The Kid Whisperer: How to prevent and mitigate serious negative behaviors (Part 1 of 3)

Scott Ervin, Tribune News Service on

Published in Lifestyles

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I teach in a K-5 room for students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBDs). I love my job and I run a tight ship. My students know that while they are in my room, their negative behaviors won’t work: They only get what they want with positive behaviors. However, a few of my students know that there are some behaviors that I am not allowed to handle in my classroom. I am required to refer physical violence and threats to my principal, and these behaviors lead to detentions and suspensions. I don’t want this to happen, but I don’t know what I can do about it.

Answer: The moment that I read the words “I run a tight ship” in the context of working with kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, I thought “YES!”… and I knew exactly what the rest of your question was.

Yes, savvy kids who are diagnosed with EBDs who don’t get attention, control and avoidance within the classroom will find ways to get out of the classroom, where their negative behaviors will get them what they want (attention, control and avoidance). Yes, the savviest kids are skilled in “ejector seat” behaviors: They know that you are forced by school rules to remove them from the classroom for the behaviors that you mentioned, so they use those behaviors.

The answer, and I can’t believe I have to write this, is NOT to walk on eggshells with these kids and avoid holding them accountable so that you don’t make them mad. Believe it or not, some people tell teachers to stop having high expectations, or to stop having any expectations with these kids. This is a great way to utterly destroy kids while simultaneously making your job impossible. It’s wrong and it is cruel.

Instead, the answer is to correctly prevent, mitigate and respond as a scorekeeper in the present and as a calm, loving teacher in the future.

This column will describe how to correctly prevent and mitigate. Next week’s column will show you how to correctly respond in the present. The column after that will show you how to teach a positive behavior in the future. By the way, this isn’t just for students with the EBD label. It’s for everyone.


You have to create a brand new environment for these kids: one where their positive behaviors get them significantly more attention than their negative behaviors. The most effective way to do this is to use Strategic Noticing. The kids with the EBD label tend to be addicted to the attention and thereby control that they get through their negative behaviors. Strategic Noticing allows us to flip that script by giving kids attention when they use positive behaviors:

Kid Whisperer: I noticed Kid #1 is working hard. I noticed Kid #2 is working collaboratively with Kid #3.

Kid #3: SO!?!

Kid Whisperer: I just noticed. I noticed Kid #4 is being patient and waiting his turn…



When behaviors are slightly off track, but don’t need a Learning Opportunity (consequence), we can gently guide kids back on track without making demands, which make things worse.

Kid is in an escalating argument with another student.

Kid Whisperer, to Kid: What’s next?

Kid Whisperer hovers next to Kid, thereby causing the intensity of the argument to dissipate slightly.

Kid Whisperer looks confusedly at Kid, as if to say, “You are awesome, that behavior is less than awesome, so what are you doing? I’m confused.”

Kid stops arguing and Kid Whisperer continues to teach.

Do you see the difference between gently guiding kids without using demands, and not holding the student accountable at all? These Gentle Guidance Interventions make behaviors and your work experience better, while not holding kids accountable is utterly cruel and destructive to your students and to yourself.

This will not, however, immediately make everything all better, because your students have had fantastical success over an extended period of time at getting attention, control and avoidance with negative behaviors. This is why, especially for these “ejector seat” behaviors, you have to be able to be the calm scorekeeper when the student leaves the room, and then, upon their return, during non-instructional time, teach them the positive behaviors that they struggle with as a calm teacher, not as an angry tyrant.

I’ll show you how to do that next week!

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