Tips for a Combative Teen

A teacher asks:

"Any tips for handling a combative teen student? Any mistake is my fault and we spend much time with her arguing over something. I am not sure how to address this with her or even if I should. It makes for a stressful and not fun lesson. She says she wants to learn but does not want to admit when she doesn't know something. Help!! She is 13."

When a student is "combative," she's trying to communicate with you.

Though everyone is under many different pressures in their lives, teenage students are under a complex and changing set of influences, which make their experience unique. Actions, body language, and other behaviors are simply alternate forms of communication that we all use throughout our lives when we are somehow unable to communicate through language. If students fall asleep in class, fidget, doodle, or engage in other strange behavior, it is almost always because something else is going on in their lives, not because they disrespect us.

It is often easier to communicate through actions than words because speaking up for yourself and asking for what you need can be embarrassing and challenging. We live in a culture that emphasizes keeping your problems close and dealing with them yourself rather than asking for the help you need. When students behave curiously, it is your job to find out what they need in that specific moment and help them get it. Communication is difficult for almost everyone especially because people often don't know exactly what it is that's bothering them.

Look deeper.

Ask questions. Consider what your student might be trying to tell you. Can she not read the music? Is she embarrassed about not understanding? Does she feel like you're expecting too much? Does she dislike the piece you chose for her? Is she feeling stress from school? Sports? Parents?

Sometimes even the language we use to describe a situation can prevent us from seeing it clearly. Just because others describe teens as angry, lazy, combative or oppositional doesn't mean it's a genuine or helpful interpretation of who they are. 

You're a small part of a much bigger picture. 

It's more important to find out what's going on in their lives than to judge their behavior.  You have to ask questions because often times they don't even know - so it's not realistic to expect them to. It's your job as the teacher to find out what they need and then give it to them.

If a student is embarrassed they don't know something, they will almost always try to hide it. Unless the student is lucky enough to be in the most progressive classroom, they're likely trained to keep their mouths shut and hope that they figure out what's happening in a minute. Or an hour. Or never. 

We have an obligation to help our students save face.

We take the embarrassment so they don't have to. (Here's a link to an entire post about techniques to use in these situations.)

In the rest of her day your student may feel talked down to or treated with condescension. But you have the opportunity to treat her as a real, whole person with strengths and weaknesses to explore. The beauty of individual teaching is that there is no need to cater to the general needs of a population. Instead, it is your duty to understand what this student in particular needs and is asking of you, and help her to move forward.

Give them a voice.

Let students choose their own repertoire, write their own endings, criticize pieces they don't like. Good musicians have specific tastes and it's up to us to help our student develop an individual understanding of why they like some types of music and dislike others. Collaborate and brainstorm with your students about what they want to do. Each student has opinions and preferences that need not be tolerated but treasured and encouraged.

These are some good questions to ask at a difficult lesson:

  • "This lesson feels a little uncomfortable to me. How's it feeling to you?"
  • "Do you like this new piece?" "Why?"  or "Why not?"
  • "How is practicing lately? " Wait what they say and adjust your answer accordingly.

Or even better, start every lesson with a check in:

  • "How's your energy today?"
  • "How is school?" 
  • "What's happening these days at your house?

What might happen if you took three or four minutes to actually understand what is happening in this kid's life? The knowledge you glean might help you work with them more appropriately, factoring in how much energy they have and how emotionally capable that they are at that moment. 

Here are a few "questions" that you should never ask:

  • "Would you please explain to me exactly why you feel the need to contradict everything I say?"
  • "Who's the teacher here? Last I checked it was ME. Pull it together!"
  • "I have had it with your disrespecting me. I don't know what's wrong with kids today, but you're certainly a good example of it."

I've written before about treating students with respect in a post called Not Ever. 

When I was in high school, my piano teacher, Mrs. Miyamoto, was one of the people I trusted most. During piano lessons when I'd had a bad day, she would simply listen with kindness and patience while I talked. And then we would make music together.

Last spring, a young girl I'd taught for several years made the difficult decision to stop taking lessons from me and to concentrate on her singing in the San Francisco Girls Chorus. The day she left, she gave me a handwritten card with this message:

I want to say thank you for multiple reasons.

First is because you have been the best and funniest teacher, ever. You understood everything when I couldn't practice. You have never once gotten mad at me for anything. You even let me play with erasers. This brings me to the 2nd reason.

I honestly had never had fun in theory. You made me enjoy it. No other teacher would take a lesson to help a student study for a theory exam. You helped me with Carmen. (She auditioned for a part in the San Francisco Opera's production.) Even if I didn't get in I'm glad you taught me. 

You didn't only teach me piano and theory, you taught me how to have more confidence in myself. To sing out. You showed me that even in my little body there is a big voice with a big personality. When I first started lessons with you I was shy and now I'm strong and powerful. I grew so much and learned so much in the few years of being your student no one can ever come close to how good a teacher you are.

I cried, of course.

I'd become that teacher I'd had as a child. Every child deserves that teacher. And if you learn to listen, you might just become that teacher too.

Note: This post could not have been written without the gracious, kind and persistent guidance and editing of my daughter, Evie. 

For more on this subject:
Not Ever
ABC + D: All Behavior is Communication