Strategies for Successful Classroom Management: Helping Students Succeed without Losing Your Dignity or Sanity


Brian D. Mendler, Richard L. Curwin & Allen N. Mendler

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  • Dedication

    To Laura Because I knew you, I have been changed for good


    To my loving grandchildren Yocheved Ghana, Betzalel Ze'ev, Noa Bareket, Eli Seth, Ryan Joseph, Megan Alana, and Ghana Rivka. You are the joy of my life.


    To my grandchildren Caleb and Ava for making me feel young again. Your innocence and inquisitiveness reminds me of how natural it is to want to learn and love. I adore you both.



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    I would like to begin by thanking my dad, mentor, and friend, Allen Mendler. Dad, you have spent your life dedicated to making the world a better place for children. Thanks for trusting me to carry on the Discipline With Dignity message and for being the best father a guy could have.

    To Rick Curwin, an amazing teacher, mentor, and friend: Thanks for creating the best classroom management program in the world, and thanks for allowing me to carry it forward.

    Mom, you are a wonderful parent, educator, and friend. I love you.

    Jason, your hard work, dedication, and focus are traits that I admire. Thanks for your support, friendship, and love. You are an amazing human being and I am proud to be your brother. Lisa, you are smart, kind, caring, and beautiful. I love you.

    Ticia, I admire and respect you so much. My brother is lucky to have you as his wife and I am lucky to have you as a sister-in-law and friend. Thanks for your dedication to Jason, Caleb, Ava, and Belly.

    To my students, many of whom are mentioned by name in this book, including AJ, Anthony, Ashley, Ben, Dan, Jenna, Joe, Kyle, Liz, Mike, Russell, and all others I had the pleasure of working with: I didn't know how to teach until I met you.

    Ms. Farrell, you are an amazing person, educator, friend, and colleague. Thanks for your unrelenting support and dedication. You made my life and the lives of our students better. I will always be grateful.

    Rush-Henrietta and Wheatland-Chili had the guts to take a chance on a young, energetic, and occasionally opinionated teacher. Jim Decamp and Kerry Dempsey taught me so much. Thanks to each of you.

    To Mike and Bud at St. John Fisher College, thanks for your dedication to me. I am proud to teach at such a fine institution.

    A special thanks to Becky Zelesnikar and her fourth graders at Longridge Elementary for allowing me to be a part of their class this summer.

    To my Monday and Tuesday night support groups: None of this book was possible without my meetings. I learned to be honest, responsible, and committed. You taught me that truth is most important, even though it is not always easy. Kevin, Chuck, Connie, Bruno, Sandy, Bill, and anyone else brave enough to come, helped change my life. “Keep coming back. It works if you work it so work it. You're worth it.”

    To my “little brother” Victor and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program: Vic, you are a wonderful part of my life. I am proud to be your friend, mentor, and brother.


    This project would not have happened without the work of our wonderful staff at the Teacher Learning Center and Discipline Associates: Jon, Allison, Jamie, Jennifer, and Heidi. In addition, we are extremely fortunate to have an outstanding group of associates that support, share, and grow our work with educators throughout the country: Willeta Corbett, Jerry Evanski, Mary Beth Hewitt, Donald Price, Colleen and David Zawadzki, and Cynthia Glenn.

    Thanks to Scott Pecore for your friendship, advice, support, and consultation.

    To Alison Hope, Veronica Stapleton, and all the fine people at Corwin Press: Thank you so much for your dedication, patience, and support. We are so grateful for your hard work and professionalism.

    Finally, to all dedicated teachers for the daily effort and persistence it takes to make differences in the lives of your students: We thank you on their behalf.

    —Brian, Rick, and Allen

    In addition, the contributions of the following reviewers are gratefully acknowledged:

    • Kathryn Fitzgerald Abels, MSW
    • EC Resource Teacher
    • Charlotte Mecklenberg Schools
    • Charlotte, NC
    • Deborah Alexander-Davis, EdD
    • Educational Consultant, Adjunct Professor, Research Associate, Retired Elementary Principal 2004 Tennessee Principal of the Year
    • Kingston, TN
    • Judy Brunner
    • Author and Consultant
    • Edu-Safe LLC
    • Springfield, MO
    • Catherine Kilfoyle Duffy
    • English Department Chairperson
    • Three Village Central School District
    • Stony Brook, NY
    • Sheila Fisher
    • Principal
    • Maria Weston Chapman Middle School
    • East Weymouth, MA
    • Barbara K. Given, PhD
    • Director, Adolescent and Adult Learning Research Center, Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, and Director, Center for Honoring Individual Learning Diversity, an International Learning Styles Center
    • George Mason University
    • Fairfax, VA
    • Debra Las
    • ISD #535, Rochester Public Schools
    • Rochester, MN
    • Diane P. Smith
    • School Counselor
    • Port Allegany, PA
    • Stephen Valentine
    • English Department Chair
    • Montclair Kimberley Academy
    • Montclair, NJ

    About the Authors

    Brian D. Mendler is a certified elementary and special education teacher with extensive experience working with students who have challenging behaviors in general education, self-contained, and inclusion settings. As an adjunct professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY, he teaches behavior management and introduction to special education. In addition, he provides staff development training for K-12 educators and youth service workers throughout North America with the focus on how to be successful with students who have moderate to severe behavior difficulties. Mr. Mendler's recent publication, Tips 4 Teachers, is an easy-to-read book for educators that offers specific, practical strategies from the Discipline With Dignity approach. Mr. Mendler is a contributor to the book Just in Time: Powerful Strategies to Promote Positive Behavior, published with Dr. Allen Mendler, and coauthor of numerous publications, including Discipline With Dignity. That publication provides practical, in-depth suggestions for teachers that offer solutions to problems with discipline and motivation.

    While completing his master's degree at D'Youville College in Buffalo, NY, Mr. Mendler began volunteering in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He has been passionately involved with this program, and his “little” brother, Victor, since that time. He also works with Special Olympics, helping out in their track and field and Softball programs. Mr. Mendler currently lives in Rochester, NY.

    Richard L. Curwin is an award-winning instructor, author, and educational consultant. His philosophy on discipline, behavior, and classroom management is one of the most widely used in the world. He is coauthor of the national best-selling book Discipline With Dignity, which offers educators a plethora of strategies on behavior and classroom management. Dr. Curwin has also written or cowritten many other publications, including Discipline With Dignity for Challenging Youth, Rediscovering Hope: Our Greatest Teaching Strategy, and Making Good Choices.

    His seminars and training sessions offer educators ready-to-use strategies with objectives, materials, language, and examples—all designed to encourage students to accept responsibility for their own behavior. Dr. Curwin believes that mistakes can become opportunities for learning, and that they provide teachers a chance to teach respect and self-discipline. His articles have appeared in Educational Leadership, Reclaiming Children and Youth, and Instructor, Parenting, and Learning, all of which are highly acclaimed educational resources.

    He is a leader in the fields of discipline, behavior, and classroom management. He is in high demand as a speaker in America and internationally. His strategies and techniques are used in Belgium, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and Israel. He was a recipient of the coveted Crazy Horse Award for having made outstanding contributions to discouraged youth.

    Curwin has three children and five grandchildren. He makes his home in San Francisco, CA.

    Dr. Allen N. Mendler is an educator, school psychologist, behavior and classroom management expert, and parent of three children.

    He has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular education and special education settings. He has consulted at many schools on the topics of discipline, behavior, and classroom management. He has also consulted at day and residential centers, and has done extensive work with youth in juvenile detention.

    Dr. Mendler's emphasis is on developing effective frameworks and strategies for educators to manage behavior and classrooms. He is an expert at helping youth professionals, teachers, administrators, and parents help youth who have difficulties achieving success.

    As one of the internationally acclaimed authors of the book Discipline With Dignity, Dr. Mendler has given many workshops and seminars to professionals and parents. His behavior management philosophy is highly acclaimed, and Dr. Mendler is in demand as a motivational speaker and trainer by schools all over the world.

    He is the author or coauthor of many books, including What Do I Do When?; Power Struggles: Successful Techniques for Educators; Motivating Students Who Don't Care; Connecting With Students; and Discipline With Dignity for Challenging Youth. Dr. Mendler's most recent book, Just in Time, provides practical easy-to-read tips and specific methods for preventing discipline problems. His articles have appeared in many highly acclaimed journals, including Educational Leadership, Kappan, Learning, Reclaiming Children and Youth, and Reaching Today's Youth.

    Dr. Mendler has been recognized for his distinguished teaching in the areas of discipline, behavior, and classroom management by the Bureau of Education and Research, and he was a recipient of the coveted Crazy Horse Award for having made outstanding contributions to discouraged youth.

    Dr. Mendler lives with his wife, Barbara, and his daughter, Lisa, in Rochester, NY.

    For more information, please visit the Teacher Learning Center, LLC, Web site at


    In a seminar for teachers, held in a small South Texas border town, we were discussing with participants the best ways to defuse angry and hostile students. Ms. Stevens, an eighth-grade math teacher, mentioned that just the other day she'd used humor to defuse a situation with a student in her class who is very troubled. I (Brian Mendler) wasn't sure what she meant until she told us about Miguel. Ms. Stevens warned the group that Miguel occasionally used inappropriate language, but none of us had any idea that it was as bad as it was. The boy was about six feet tall and could be quite intimidating. His black hair was halfway down his back. He wore boots with thick heels. His tank top displayed muscles normally seen on a man in his mid-twenties. His baseball cap was always on backwards and his dark brown eyes were piercing. Miguel was known as a fighter, often stirring up trouble with other kids. His home life was a mess. His father was in jail and his mother worked three jobs in order to support Miguel and his three younger brothers. They lived in a small trailer on the outskirts of town, with few legitimate employment opportunities but an energetic school staff.

    “All the other students were already working on their assignment. All I did was ask him to take out his notebook and a pen,” Ms. Stevens told the seminar. “He glared at me and in a deep and nasty tone replied, ‘I ain't gonna do what you say you skinny ugly bitch.’”

    Dead silence fell on Ms. Stevens's room as the students awaited her reply. “I was sick of the same old response,” Ms. Stevens told the seminar participants. “I'd already written him up 58 times. I constantly removed him and this was where that had gotten us. He was no better. He still hated my class and me. He was still rude, disrespectful, and defiant. Miguel was succeeding in making my life miserable, but I decided that today would be different. I decided that just for today he was not going to get to me. I would not be defeated in my own classroom. I would not let him win. So with the sternest face I could muster I walked directly over to Miguel. I was standing about two feet from his chiseled frame. I looked right into his eyes and with all the energy I could muster, I replied, “You think I'm skinny? That's the best news I've heard all year! Finally someone thinks I'm skinny. Get over here, Miguel, so I can give you a hug. Hang on everyone; I need to call my husband! Miguel thinks I'm skinny!” A roar of laughter filled the seminar room.

    “I hugged that boy as tight as I could,” she told our group. “And then, right there in class, I called my husband. ‘Honey, can you believe Miguel just called me skinny? He just got the entire class a night free of homework by complimenting me.’

    “Way to go, Miguel,” my husband bellowed back through the phone as I held it up to the class so they could hear that I really was talking to him.” Ms. Stevens then looked at us and said, “For the first time all year, Miguel was speechless. He was defused. It looked as if his bubble had been burst. I smiled at him and, finally, he smiled back.” “You got me, Ms. Stevens. That was a good one,” Miguel said. “For the first time, Miguel and I connected. Without saying another word, he took out a pen and began taking notes.” Ms. Stevens then added, “Isn't it amazing how our spouse or significant other knows our most difficult students better than anyone else in our class?”

    So true, I thought. For me, the name wasn't Miguel, but I knew everyone in that room could relate to these challenges, which we all face daily.

    What Ms. Stevens said to Miguel was truly remarkable and not easy to do. It required skill, determination, and courage. In fact, many of the things discussed in this book will not be easy to do. We are not interested in the easy way out if no progress is seen. We don't think it takes a whole lot of skill to write kids up and throw them out. Anyone can do that. Anyone can give a detention, or an extended detention, or an in-school suspension, or an out-of-school suspension. We want to be better. We want you to be better. We want to defuse and disarm hostile and explosive situations before they happen. We are interested in two things at all times: We want to keep students in class, and we want to get back to teaching. Those are our goals. That is what Ms. Stevens did, and boy, did she look tough in front of her class.

    This book contains many anecdotes about our teaching experiences. For the sake of clarity, we will introduce each anecdote with the initials of the author who is telling the story.

    We have shared stories like Ms. Stevens's numerous times at different workshops across the country. They usually inspire other teachers to tell their stories about challenging student behavior. In Tallahassee, Florida, a diminutive lady, Ms. Hall (who was 77 years young) raised her hand. “You're never going to believe what one of my students said to me just the other day. His name was Bill. He told me that he wasn't going take out his books, and then asked me how many times I had had sex with my husband. The whole class was watching. You could hear a pin drop. When I didn't answer immediately, he asked if I was ignoring him. I looked him square in the eye and said, ‘No, I was just counting.’ The whole class cracked up. Bill actually laughed too.” He shook Ms. Hall's hand and knew that from then on he would have to try making some other teacher mad. Ms. Hall wasn't going to bite.

    Our parents taught us that “sticks and stones will break our bones but names will never harm us.” This sound advice can be extremely difficult to implement when our buttons are pushed. Yet, when these moments occur, real-life opportunities exist to teach our students how to handle hurtful behavior that may come their way. We must find ways of getting beyond, “You said what to me? No one uses that tone of voice with me. Get out and don't come back until you are ready to learn!”

    Teaching students who are difficult and hostile takes effort and preparation. These kids are not easy. Since they mostly don't trust adults, they try their best to make our lives miserable. They believe we will quit on them just as everyone else has. When we don't, they often get temporarily worse, trying to prove to themselves that we will give up but secretly hoping we won't. It is difficult but possible to train ourselves to understand this dynamic. It is difficult but possible to learn not to be instinctive in our responses, but to think things through. It is difficult but possible to train our ear to hear what kids are saying instead of how they are saying it. It is difficult but possible to connect with difficult students and influence change. Working with students who are difficult is not easy, but it can be extremely rewarding and it is a part of the job. We are not paid to just teach the “good” students or the “smart” students or the “happy” students or the “normal” students. Great teachers teach the students they are given. They don't complain, they don't whine, and they don't waste time.

    Like all decent people, Ms. Stevens and Ms. Hall were undoubtedly offended by their students' remarks, but they chose to handle things with competence and dignity. In doing so, they earned the respect of these students and reinforced themselves as dependable even in tough times. They were attacked, but did not attack back. By not attacking back they were less likely to have these things said to them again. Both students unloaded their ammunition. They fired the best rockets they had and did no damage. This is one of the most powerful ways that kids learn to stop firing and how others learn what to do when fired at. A major key in dealing with aggressive behavior is learning how to stay personally connected without taking offensive behavior personally and then responding effectively without attacking. It takes confidence and skills that all educators can learn to effectively defuse potentially explosive situations. Our lives then become so much easier when working with students with behavior difficulties, and our schools become safer.

    During the last decade or so, many schools have enacted zero tolerance policies in efforts to make schools safer. The result has been neither an increase in safety (schools always have been and remain among the safest places for kids) nor changed behavior among those who are excluded from school. Our belief is that we must embrace all students, particularly those who are the most challenging. More than anyone else, it is they who need better ways to cope, and we need them to discover more productive ways of redirecting and expressing their frustrations.

    Do you ever wonder why some teachers have few, if any, behavior problems in their class? Why it is that Student A completely behaves in music class, but terrorizes the teacher in art class? What does the music teacher do that the art teacher doesn't? Why is it that certain teachers are the ones sought for the placement of tough kids? What do they do, how do they act and react? This book shares effective practices and offers practical, real-life suggestions, examples, and solutions to these problems from the perspective of the best classroom educators.

  • Conclusion

    After a recent seminar in Canada, Mr. Hughes, the sponsor, was driving me (ANM) to the airport when he shared a story about one of his former students. He told me that he knew Cory, a boy who was both deeply troubled and somewhat cognitively challenged, throughout his high school years. In the role of assistant principal, Mr. Hughes was often required to give his attention to Cory for one behavior or another. Mr. Hughes shared how, for reasons not entirely clear, Cory was one of those kids who not only saw him when he was in trouble, but sought him out just to talk and be with. In his junior year of high school, shortly after Easter, Cory showed Mr. Hughes the gift his mother had given him for the holiday: five $100 bills placed inside a card. The card read, “To Cory: Happy Easter. I hope I never see your f***ing face again.” It was his mother's parting gesture as she marched off into the sunset with her abusive boyfriend.

    Sadly, stories like Cory's have become more normal than exceptional in some schools. Not uncommon is for caring adults like teachers to become numb and insensitive to these harsh realities, because to confront and recognize them on a regular basis is to require a major paradigm shift from “get them to achieve standards” to “nurture their humanity.” Yet with children experiencing major life crises on nearly a daily basis, we must reframe our concept of the classroom to include affirmation of them and validation of their real-life experiences. We may not be able to do everything for everybody, but we can at least do a little bit for each person. Harmful student behavior is no accident. Frequently, it is an expression of the pain and torment visited too often on those unequipped to handle them by those who are supposed to care. It is often the little caring human gestures: a smile, a listening ear, a handshake, greeting, or hug, that can so meaningfully change a life. How often do we struggle with students who drive us up the wall all year, only to be visited years later by that same student who tells us we were his or her favorite teacher? We never know the effect educators have on students, especially the effect caring, nurturing teachers have. Students who are difficult, disruptive, or uncooperative almost never thank you for the effort and energy you put into them on a daily basis.

    When I asked Mr. Hughes what happened to Cory, he told me that Cory's life has been anything but smooth, but he is gainfully employed, married, and a loving father.

    We hope that you have found and will continue to find the information and strategies in this book helpful for knowing what to do and how to respond when your students with the most challenging behaviors push your buttons. On behalf of all of your “Cory's,” thank you for the gifts of your time, patience, caring, and determined effort to matter in their lives and to turn our schools into safer, more caring homes away from home for all children.


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    Corwin Press

    The Corwin Press logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin Press is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin Press continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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