Lessons from “The Bad Kids”

Lessons from “The Bad Kids”

I am a huge fan of Netflix. In the mood for a comedy, drama, thriller or documentary? You can choose from thousands of TV shows and movies. While I typically watch Netflix for personal gain, I recently came across a documentary called The Bad Kids (you can also find it on iTunes and Amazon). I’ll confess – I am not a documentary person. Give me fiction and fairy tales all day! But this particular documentary intrigued me because I work with students just like the ones highlighted in this film. I work with “The Bad Kids” every week, and I wanted to see what I could learn from the heart and work of someone halfway across the country.

Before I go any farther, I would like to make a disclaimer that this post is not endorsing this film, saying that I agree with every part of documentary, or even asking you to go watch it. While an accurate portrayal of this population of students, there is extreme language used throughout the film. That being said, I found value in the methods and practices used by the film and believe that it is worth my time to share what I learned!

On their website, The Bad Kids summary is:

At a remote Mojave Desert high school, extraordinary educators believe that, more than academics,
it is love, empathy and life skills that give at-risk students command of their own futures. This coming-of-age
story watches education combat the crippling effects of poverty on the lives of these so-called “bad kids.”

It is so refreshing to see the media recognize excellent educators and administrators for the difficult work they do with students each and every week. We have the privilege of working with counselors, principals, teachers and staff who also believe that love, empathy and life skills can make a huge difference in the lives and academic careers of students – that is why they partner with us!

In this film, you see students who are in a tough place and deal with circumstances that most adults would struggle with. There is teen pregnancy, sexual assault, substance abuse, absent parents and so much more that they face in addition to their school responsibilities. There is no question that these “bad kids” have difficult lives (both by personal choices and unavoidable tragedy), but the Black Rock Continuation High School chooses to step in for these students who are at risk of dropping out of school completely.

While watching this film, I saw several important tactics that can not only benefit the work done with at-risk students but can be applied to any relationship with a teenager. One thing I have found in my work with Teen Life is that you don’t have to be a “bad kid” to desire love, empathy and help with challenges.


Teens need empathy.

For a refresher on empathy, please read my last blog post on the subject! But this documentary fully supports how much empathy and a listening ear matters to teenagers. At this particular High School, Principal Vonda Viland is a superb example of what empathy looks like and how it can affect a relationship. Students trust her, are honest with her and seek out her advice because they know that she will listen. And she doesn’t always have the answers. Sometimes, she admits that their life is difficult. And instead of subjecting them to a lecture she asks simple questions like, “What do you think needs to change? How would that decision affect your life? What needs to happen for you to get motivated?”

Empathy is a powerful tool.

Teens need to be held to a high standard.

Is life challenging for these teenagers or any teen in general? Absolutely. But they do not need to be babied or held to lower standards because of it. When you treat a teenager with respect and clear standards, they are more likely to rise to the occasion. I love that Principal Viland does not hold back any punches with her students. From their first day on her campus, she tells them what is expected and what the consequences are if these expectations are not met. She is not going to hold their hand, drag them out of bed or force them to come to school. But to stay in her school, students have to play by her rules and most do. In the film, you see so many students thrive under this straightforward approach. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.

When held to a high standard, teenagers have the opportunity to live up to their potential.

Teens need motivation.

Teens can be stubborn – but can’t we all? Most of the time, they don’t want to do something if it won’t benefit them in some way. And I understand that. I remember the frustrating days of learning about geometry and astronomy and wondering, “Will I ever use this information again?” What I love about The Bad Kids is that the teachers make an effort to put what they are learning into context for each student. For example, one of the boys loves music and playing his guitar but hates math. He is struggling and doesn’t see the point. Instead of getting defensive or giving up, his teacher puts it in perspective – you need math to play music. As she explains this concept, it clicks. He just needed the motivation to see past his current frustration and situation.

Motivation and inspiration could be the difference in a student graduating and dropping out.


Teens need celebration.

We need to celebrate our teenagers better! They are more likely to repeat good behavior when it is praised than to stop negative behavior when it is punished. Let’s be a positive force for our teens and get excited when they accomplish a goal. Principal Viland shows this all throughout the film. She celebrates when they come to school on a consistent basis. She even hands out certificates for completing credits and recognizes hard work in front of the entire school. She tells them when she sees improvements and recognizes when they avoid old habits. Celebration can be a small thing, but even something as small as a $5 gift card makes a huge impact on a teen who is trying to survive.

May we not get caught up in the bad things teens do, but intentionally look for ways to celebrate the good things!

Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Communications Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
How We Deal with “The Bad Kids”

How We Deal with “The Bad Kids”

Becoming a father has taught me so much about myself, mainly my weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is impatience. When dealing with discipline issues with my kiddos, I tend to default towards more pragmatic methods like raising my voice, sending kids to their rooms, and not giving my kids the chance to talk or explain themselves. Typically this is done in the name of “teaching respect” but often has the opposite effect. When I get into the mode of punitive discipline, I sense my kids withdrawing from me, and often just tuning me out.

You see, I have smart kids. We all do. They have an intuition that goes way beyond our adult minds. While we are thinking about what needs to be done next and are always in a hurry, our kids are masters of what it means to be present in the “here and now”. Our kids don’t have to worry much about what is next (though they do ask about it some), so they are much more in tune with the feelings and actions of the adults in their lives.

When I opt solely towards punitive discipline (i.e. raising my voice, sending to room, spanking, shaming), I am making the choice to be practical without thinking about the long term implications of how I discipline. When I have an overwhelming load of responsibilities on my plate, it is much easier to resort to punishing (or over-punishing in a lot of ways) my kids for not doing what we ask them to instead of seeking more creative and sustainable ways of discipline and correction.

My wife is really good at this creative thing. My oldest son will get out of whack and instead of sending him to his room, she makes him run, do jumping jacks, and tons of push-ups until he is out of breath. You see, she understands that when he stops paying attention or gets whiny, he doesn’t need us to raise our voices. He needs us to help him re-center, re-connect, and reset. After he gets done running and jumping, we find he is much more focused and ready to listen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I often fail as a parent, but also when I observe students who have been labeled the “bad kid”. We do a lot of support groups in placement settings where students have been sent as a means of punitive discipline. When we encounter students in drug rehab or alternative schools, the reasons they get sent there are widely varied. Some students are there for drugs or violence, but others could be there for persistent dress code violations, disrespect, rule breaking, or other minor infractions. In many schools, the “zero tolerance” rule applies and students can be suspended, “third partied”, or expelled because often the school has no other recourse. It’s the protocol for many institutions, it is pragmatic, and it deals with the discipline issues cleanly.

Yet, there are long term consequences to punitive justice. Studies show that once a student is suspended or otherwise sent off their main campus, the likelihood of ending up in prison or dropping out of school increases dramatically. Since the mid-late 90’s when “zero tolerance” discipline started to make a comeback in public schools, the rate of suspensions and expulsions spiked, especially amongst African-American and Latino students. The numbers are staggering. If you want to know more about this, check out this research article about the long-term effects of punitive justice.

This isn’t a criticism of our administrators or teachers, but more an indictment of pragmatism. Often the most efficient and practical way of dealing with “the bad kids” is the way of convenience, not the way of correction. The long-term implications of how we discipline have an impact on graduation, imprisonment, restoration, and society as a whole.

In my next blog, I want to talk a little about some alternatives to punitive discipline in schools (and anywhere else students gather like church, after school, sports) and how there are real and effective ways to both correct and restore relationships without resorting to punitive measures.

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s Program Director, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.