Help! I’m Tired of Disruptive Kids Coming Back From the Principal’s Office With Candy

Trust isn’t built on candy.

Teacher telling unruly kids, 'That's it. You're going to the principal's office, all of you!'

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m a middle school math teacher, and my building does not have discipline support. All behavior issues, serious or otherwise, are my responsibility. If I send a student out, it’s inevitable they will return just a few minutes later, lollipop in hand. It’s beyond irritating when these same kids were just starting physical fights and even breaking furniture and supplies. I get that my principal wants to build positive relationships—that’s what I want, too. But I feel like I’m at a breaking point. Am I wrong, or are my administrators slackers?—Not A Sucker

Dear N.A.S.,

I can totally understand why you feel irritated by such a superficial approach to deeper issues. Kids who fight and then come back to class with candy sounds like a joke. How frustrating to have ongoing behavioral issues and extrinsic rewards as the main strategy of your leadership. Yes, relationships are everything, but trust isn’t built on candy.

So what motivates students to develop self-control and learn? BBC writer Tiffanie Wen writes, “…two drivers of behavior are known as intrinsic motivation (natural curiosity) and extrinsic motivation (linked to reward). But which is better for helping children learn—and can you nurture a joy of learning without handing out rewards?” Candy, stickers, prizes, snacks, and other material rewards shift the motivation outside of the learner. With extrinsic rewards, students might do something to earn a reward versus really caring and building their own self-regulation. Yes, some of us have seen these external rewards “work.” But do they really work? With external reinforcements, “You will engage in behavior not because you enjoy it or because you find it satisfying, but because you expect to get something in return or avoid something unpleasant.”

I know I only have a snapshot of information about your administrator. So I hesitate to judge whether they are effective and inspirational. But there are characteristics that make a principal great. The school feels like a family, teachers are treated as professionals, data-driven decisions are made, and the school is student-centered. Great principals connect well with families and promote school spirit and teamwork. Nowhere on the list of characteristics is that principals take the easy approach to discipline with candy. If you really want to build solid, trusting relationships at school, food isn’t the way to do it.


Instead, many of us educators are inspired by leaders who lean into restorative practices and take the more substantive approach to building a positive school community. “Restorative practices do more than supplant punitive approaches to discipline. They can dramatically improve the school climate and strengthen the social and emotional skills of young people and adults. Instead of using punishments and rewards to influence the way students behave, restorative approaches address the underlying reasons for students’ hurtful behavior and nurture their intrinsic desire to treat others with care and respect.”

It’s time to ask for a meeting with your principal. I’d suggest having other teachers you trust join you. Bring up your concerns. You might say something like, “We’d like to talk about the repeated behavior issues we are experiencing in and out of our classrooms. We need your support and are interested in talking about other strategies to use besides extrinsic candy rewards with our students. We’ve noticed the kids’ behaviors are not changing. They come back to class gloating and laughing. What else can we try? Can we talk about this as a staff? Would you be willing to help find someone who can provide training on restorative practices?”

Hang in there. This is figureoutable. Stay united and stay strong. You and your students will reap the rewards for sure.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m a support teacher at an elementary school. Recently, I’ve been assigned to a new third grader who just moved here from Mexico and doesn’t speak English. I am bilingual, which is why I was paired with her. To be honest, she’s not academically at a third-grade level. She doesn’t understand basic grammar rules or math. Here’s my problem: she doesn’t care about school and doesn’t pay attention to what I say. The only time she seems happy or engaged is during recess. Reward systems and punishments don’t work. I’m at a loss about what to do because I really want her to do well, and I know she’s smart enough to do it. Am I the problem here? Maybe it’s because I’m not an “actual” teacher. I’m basically a glorified translator, so I guess I don’t really know how to teach. —In Over My Head

Dear I.O.M.H.,

Thank you for writing in about your newcomer student and your feelings. You DO have skills, and being able to communicate in more than one language is no small feat. Please don’t minimize that you are bilingual. I know you want her to do well and that being responsive to individual student needs is super challenging. Sometimes it’s harder to connect with some students than others. With that said, it’s also absolutely understandable that your newly arrived student is overwhelmed with learning a new language as well as grade-level content. She may be feeling a sense of culture shock. I would be, too.

Remember that you are not alone in supporting her. The first thing to do is to collaborate with others at your site. Problem-solving and planning strategic support are not your sole responsibility. Reach out to the teacher, counselor, and administrator. Putting your ideas together will create collective wisdom. This will boost your confidence and also be more supportive to your students’ unique needs. You mention that you are not a formally-trained teacher, so working closely with a team will tether up your skills.

After reading your comments, I do want to point out something that feels prickly. When you say your student “doesn’t care about school,” this type of teacher language is an example of a deficit mindset. Pay close attention to the type of language you are using with students and about students. Your language helps to create learning conditions. When language focuses on what’s lacking, student motivation and interest can really deteriorate. When teacher language is more asset-based and focuses on what students can do, learner confidence grows. Challenge yourself to find the progress. Help your student by noticing and naming what’s going well. The Responsive Classroom approach highlights how “our language shapes how children see themselves and their world. When our words and tone convey faith in children’s desire and ability to do well, the children are more likely to live up to our expectations of them.”

Manya Whitaker, professor and chair of Education at Colorado College, wrote a book titled Public School Equity: Educational Leadership for Justice. She says, “The single variable that best predicts students’ sense of belonging is their relationship with teachers. This is more important than their race, socioeconomic status, academic achievement, and their relationships with peers. Strong teacher-student relationships can mitigate the cumulative effects of misbehavior, apathy, and failure due to poor teacher-student relationships. By improving students’ motivation, engagement, academic self-regulation, and overall achievement, teacher-student relationships offer schools continual opportunities to support students’ learning.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Newcomer Tool Kit reminds us of the distinct needs of students who are new to our American school system. It’s critical to create a space where social-emotional learning needs are met. Know your learner the best you can. Help her build self-awareness and social skills so that she can experience authentic connections in her new country. Take the initiative to help create a welcoming environment for students as well as their families. Have you had the opportunity to reach out to her family yet? It’s totally worth it to talk to the family to find out more about her life, including her interests and strengths. You will show that you value her language and culture, which will help with motivation and trust.

Lastly, your strategic academic support is important, along with the social and emotional support. Some basic levels of scaffolding include providing visuals, using gestures, and creating sentence frames to help your newcomer be able to understand and express herself. Try and model your thinking and ways of communicating often and also invite her to participate, even with the mistakes. These mistakes are approximations and will change and improve over time. Keep up your use of her native language, too. Developing her native language builds more success in her new language. This will help with building understanding as well as developing cross-linguistic transfer. Most of all, keep up your support. Even when it seems like your student doesn’t care, she does deep down inside. You are a bridge and a buoy for your student.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m a student teacher near the end of my program, and I’m really losing my confidence. I thought I would feel more prepared by this point. My third-grade class has felt chaotic when I’m in charge. When my mentor teacher is teaching, things go smoothly, and the kids seem more engaged and respectful. I just had a meeting with my mentor teacher and support supervisor, and they told me to have a strong “teacher presence.” But I’m not really sure what that even means or how to do it! Why can’t the kids just be angels and sit quietly and not disrupt the class? Am I cut out to be a teacher? —Do I Have What It Takes?

Dear D.I.H.W.I.T.,

So, I’ve been working for over 15 years with student teaching candidates at the University of California, San Diego’s Education Studies Department. I can safely say that you are not alone in your feelings. Student teachers often question themselves, have self-doubt, feel a sense of disillusionment, and wonder if they have what it takes. Take a deep breath. Then take another one. All educators, in fact, all humans, are swimming upstream again our ingrained negativity biases. Pay attention to your inner voice and remember that any progress is good progress. You have support, and you have options!

Something that you can do right away is to reach out and schedule a time to talk with your mentor teacher and university supervisor to really define and make sense of your “teacher presence.” Ask for examples of when you do exhibit this presence, and also ask for specific examples of things to improve. Your presence is directly connected to your confidence, your verbal and non-verbal communication, and your preparedness. Your teacher presence represents the way you carry yourself and embodies your enthusiasm, sense of wonder, and joy.

When the class feels chaotic, it’s important to stop instruction. You have permission to pause and regroup. It doesn’t mean you are a “bad” teacher when you do this. On the contrary, it means that you are noticing things are off track and responding to the current reality. Sometimes, you will need to pull your kids into a circle and have a classroom meeting to address the issues. It’s not time for a teacher to lecture or to plead with them to “be angels.” Classroom meetings are spaces to promote ownership of the classroom, build self-awareness, set goals, appreciate multiple perspectives, and establish clear expectations.

Increasing student engagement is a great place to start. Usually, when student behavior is off the rails, engagement is waning. Consider that you need structure to enable a meaningful process of student engagement. Having clear expectations and multiple opportunities for students to talk and experience hands-on learning will help. You will need a few attention-getting signals so that you are not raising your voice and you are ensuring that the class is respectful and exhibits self-control. I usually do a count down to get the class quiet. Starting with 5-4-3-2-1 and then by zero, it’s quiet. We practice and practice and learn about the purpose of attention-getting signals during our class meetings. When you infuse more collaboration, you increase motivation and interest.

It’s also true that right now, you are a guest in your cooperating teacher’s classroom. When you have your own classroom space, you can create a classroom management system that feels aligned with you. All teachers, but especially new teachers, grapple with student behavior. Learn all you can from your mentor teacher, and trust that with your risk-taking, self-awareness, and adaptability based on student needs, you will improve your teacher presence, classroom management, and confidence as well as efficacy with your students.

Every day out in the classroom is a great opportunity to practice, reflect, adjust, and learn. Seek feedback, apply ideas, and celebrate your progress.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m a 3rd-grade teacher, and our team decided to go to a nature preserve to learn about the local Native American Kumeyaay tribe. I’m not an outdoorsy person at all, and I dread this field trip. I don’t like being in the sun. Also, I’m not in great physical shape, and this field trip involves a two-mile hike. I’m super scared of snakes, and rattlesnakes are common there. Yeah, I know the kids will love it. But I’d rather show them a movie. What advice do you have to help me manage?

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Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson

Help! I'm Tired of Disruptive Kids Coming Back From the Principal's Office With Candy