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Weekly articles for school counselors with ideas on how to resolve typical school situations with students, teachers and parents using the solution focused approach.

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The Misunderstood Student: An Experiment in Compliance

March 13, 20235 min read

Often, I get emails about how to reach resistant students, especially adolescents. I recall feeling misunderstood as a teenager, and so I gravitate toward this special group of adolescents, always ready to listen, commiserate, and validate. If you have ever tried to convince a resistant adolescent to try something new, you know that it will not work. So, the solution focused approach guides us to a whole new approach. The following is a common conversation that I have had with adolescents who came across to me as… misunderstood.

LM: “So, do you think that people misunderstand who you really are?”

Answer: “Yes, nobody really gets me, especially my parents and my teachers.”

Then, we are off to the races.  

LM: So, that’s really unfortunate. Tell me, who are you really? What do they not recognize in you yet?

Pause, and a smile, smirk and arms unfold…

S: I like video games and I like horror movies. I am pretty good at chemistry, but I don’t like teachers who are not interesting. I am not very good in their classes, and I usually pay for that. They need to make things more interesting. I would like to help people someday, or maybe even be a veterinarian.

LM: Wow. So, what would your best hopes be that you wish your teacher knew?

S: I don’t know. Maybe give me a reason why to study certain things. At least notice I am in the room. Stop yelling and start talking to me. That would get my attention. I’m not stupid. I just get frustrated when I don’t think stuff matters to them.

LM: That makes so much sense. Tell me about teachers you have had before who seemed to get you just a fraction of the time.

S: In fourth grade I had a teacher who got me. She knew I did math quickly, so when I was finished, she would let me do other things in class. She would let me do errands and even asked me to help other kids who didn’t get the problems. She was a good teacher.

LM: What did that do for you?

S: It was like, she wasn’t on my case, and maybe she liked me. I did really well in her class. 

LM: Tell me about other teachers you have now, who come just a little close to what that teacher did. 

S: Ha. Well, there are not a lot, but the coach who teaches history is okay. He is funny and that keeps my attention. I get the feeling too, that he likes us. Sometimes I talk to him after class. I walk to the gym with him and he’s cool. 

LM: Who else in your life gets you just a little?

S: Not my parents, but my Uncle Sid. When we visit him every summer, he is so cool. He always asks me what I like to do, what music I listen to, what I might want to do later when I finish high school. He does coding for a video game company and I love video games so we have a lot to talk about. He actually listens to me. Yeah. 

LM: So, when people get to know you and figure out the things you like, even ask you about what you like to do, or want to do, that seems to help them get you?

S: Yeah, I guess so.

LM: I have an idea. Would you be willing to do an experiment so somehow, your teachers begin to get you a little more?  

S: Maybe. I’m not sure it would work. They are pretty set in their ways.

LM: Yeah, I’ll bet, so you might have to really push it a little. We might even get their attention a little, if you and I wrote a note to them, asking them to start looking at you a little differently. Would that be okay?

S: That would be very weird.

LM: I know. But, hey, I do this with other kids and somehow, it sends a message to teachers. See, I think sometimes, teachers get busy and forget to see past kids like you who may forget to participate. From what you have told me, who knows what they might do if they knew a little more.

S: I don’t know but okay.

Together, we wrote the following email:

Dear Teachers,

I know that you are busy and many times have a lot to present to your classes. Today, I spoke with Ian, who is in each of your classes. He was referred to me because he was not being successful in several of your classes. After talking to Ian, I learned that sometimes he thinks his teachers really don’t know him well. As a result, he stops working. He told me about classes where he did better in the past…times when the teacher recognized him when he was successful and let him do other things once his work was finished. He also liked it when teachers explained why a project or assignment was given to him. He also told me he has plans in his future to help people or, to become a veterinarian.

He recognizes that he has not shown you the kind of student he could be so over the next few days, for the rest of this week, he plans on showing you a different side of himself. 

If you would, please watch out for whatever he tries to do to show you a new side of himself.

Feel free to email me with your observation if you like. I will then share your comments with Ian, with your permission.

Best,

Linda Metcalf

Conversations such as this go far to lessen resistance and gain compliance. Notice that both parties, Ian and the teachers had something to try out. Notice I did not share with the teachers what he was going to do either. It was, after all, an experiment.

And it worked.

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Dr Linda Metcalf

Linda Metcalf is the best-selling author of Counseling Toward Solutions and 10 other books. Linda is a former middle school teacher, all-level certified school counselor, licensed professional counselor supervisor, and licensed marriage and family therapist in the State of Texas. She is a Professor at Texas Wesleyan University.

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