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How To Break Through To Misbehaving Teens, According To A Former Rulebreaker

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran as part of our new show, “Sound Effect,” which airs on Saturdays at 10 a.m.

As a seventh grader, “Jennifer” lost count of the number of times she was suspended from school. Back then, she had an attitude and a big mouth and she wasn’t going to mince words — even with her teachers.

“‘Don’t talk back to me,'” Jennifer remembered them saying. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just being honest.'”

Over and over, different versions of this drama would play out in her classes. Sometimes teachers would kick her out for talking back. Sometimes Jennifer would get angry over some small thing and kick herself out of class.

“By that time, I’d have a bigger attitude than when I was inside the classroom,” said Jennifer, who picked the pseudonym used in place of her real name for this story. “When you say something to me, it kind of gets me heated. When I get heated, that’s when I get an attitude back.”

‘You’re Not Really Gaining Anything’

The plot points were different, but the drama would often end up in the same place: the school office, where an administrator would admonish Jennifer, or occasionally hand down a more formal punishment.

Schools across Washington state handed down more than 67,000 suspensions last school year, but most of them weren’t for offenses like drug use, fighting, bullying or bringing weapons to school.

More than half of all suspensions were for “other behavior,” making Jennifer’s insubordination a big part of an even bigger educational problem; Washington students missed more than 288,000 days of school last year because their schools had suspended them.

Now a high school freshman, Jennifer has turned over a new leaf. She no longer gets suspended with regularity.

“By breaking the rules, you’re not really gaining anything aside from people looking at you — like, attention,” she said.

But Jennifer didn’t learn this from suspensions alone; it took a skilled intervention and a willing listener.

‘Like You’re Talking To A Friend’

Jennifer’s defiance stemmed from her burgeoning sense of independence; she says it was strong, even for a middle schooler.

She hung out with a group of friends who fed off Jennifer’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude — and Jennifer now realizes she was “putting on a show” for them.

She was less willing to discuss problems outside of school that fed her behavior. It suffices to say she fought a lot with her mom, and in a serious way. She ran away from home three times — she didn’t go far, but police had to get involved each time.

“I ended up staying at my grandparents for, like, a month,” Jennifer said. “My mom told me she wanted me to stay at my grandparents for a while, I guess, to learn my lesson.”

In October 2013, after Jennifer’s third runaway, her school put her in touch with Stephanie Edler, a therapist and care coordinator for the nonprofit Sound Mental Health who works in the middle school Jennifer attended.

Though Jennifer had regular visits with a therapist, Edler acted as a crisis counselor for Jennifer. When Jennifer needed a place to cool down, she would often end up in Edler’s tiny office in the middle school’s cafeteria.

Slowly, “Ms. Stephanie” earned Jennifer’s trust.

“You don’t feel like you’re talking to a teacher,” Jennifer said. “She tries to understand the students, but also says that ‘these are the rules and you’ve got to follow the rules, but I understand how this can get you frustrated.'”

‘Your Friends Love To Watch A Show’

Beyond providing Jennifer a venue for letting off steam, Edler laid out how Jennifer could change her behavior.

The change wasn’t easy. Edler had to impress upon Jennifer that the friends she kept didn’t have Jennifer’s best interests at heart.

“Your friends love to watch a show. [Jennifer] getting into it with a teacher in front of the classroom is entertaining,” Edler said she told Jennifer. “Unfortunately, [kids] have to find out the hard way who their true friends are.”

The prospect of losing friends was especially difficult for Jennifer, Edler says.

“Once the show stops and she’s doing better, it’s not as entertaining for them,” Edler said. “That’s a hard problem she has to face, because [Jennifer] is a very loyal friend, to see her friends drop off because she’s no longer that Jennifer that puts on this huge show for everyone’s entertainment — not to mention, stalls learning.”

‘Getting An Attitude With People Just Brings Me Down’

As tough as it was to hear, Jennifer says Edler’s advice really stuck. Since moving to high school, she’s latched onto a new group of friends — and, just as importantly, steadied her relationship with her mom and faced down her problems outside of school.

Jennifer says she isn’t perfect, but the appeal of breaking the rules has faded. A lot.

“It just wasn’t helping me at all for my future plans that I have for myself. I want to go to college. I want to go to the university. I want to graduate high school with good grades,” she said. “I want to get a good job. I came to realize that by getting an attitude with people, it’s just going to bring me down more.”

In large part, Jennifer credits Edler with helping her come to that realization.

“When you’re talking to [Edler],” Jennifer said, “you feel like you’re talking to a friend.”

And for the first time at school, Jennifer felt like she was being heard.

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