Tough kids, bullies, trouble makers, at-risk kids. We’ve all heard these names before and every teacher teacher has their horror story. However, year after year our teachers tell us that classroom guitar both attracts at-risk kids and is effective in turning them around. They not only participate in guitar class, but many kids use it as a launching pad to become engaged in other curricular areas.

If you are dealing with at-risk kids and you’re finding it difficult, here are a few ideas to help you through (and some pics of pit bulls to remind you that there is more than just barking and biting).

1. Use Praise

Whenever possible, tell your kids that they’re doing a great job. We tend to focus on correcting issues or areas that need work. Instead, take time to give at-risk kids (and everyone else) a pat on the back. Guitar class is the perfect place to tell you’re kids about the 90% that they are doing well.

2. Clean Slate

Vince Lombardi said, “While statistics are interesting, they’re all in the past”. The same goes for a student’s misbehavior. Don’t treat the “at-risk” kids differently, everyone is walking into your guitar class with music as a foreign language. The playing field is level.

3. Empower Through the Work

Learning Guitar is great because it is challenging, but most people can sound competent after a couple of weeks. Tell your kids that they will be playing songs (the reward), but they’ve got to do the work (practice). When your students hear themselves making music, they will want to perform well in your class and in school.

4. Go the Extra Mile

The school day is long and then you need to write lesson plans, grade papers, etc. However, if you can take just a few more minutes to talk to your “at-risk” kids you could make a strong connection. Ask about the music she likes, what’s on his iPod, and take a genuine interest.

5. Disrupt Noise with Music

You might have a kid that gets the whole class talking and you find you’re losing control. Guitar to the rescue again! Matt Gerry uses a “Quiet Signal”. “I play an E chord in a rhythmic pattern of 4 sixteenths followed by a quarter note. I instruct my student that when they hear me play that signal, that they are to stop playing immediately and listen for instructions”.

It would be great if we did not have at-risk kids in our classes mostly because that would mean that every kid magically became well-adjusted or had a great home life. However, that’s not the world we live in. Help your students be guitarists and give them a little music in their lives, even the tough kids.