book they read on their own, or the first time a kid with dyslalia managed to tell off a classmate with perfect enunciation.

Your heart has a special value in our schools.

It can bring worlds together and heal wounds. Did you know that?

Timmy and I are sitting in the classroom together. I’m marking papers and he’s doing his own thing. He wanted to stay with me for a while instead of going to after-school care, and he had permission, so why not?

All of a sudden he bends over, gets something out of his bag, and looks at me hesitantly. I smile at him. He takes a breath like he’s about to give a speech before the United Nations: “I have something for you, Teacher.” I smile again. I love this moment. Gifts from students. Usually presented with a bit of their heart and a quiet thank you.

But this gift is different. It’s literally a HEART, made of plastic wheels melted into a flat plate.

He hands it to me with diffidence. And I know we have come to a fragile moment together, one that could hurt him if I don’t accept it with sensitivity and the appropriate gravity.

The kind of child that gets called a brat or troublemaker

Timmy doesn’t hand out hearts to just anybody. He’s the kind of child that gets called a brat or troublemaker when people get angry. He yells rude words just so people hear him. He crumples up notebooks and scribbles in the class log. He kicks classmates, pours paint on their bags, runs away from school … I’m sure you know the type.

Timmy wears the official labels of “gifted” and “ADHD”, but his unofficial label is, let’s say, “difficult.” His classroom teacher sometimes hides tears after class because she just doesn’t know what to do with him. The same Timmy that has classmates and teachers alike on their toes is standing here in front of me, nervously holding a plastic heart in his hands.

I have something for you, Teacher.

“This is for me?”
He gives a tiny nod.
“Thank you. This must have taken so much work.”
Suddenly I’m also at a loss for words.
“Not really, I like doing it.”

I feel tears pricking at my eyes and tell him, “This means a lot to me, you know that? Only I’m afraid I don’t know quite how to express it.”

Now we’re both in that fragile situation, which helps him find his courage. He looks visibly less nervous and grins. Sitting back down at his desk, he says, “That’s okay, I can tell. I like you.”

I wipe my eyes on a tissue and think about the last few weeks as we’ve been looking for ways to relate to each other. It was like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in flip-flops and without a guide.

You suddenly realize that nothing in your teacher education prepared you for this child

When he yelled over the whole class on the first day, I thought to myself, Well, this is going to be a wild ride. He spent the next week proving that I was right. He lashed out at fellow students, disrupted class, and acted out wherever he went.

Gifted and ADHD. That’s a combination for you.

After a week I was considering quitting my job, burning my teaching certificate, and getting a job as a cashier somewhere.

Then I met Timmy’s dad. An aloof, withdrawn man with a piercing gaze that demands your agreement and discipline, regardless of how old you are. Phone in hand, he was paying about 3% of his attention to Timmy, maybe 4% to me.

And all of a sudden Timmy, that loose cannon, was like a whole different child.

He clearly would have crawled around on the floor if that’s what it took to get his dad’s approval. Just to get his attention for a moment, or even a warm word from his dad, he would have done anything.

Please understand that my goal here isn’t to judge his father’s parenting or personality. That’s not the point. We all know the children we see each day come from all kinds of families. Some of them are so full of love you can spot it a mile away, while others we wouldn’t want to spend five minutes in ourselves. This meeting, however, showed me something essential.

It’s important not to miss a child’s call

This isn’t a bad kid. He’s not some troublemaker who wants to pull one over on everybody. He’s a wounded little boy crying out for love and attention. In a somewhat unconventional way that is not entirely pleasant for those around him, true. But it’s still a cry for help.

He has a reason for everything he does, every time he acts out, and every rude word. It’s hidden deep inside him, so painful that Timmy (and every other kid like him) might not have any control over it.

And it’s up to our maturity and ability as teachers to hear that cry

instead of giving in to a knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh no, young man, there’ll be none of that in my classroom.”

At times like this our primary job is to avoid becoming one more irritable, poorly behaved child in an adult’s body, lashing out and yelling out of fear of losing our authority: I’ll show you who can make a louder scene! You’ll see who’s boss here!

I know, sometimes you’ve just had all you can take

Despite all the rules and best practices for inclusive education, maybe you’ve also felt that irrational urge to come down like a hammer on a difficult child. But remember this?

Children learn by imitation.

Not so much from what we say, but from how we act.

That’s why, whether we realize it or not,

  • yelling at a child who’s yelling just teaches them to yell more,

  • punishment just pushes them into a corner and forces them to attack again,

  • taking a verbal swipe at a kid with a bad mouth just encourages them to swipe back at us next time,

  • and praising a perfectionist just pushes them further into a corner, encouraging them to chase some unachievable ideal of perfection all the harder.

Reminding them of the rules doesn’t help

We can insist til the cows come home that we’re just disciplining Timmy when we raise our voices, chastise him in front of the class for crossing a line, and constantly remind him of what we agreed. He needs to know the rules, right? But as long as we use those tactics, we miss one essential truth:

We are not showing him any respect at all. We’re demanding he respect others and refusing to show any to him. It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire. You’ll burn down the whole forest and end up having to run away.

But if you can reach deep inside and find genuine respect for the “unmanageable” Timmy (or any other child), they’ll start reflecting that respect back to you.

You might be the first person in their life

That’s why your heart is so important in our line of work.
The heart that knows that different doesn’t mean bad. The heart that can handle someone who’s different without killing their individuality.
The heart that feels and perceives. The heart that isn’t always judging and assessing. That instead finds a way to make peace.

The heart that wants to understand, not slap a label on him.

The heart that gives you the courage to be there with this child that doesn’t know how to be who the school system wants them to be. Obedient, integrated, not sticking out, always successful … and a little bit dead inside.

When Timmy screams out loud, “I hate you, I hate you, I’m not doing it, go ahead and write my parents a note!”, that heart is what keeps you from yelling back,

“Bring me your notebook then!”

That heart is what hears the quiet cry hidden in all the noise:

“I’m all alone, just me against the world, and against you, and it hurts,” finding the courage to say:

“You’re hurting, aren’t you, Timmy? Are you angry that you didn’t get another chance to solve the math problem? Or is it something else? Will you tell me what’s going on, please? I’d like to understand.”

If you do that, you might be the first person in their life who doesn’t meet aggression with aggression. You might be the first person brave enough to take an interest in the real Timmy, not the tough guy he pretends to be to cover up the uncertainty inside him. The uncertainty that drives him to act like a troublemaker.

You might be the first person to give him a real opportunity to change.

If you’re interested, this is how Timmy and I went about it.

First: I stopped labeling him and telling him what was wrong with him

Some children wear so many labels placed on them by other people that shaking them off would take almost superhuman strength. Of course, we don’t label children with any ill intent. We want to help them. But:

  • Timmy isn’t following the rules right now, so let’s just ignore him, children.
    Timmy hears: If I don’t act the way they want, I’m on my own.

  • Calm down this instant, Timmy, or we’re going to the principal’s office. I’m surprised at you.
    Timmy hears: When I do something they don’t like, I have to go away. I’m all alone.

  • The other children don’t like what you’re doing. You can’t hurt them like that. Come sit at your desk until you snap out of it.
    Timmy hears: Everyone’s against me. I’m not one of them. I’m all alone.

  • You can’t yell like that, Timmy. Look at the rule posted on the board: Talk nicely to each other.
    Timmy hears: The rules are more important than what I’m trying to say. They’re not interested in me. I’m all alone.

Be honest now, could you handle that every day? Calmly, rationally, over and over again? All that rejection, misunderstanding and loneliness? Maybe not. Maybe you’d be like Timmy, thinking deep down inside, “Well, if I can’t be good, then I’ll be the worst.”

And that was that.

Second: I started talking about myself, not about the rules

The most common arguments we use as adults that aren’t real arguments at all (which is why children disregard them) are all of our shoulds, musts, and mustn’ts.

What do I mean by that?

Instead of confidently saying, “I don’t want you to climb on the cabinet. Climb down please,” we say, “No climbing on the cabinets.”

Instead of, “I’m worried you’ll trip if you run around in just socks,” we say, “Where are your shoes? Don’t you know the rules?”

Instead of, “I’m worried you boys are going to hurt yourselves running around like that. I can’t allow it,” we say, “Do you want to pull a card for running? You know very well it’s against the rules.”

We say these things in such a matter-of-fact way that we don’t even notice that we’re just hiding behind them, which only encourages kids to break the rules, not follow them. Because all these no running and no climbing and must and should statements … says who? Nobody we can see. Why should anyone care about following this invisible person’s rules, then?

Think about it:

When you say, “No running inside,” do the children learn anything about who made the rule or why it’s important?

If you said, “I don’t want you to run inside because I’m worried you’ll crack your head open on a desk,” is that any different? It absolutely is. Do you know what’s different about it?

It’s got more of you in it. It’s got more open, direct communication.

The child hears that you, their teacher, care about their safety, and they know your real reason. And a real person with a real reason, that is an argument that makes sense. You’ve stopped passing off responsibility to the invisible authority of some ever-present “must” and said what you really mean.

At least some of the time.

Can you feel the respect for the child in that? It shows you see them as a person worthy of a dignified explanation.

After all, would you rather hear a child say “I broke it” or “It got broken”? Good old-fashioned imitation, that’s all it is …

Third: I invited him to help find a solution. There is no respect without this point.

There is no greater paradox in teaching or raising children than trying to respect the unique needs of a child when we’ve taken away what makes the child unique and the responsibility for the shared result as well.

How’s that, you ask? When we’re constantly trying to get children engaged, spur them to action, and make individual education plans for them, but never ask them what they actually need and invite them to help find a solution, we are not taking their unique nature into account at all. And we’re going to have a very hard time meeting their real needs.

We know their behavior, their diagnosis and how it manifests, but we know nothing about what Timmy needs and what would help.

We might have the best possible systems and teaching methods in place, but if we lose sight of the real child, all our best efforts will be wasted.

Fortunately, it’s still possible to reverse the damage, give children their unique voices back, and get them involved in finding solutions for situations that involve them. You just need to start asking the questions that will let them work with you. They are simple, yet you’ll be surprised at how effective they are.

What sort of questions?

The other kids are having trouble concentrating because you’re running around. It makes me feel stressed and honestly I’m not sure what to do about it. Can you help me figure something out, please?

I need everybody to read quietly right now. I know you don’t like it much. Can you think of something we could do so everyone gets what they need?

I really don’t know what to do about your forgetfulness. Can you help me out? Tell me what would help you.

I think we’re both struggling with your math, hm? You because you have to do it and me because I have to keep reminding you. Can you think of a way we could get it done?

Fourth: I started to really appreciate him

That’s three down, one to go. Maybe the most important one.

When I saw Timmy starting to open up and look for possibilities along with me, I realized what a brave kid he really was. He’d been through quite a lot in his short life. And yet he had the courage to step out of his protective shell once again as soon as he saw someone sincerely willing to help.

And me? Would I have had the same courage in his shoes? Would I have managed it just as quickly? Honestly, I don’t think I would.

The children we meet in our schools deserve huge respect and an incredible amount of love.

Every single one of them. Whether they’re battling letters, their own body, or pain in their heart. Most of all, each of them is bravely battling their own life.

And we adults have no right to put labels on them: unmanageable, below average, socially awkward. We have no right because we have never walked in their shoes.

All we can do is trust them and cheer them on in hopes that they will navigate their path better than the adults around them, who talk a big game about individuality but, truth be told, find it kind of inconvenient in practice.

A child given a real opportunity will accept it with gratitude

It didn’t happen overnight, of course; Timmy and I worked together to figure things out for several weeks. It’s no exaggeration to say that every baby step along the way was priceless to me. Timmy taught me to see that

talking about a second chance and actually giving it each day are two completely different things.

Timmy taught me to notice that when he still acts out from time to time, I struggle to give him that second chance. That’s okay. I’m still learning. This is no easy profession we chose, is it?

So thank you, Timmy. Thank you for helping me understand that a good special education teacher knows what precious cargo they have in their hands and handles that cargo with humility, love, and deep respect. That is what makes them special in their students’ lives, whether they studied special education or nuclear physics.

If you saw your heart in this article and you want to learn to manage better with your kids, you can check out our blog as well as our Unparenting course. It was born out of the same desire as this article: for adults and children to understand each other better so that no one gets labeled “difficult child” or “stupid teacher”, “mean mommy” or “mean daddy”. Those labels aren’t necessary at all. ❤️