Managing the ‘disruptive’ teen – a staff development talk presented by Tanya Vollenhoven-Brown

Bishops college staff were fortunate to have clinical psychologist Tanya Vollenhoven-Brown address us on a tricky topic: Managing the ‘disruptive’ teen in the classroom. In order to engage with learners who appear disruptive, naughty and disinterested, it becomes imperative to gain an understanding of the head space of the growing teenager, as well as our subconscious reactions to said teenager!

Tanya has kindly provided a summary of her talk: 



To Communicate – To change – To tune in

Being a teenager is not a walk in the park… It’s more like a walk in a forest, inhabited by magic dragons, scary zombies and the most delicious, minimally toxic berries. Every creature is out to get you… maybe. And there you are without your rechargeable lightsabre…


If being a teenager is a treacherous journey, trying to guide them through it seems to require the skills of an omniscient, omnipresent force. How do mere mortals cope with the tricky, exhilarating, fearsome task? So many of our actions as adults tend to be in reaction to their behaviour and it leaves us feeling inadequate. It leaves them feeling frustrated.


 And let’s add some fuel to that already combustible mix… How do we set limits; manage expectations; assert our position when we appear to be at opposite ends of a point to begin with? This issue was what I briefly addressed in a teacher talk and what follows is my attempt at a summary of those ideas.


Morph – to grow

That load we each carry is heavy on a good day. Try carrying that baggage in a forest where things are out to get you! It is difficult to take care of yourself while you’re lugging this load around and as a result it is normal to want to throw it at anyone who can catch.


Teachers get hit by that baggage often and they must juggle it while holding their own. It’s tough. It takes skill. Imagine for a minute all that pressure feeling like the sun is blazing down on you… It requires practice and awareness to manage the intensity and strain. It requires sunblock.


Many teenagers don’t have sunblock, and as a result they get sunburnt by their pressure and their own personal trials in the forest.

  • Sunburn is painful.
  • A normal touch on sunburnt skin (in real life) causes an automatic reaction of protection, warning and a firm belief that the person who touched intended to cause damage. We don’t mean to think that, we just do because we are in pain and we want to protect ourselves the best way we can.
  • We grow out of sunburn. It’s the only way that healing occurs. And during that process we look weird and feel really self-conscious but it’s part of the healing process.
  • It means the world when those looking at us acknowledge that this phase is merely an uncomfortable lesson being learnt about how we handle ourselves in the forest and they have faith that we can heal and grow.


Growing is not for the faint hearted. I am not talking about physical growth, I am talking about the growth we require that our teenagers become conscious, caring, empathic citizens in this world, all while juggling school work and high expectations.


Phon – to tune in

It is my opinion that every human could benefit from a large dollop of curiosity added to their daily diet. We are told to have empathy, to be kind and mindful and grateful, but to me the root of any of those acts is the simple, deeper interest in ourselves and in one another.


It’s incredibly difficult to be kind to someone we feel has an agenda to hurt. It’s an impossible task to ask ourselves to be gentle with someone we believe has an agenda to undermine and cause disruption. We’re adults. We’ve been around for a while and we’ve experienced these paths being walked many times, leaving us with a tendency to believe we’ve seen it all…


One of the pet peeves from teenagers that has been expressed, is that adults “think they know…”

Me -> What I’m going through -> What I’m capable of -> My story


And those sunburnt humans feel they have the right to react to that message in any way that communicates, “Back off, you’re hurting me and it’s all your fault!…”


Instead of leaving ourselves the herculean task of trying to fix the sunburn in one lesson, it might be a more powerful demonstration to ask “Why” instead. Being curious demonstrates:

  • The acknowledgement that there is more than one person involved in this behaviour
  • You see that there is more to the teenager than his disruption
  • You are willing to learn
  • You are willing to share
  • Curiosity does not mean compromise, it means collaboration


Meta: To communicate

So how do we communicate with a sunburnt teenager on a precariously difficult journey?

How do we guide and set boundaries? How do we disagree and set limits?



  • Interrupting their pattern of behaviour: We often end up in the same awful loop of disruption + response + escalation + consequence = exhaustion and mistrust on both sides. Instead of waiting for the usual escalation, interrupt it before it happens. Give their brains something else to think about
  • Announcing yourself: Clearly state your intention.
  • Asking about their rules: In the same way that you can list the reasons why their behaviour is unacceptable, teenagers are likely to have a list detailing why you are being unfair or too harsh. Asking them to think about it, causes them to shift from high emotionality to more reason-based thinking.
  • Sharing your own rules: It creates perspective. It also allows everyone to be curious together.
  • Using codes: This is a witty, creative way of signalling – without long lessons or much talking – exactly how you are doing or how the teenager is doing. Try using it within the whole class community as opposed to just a few students. It demonstrates the message that everyone has moments that need to be acknowledged. Use codes for praise, recognition and warnings.


Above all, if you see growth – even if in the moment it is wonky and misshapen and raw looking – poking through that protective layer of dark brown burnt skin which is becoming less and less needed, acknowledge it. Because they don’t see it yet, they’re very busy being itchy and uncomfortable while carefully taking their next step…in the scary forest… with the zombies.


 Tanya can be contacted at: 


Our very own art guru, Peter Hyslop, kindly provided us with a visual summary of Tanya’s talk, which helps to illuminate the take-away points: