The following question was asked of me via email and I thought I'd share my answer in this blog with the hopes that it will help other new teachers facing the same issues.
Question: When teaching high school students how do you handle a beligerent, unruly individual?
It depends on several factors. However, usually there is a reason behind the belligerence in any student. Take some time to talk with your student and find out what is going on. It could be that the student feels he/she must be rude or belligerent to maintain a reputation in class. It could be the student feels unable to keep up in class and turns to acting out in order to mask his or her frustration. There may be issues going on at home, with his or her friends, with a boyfriend/girlfriend, or at work that are causing this behavior. Often it is a lack of self-esteem where the student feels that he/she is not smart, not good, not able, etc. and these feelings are turned outward in the form of misbehavior.
The best way to begin is by talking one on one with the student. This will not be easy and it will not resolve the problem immediately. In fact, more than likely your overtures will be rebuffed by the student and you'll probably be treated to more rude behavior. You will need to persevere. The one thing that really gets to every student is a teacher (or adult) who cares. The problem is that many try the "caring" route without actually caring about the student. After a couple of name calling sessions, rude actions, and deliberate attempts on the part of the student to be as annoying as possible, those teachers/adults back off. The student then "proves" to himself/herself that the teacher never really cared in the first place. This only adds fuel to the misbehavior. You cannot give up and you must believe that it is important to you to be a part of that student's life. It is the only way you will reach him/her.
When rebuffed, ridiculed, etc. by the student, you need to respond with, "I don't care that you are acting like this. I care about you anyway and I really want to know what's going on. I'm here to help." You need to reassure the student every day. Greet the student with a smile and ask about his/her day. Make an effort every day to try and get to know the student better so you understand what is going on underneath. After a while (and I don't mean a couple of days), the student will finally figure out that he/she isn't going to shake you and will begin to talk. Use those opportunities to talk to the student about class and what you can do to help.
Can the student help you? Is this person someone who has leadership potential? Oftentimes the ones with the most potential are the ones who fall the hardest into misbehavior if they are not guided and encouraged. Find out what the student likes and figure out how to bring those topics into lessons. Once the student begins to open up to you, bring your talks around to asking why the student behaves as he/she does during class. What can you do to help make class a place he/she wants to be? Don't just ask the questions - listen to the answers and try to address the issues raised. When the student sees you are interested in him/her as a person and listen to their opinions seriously, you will find yourself with an advocate within the classroom. That student who once gave you so much trouble will often become your best ally.
This is not always the case, but it happens quite often. The difference is in how you approach the student, how much you persevere, and how much of a relationship you build with the student. When the student sees that you truly care, you will begin to see a difference.
There is no quick fix to this kind of problem. I cannot tell you to use one magic strategy and make the problem go away. We are in the business of working with human beings who are independent. Each responds a different way to different strategies. However, I can tell you that by focusing on positives rather than negatives you have a much higher chance of getting the student to willingly change his/her behavior. Punishment will not work. It will only worsen the situation for you.
I highly recommend reading Jim Fay's book, "Teaching with Love and Logic." It is a wonderful book that I think you may find helpful.
I'm sorry there is no quick-fix for this type of situation, but I encourage you to develop a positive relationship with this student. It will not only help make your year of teaching better, but it will help your student become a better person as well!