How to teach the unteachable

Veteran teacher Joseph Ciaccio describes a strategy of total positive response that can reverse the self-defeating cycle of punishment and failure in high-risk and troubled students

On a chilly March day, a colleague, upon hearing that a student named Alice had done her work in my class that day, turned to me and said, “We are all mere mortals compared to you.” What could have happened that would have prompted this very successful teacher to make such a sweepingly definitive statement? Alice, an intelligent seventh grader, had entered school that day with the intention of getting into trouble. She had been eminently successful, having acquired seven pink slips (removal from virtually every class) and having had an emotionally devastating verbal exchange with her science teacher. When she arrived at my third-period class, I could see that her behavior was different. All I did was to tell her one thing - I reminded Alice of her success in my class, and she got right on track. She worked hard all period, but with 5 minutes left, I could see she had had enough. She pushed the written work away from her, in spite of the fact that she still had one question to complete. I silently walked over to her and she looked up, grabbed her paper, and rapidly completed her work! On a day of deliberate academic turmoil, Alice had 40 minutes of academic nourishment.

I would like to share with the reader a two-step program that I used with all my at-risk students - one that enabled Alice to scrap her game plan and choose learning instead. (In this context, at risk can indicate that the student is a discipline problem and is in danger of failing.)

The first step, which is to identify those students who are at risk, must be accomplished before their maladaptive behavior is exhibited in your classroom. For example, if a student is disruptive, ideally you should start working with him or her before misbehavior occurs.

Total positive response
Once identified, the teacher is ready to begin the second step - using “a learning readiness" program with the child. This program encourages the student to behave well voluntarily and work hard without coercion and threats of punishment. The teacher has great power to influence the most recalcitrant student, but it comes from total positive response, not from punishment. (By total positive response I mean dealing with every misbehavior by every student in a positive way rather than a negative one.) The master teacher must understand that these at-risk children are trapped in an emotionally destructive set of responses that leaves their needs unsatisfied. A Maryland teacher of the year, Ann Neidhardt, asserted, “We need to keep ourselves calm, and positive and feeling in control" (Seymour & Seymour, 1992, p. 63). When a teacher uses total positive feedback, he or she will feel calm and in control, which should result in powerful, positive emotional consequences for the teacher and the entire class.

According to Strahan (1994), maintaining a caring relationship between teacher and student is the key to a successful school. Strahan suggested that the essence of a middle school perspective is to promote “caring in action."

Any student who receives total positive response from his or her teacher will feel that the teacher cares. In return, that child will develop a positive attitude toward him- or herself, the class, and the subject being taught. Total positive response will reroute the student from a normally destructive routine into a new course - one that will give the child success for the present and hope for the future. Another important payoff from using total positive response is the creation of a valuable personal experience for the child. Students who have emotional problems - who “get in trouble“ - want to blame the teacher. If the teacher treats the disruptive student with acceptance, the child is disarmed. In fact, the child is confronted with a problem solely of his or her own making in which he or she has to take responsibility for the solution. The child can then realize what he or she did is not the teacher's problem, but the child's.

The master teacher understands that the degree of acceptance toward a student will vary according to the ego strength of that child. If children have high self-esteem, they are perfectly capable of absorbing negative comments. If, on the other hand, a child comes from a home where there is little or no emotional nourishment and he or she is also alienated from the educational process, total positive feedback from the teacher is essential. Any negative comments might convince the child that the teacher is like all the other adults in his or her world, which could terminate any opportunity for a positive relationship between child and teacher. These children see human relationships in terms of black-or-white: The adult is either part of the solution (you help satisfy their needs) or part of the problem.

Professional teachers must develop techniques that will enable them to respond in a positive manner. To be positive in the face of disruptive behavior is not difficult if the teacher begins working with the child from the first week of school to build a positive relationship. Use the sandwich method: Start and end with positives, leaving the middle portion for criticism. For example, tell Jeremy positive comments to start, mention the airplane he flew across the room during the class, and end with additional positive remarks. Be specific. Don't make general statements, because such compliments conflict with the child's negative self-image and he or she may turn you off. If the child walks away feeling uplifted, the teacher has been successful.

Tara, an intelligent eighth grader, spontaneously asserted in private to me, “The dirtbags do so well in your class." This was no accident. The teacher determines what is success and what isn't, and I made sure that every one of those students who had a history of failure enjoyed positive experiences in my class.

I will use a personal example to illustrate this point of how a teacher determines what success is. I was trying to get Billy to participate in class. In the beginning, he made an effort, but his comments were academically inept. One day I asked, “Where did democracy start?" I was teaching U.S. history, specifically, the Puritans. I expected “the town meetings” to be a suitable answer. Billy said, "before Christ." The class laughed at him. I said, “Billy, how did you know that? It's amazing! Democracy started with the Greeks 500 years before Christ, but it is rare for a seventh grader to know that. I'm impressed!” The laughing stopped and Billy looked proud and delighted! I want to make two points about Billy's experience. First, total positive response means abundant positive feedback, and Billy thrived on it. Halfway through the school year, he had a 30, 50, and 59 average in three of his courses, in spite of the fact that he had very good teachers. In my social studies class, however, he was a great success. When he left school in the third quarter, some teachers were delighted, but I actually noticed a deterioration in the quality of work accomplished by his class. My early nurturing and continuous positive support resulted in this boy becoming a personal success and a model student for the class.

Second, and most important, the teacher should be able to find something positive in virtually all situations. Be creative. Saying just the right thing will be time-consuming, but the preparation will result in rewarding experiences with grateful children. All teachers can guarantee success to every receptive student, providing the teacher is willing to make the necessary radical changes to his or her thinking and practice.

Albert Shanker (1995) wrote, “If we want to change our schools for the better, we have to change what goes on in the classroom between teachers and students. There is nothing revolutionary about this idea. It is common sense. It is also extremely difficult to do” (p. 8). When the teacher uses total positive response, all he or she needs is a commitment to emotionally supporting the most needy students with only positive feedback, thus allowing the emotionally damaged child to begin the healing process.

Joe Ciaccio is a freelance educational writer interested in teacher training programs. He has 31 years of junior high school teaching experience.


Seymour, D., & Seymour, T. (1992). America's best classrooms. Princeton, NJ: Petersen's Guides.

 Shanker, A. (1995, April 17). Beyond magic bullets. New York Teacher, 36, p. 8. Strahan, D. (1994). Midpoints. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Acknowledgements: Reclaiming Children and Youth. This article is posted on their "free pages" web site.

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