Working With ‘Difficult’ Students: 6 Strategies
contributed by Dr. Allen Mendler
While stress caused by common core concerns has dominated the recent education landscape, dealing with ‘difficult’ students remains the number one source of constant tension for most teachers.
Continual exposure to students who won’t behave or produce can quickly erode both confidence and well-being.
As a new school year approaches, the guidance offered by six ‘pillars’ can help you stay at the top of your game by dramatically influencing even your most challenging students to want to behave and achieve. Each pillar is explained followed by a few hands-on suggestions. Add or substitute other methods within each pillar to reflect your style and preference.
6 Strategies For Growing Closer To Your Most Challenging Students
1. Establish Trust
‘Difficult’ students may have difficulty trusting adults and authority figures, perhaps because they have been jilted in the past. Build trust so that you can build a real, working, functional student-teacher relationship. The vast majority of teachers care deeply for and about their students. Yet by middle school, less than half of all students believe they would be missed by their teacher(s) if they didn’t come to school. Perhaps we need to be more demonstrative in showing the caring that is in our hearts.
Make it a top goal to be a cheerleader for your students, particularly those students whose actions make others want to turn away from them. Recognize them when objectionable behaviors are not happening.
Thank them for their cooperation and make time to ask how they managed to look after themselves. Create a classroom climate where students help and even ‘cheer’ for each other. One simple thing you can do to get started is to have students finish these sentences:
One thing I do well at school and if asked I could help somebody else with is______.
One thing I do well at home and if asked I could help somebody else with is_____.
A strength most people don’t know about me is_____________________.
When I need help I_____________________________.
Their answers can become the foundation upon which students look out for each other.
See also Student Engagement Strategies That Empower Learners
2. Reconsider Student Engagement Strategies
‘Difficult’ students may have difficulty engaging in lessons that they consider boring and unstimulating. So make the learning compelling by being willing to use student engagement strategies that might look, feel, and function differently than those used with ‘less difficult’ students.
A frequent complaint by students when we are teaching subject matter content is “When are we going to ever use this?” Many students fail to see the relevance between our content and their lives. When they don’t, they may become bored and uninterested. Students who have learned to value school because they see the connection between a good education and success in life can tolerate boring classrooms. Otherwise, they don’t. Motivation and discipline problems are often the result.
Make it a goal to begin each class with something that grabs their attention and then try to connect it to the lesson you are teaching: a great story; an existential question; a joke; an experiment; an interesting photo. If you cannot find a way to make the lesson relevant, at least connect with your students for a few seconds every day around something you know they find interesting (Hint: Music, Sports, Video Games, and Money are virtually always of interest to kids).
Show your knowledge and/or ignorance (i.e. Mara, I caught a little bit of (insert relevant musician here) the other day who I know you listen to, and to be honest, I couldn’t understand his message. Help an old guy like me understand what I’m missing?) Rarely will a student refuse to engage when you capture their attention and interest.
Team-building games can also help create an atmosphere of acceptance, safety, and accessible ‘success.’
3. Personalize The Learning
‘Difficult’ students may sense — but have difficulty articulating — that lessons are not appropriately differentiated for students who are learning at different paces and levels. Personalize what you emphasize. For example, cultivate responsibility on a student-by-student basis.
Children are not born responsible. Rather, it is a skill they need to learn. The best ways to promote responsibility are with involvement, ownership, and choices with limits (i.e. you can answer any five that best show you understand the main causes of the Civil War, or you can create a song with clean lyrics that includes the main causes).
Get your students involved in making decisions about as many things as you can. Try to avoid immediately giving them your solutions or consequences and instead ask questions leading them to think on their own. Find ways to give your students choices they can handle, celebrate with them when their choices work out and hold them accountable when they make mistakes.
For example, “Jose, it looks like you thought you could get by without doing any work. The results of your test show that the strategy didn’t work out. So let’s look at what you can do to get the practice we both know you need to be more successful. I have a few ideas (don’t share them right away) but I bet you do as well (encourage students to first come up with their own solutions and then try to help them anticipate what the consequences of their choice might be).
Then ask, “What do you think?”
4. Stay Positive
One way to achieve this is to remember that the challenge is reaching ‘difficult’ isn’t personal. It’s not your fault and in many situations, not their fault either but rather a family issue, previous developmental trauma, self-image and confidence issue, etc. These students may have difficulty keeping a positive attitude in class, perhaps because of something that is causing them to struggle in their personal lives. Build momentum. Nobody starts school expecting to fail.
Yet failure is probably the number one in-school factor that causes students to become disaffected, uninterested, unmotivated, and disruptive. Challenge your students to get better every day in your subject than they were yesterday. For example, “You got the first three correct and that is good. I am proud of you. But let’s see if you can do it two days in a row. Good luck.”
Create and modify assignments, quizzes, tests, and behavioral expectations based upon this premise.
Build an “APPP” for success. These are the keys: Appear, Prepare, Plan and Practice. Get your kids to understand that “getting better than you were yesterday” is the daily standard of success. Great teachers make it hard for their students to fail. They convey an attitude of success: “Don’t ever expect me to give up on you and never give up on yourself.”
Praise them when they do well, with your focus being on the effort and the strategy they used. For example, “Carter, you did well because you kept at it and tried three different ways to solve the problem.”
Stay away from praise for factors over which they really have no control (i.e. “See, you did well because you are so smart!”).
Do the same for yourself! (i.e. “I got through to Laurie because I took the time to focus on her interests.”)
5. Stay Safe
‘Difficult’ students may have difficulty feeling safe in a triggering learning environment, which ultimately impacts their ability to learn. Make sure they feel intellectually, creatively, emotionally, and physically ‘safe’
Be very clear about the details you expect your students to follow for a safe and smooth functioning classroom.
Among other things that may be specific to your subject, these should include how to enter the classroom, where to find the assignment, what to do if a pencil breaks, how to get permission for a drink or the bathroom, how to walk through the halls, line up and take turns.
It is important that these procedures be both explained and practiced. When you notice a procedure being followed well, point this out. Reinforcement always helps.
Perhaps the most important procedure that relates specifically to ‘difficult’ students behavior is to let all your students know that it will be rare for you to stop class to handle somebody’s misbehavior for two reasons:
1. You have no interest in either embarrassing the student or yourself.
2. You will not sacrifice instructional time to handle misbehavior.
Let your students know that virtually always you will see the student after class or during a more private moment and it will be then that you will either give a consequence or otherwise figure out a solution with the student.
Tell your students, “If and when somebody breaks a rule, it may look as if I am ignoring what they did. I don’t ignore bad behavior but I am not always going to stop class to deal with it because that would waste too much time and possibly be embarrassing. So understand that if you break a rule, there are consequences, but most of the time those will be given after class or when it won’t take away from everybody’s learning.”
When something happens that demands a response but you want to postpone taking action say something like,
“I know you all just heard (saw) what Ethan did and most of you are probably wondering what I am going to do about it. Later on, Ethan and I will figure this out but right now we are on page 15.” Then get back to instruction.
6. Help Them Rebuild
The more you enjoy doing what you do, the more students will want to be around you. Enthusiasm is contagious, so be animated when you teach and have fun with your students and the curriculum. Laugh with them!
Watching ‘difficult’ students pursue knowledge that interests them is an exciting, dynamic experience. The idea of learning being ‘fun’ may be a new concept for them. Help them grow their ‘learning is fun’ muscle while also helping them understand that there are different *kinds* of fun as well.
Of course, not every lesson is ‘fun,’ but you can even add an element of fun to a boring lesson by announcing in advance how boring the unit is likely to be!
Don’t hide from them (I have yet to find a really interesting way to teach______so the next fifteen minutes are likely to be really boring but also important for you to pay attention. By the way, if you can think of a more interesting way to teach_____after class let me know because I’d love to find a better way).
Challenge them to be last to ‘moan and groan during the lesson’ (if you think it is necessary although the challenge is usually enough, offer some kind of reward like the winner gets five extra points, a special smiley sticker, or an extra bathroom pass) but at the end, allow for some brief ‘moan and groan’ time. Permit yourself to be one of the loudest! They’ll love it when you show that you can out-groan them.
There are lots of ways to make your class welcoming, relevant, successful, involving, safe and pleasurable and it all starts with you! Connect these six pillars to your daily curriculum and interactions. Your kids will benefit and so will you.
Allen Mendler is an educator, school psychologist, and author who resides in Rochester, N.Y. Dr. Mendler has worked extensively with children of all ages in regular education and special education settings; and youth in juvenile detention. Mendler’s books include When Teaching Gets Tough: Smart Ways to Reclaim Your Game (ASCD, 2012) and The Resilient Teacher: How do I stay positive and effective when dealing with difficult people and policies? (ASCD, 2014). Connect with him on Twitter at @allenmendler
6 Strategies For Growing Closer To Your Most ‘Difficult’ Students Students