How You Can Begin Turning Around Challenging Student Behaviour

by | Oct 8, 2017

If you’ve taught in a classroom, you know challenging student behaviour when you see it. It can be the bane of any teacher and exhibits signs of despair from the learner. In any situation, we need to read challenging student behaviour as a cry for help. What such behaviour is saying is the child knows no other way, or has not mastered the skills needed to adapt satisfactorily to a challenging situation.

Ken Royal from Connect Learning Today says this:

“They were all different, referred to as brilliant, disenchanted, disengaged, unmotivated, unchallenged, stubborn, creative … that “I hate school” line is probably one of the most text and searched statement by students, daily.” 

For many, some can even verbalize why they hate school in no uncertain terms. That said, kids can’t and shouldn’t try to find solutions on their own. Today’s teacher must be able to see the warning signs.


We’ve got to know what to do when we see a student about to give up, or react in the other extreme by acting erratically. On top of having a contingency plan when these feelings arise, teachers need essential new skills like the Fluencies to make learning relevant and meaningful. True, technology may have its role in meeting kids where they are and exploiting that interest for their benefit. Sometimes, however, the problem lies deeper.

Dr. Ross Greene’s work in figuring out children’s behavioural problems is groundbreaking, influential, and compassionate. He outlines his methods in his Lives in the Balance website. His book Lost at School also profiles ways to deal with challenging student behaviour. Here’s a summary of what he says.

1. Kids do well if they can

This is a paradigm shift from “kids do well if they want to.” When you subscribe to do well if they want to, the only solution is to “make them want to.” That usually is through coercion or punishment, or some kind of reward-and-consequence-scenario. When you approach the child with kids do well if they can, then you can begin to address the “why” of the matter. It brings you to lagging skills and unsolved problems.

2. Unsolved problems are specific and often predictable

Taking out all judgmental comments like “he’s disrespectful” or “a problem kid”, Greene reminds us that labels don’t help solve the problem. Identifying the problem lets you begin to talk about a solution. “He gets upset in the morning when told he needs to dress for school” is more helpful and carries much more information than “he threw a tantrum in the morning.”

Because there might be many unsolved problems, it’s important to prioritize and address the top concerns. A problem is solved only when the child can act adaptively and consistently in a situation that was challenging before.


3. Lagging skills

Kids often lack skills to cope in situations that are challenging for them. They need to develop skills that help them which they can call upon on their own. When  a child finds themselves in situations where they have difficulty coping, that’s when they can present challenging behavior.

4. Know which plan you are using: Plan A, Plan B or Plan C

Plan A is when adults impose their will: “Do this, or else…” It’s usually not effective and sometimes makes things worse. Plan C is “let the behavior go for now.” This may be preferable, if the unsolved problem is not as critical as another you are trying to address. In other words, pick your battles.

As plan C is seen to be permissive for some, the key to Plan C is to address the problem when the time comes using Plan B. Plan B is the problem-solving piece, the most desirable approach, the “ounce of prevention” piece.

The worst time to try to use Plan B is in the heat of the moment, when the child is not ready to learn or talk things through. It involves sitting down with the child when he is calm and really talking. It includes empathy with the child, putting adult concerns on the table, collaborating for solutions, and revisiting the agreed-upon solution for effectiveness.

The Empathy Step

This step helps us figure out the root causes and might take a long time, especially for kids who have difficulty talking. But it’s the most important part because it’s information gathering, mining for nuggets that would shed light on the root causes of challenging student behaviour.

This step cannot be overlooked. Also, it might take several sessions without ever getting to the problem-solving step, staying in the empathy step until you really have a handle on the root cause of a particular challenging behavior.


Adult Concerns

This is the next step of Plan B. While empathy with the child is the first step, getting the child to acknowledge both sides honors his own capacity for empathy. “As the adult, I’m concerned about the safety of …” or “I find it difficult to concentrate on teaching when …”

Invitation Step

When both sides are put forth and understood by both parties, an invitation to collaborate on a solution is offered. This means that the child and adult come up with solutions together. Because it is collaborative and not adult-imposed will, the child has more buy-in. “Together, can we come up with a way that we can …”


When a solution is agreed upon, it must be tried and documented. If it didn’t work, then coming back to the table and tweaking would be in order. If it did, we are looking for consistency. So if the child can act adaptively in the same situation over many occurrences, we can say that the problem is solved. Then on to the next one in priority.

In Conclusion

The first thing that we learned about overcoming challenging student behaviour is to figure out how the child learns. If that involves technology, then it’s a viable strategy worth pursuing.

Where technology is not an option, at the very least there is an imperative paradigm shift from kids do well if they want to to kids do well if they can. In other words, changing from punishing and coercion to bend students to our adult will, to teaching enduring skills that are lasting, life-changing, and more importantly self-imposed. Training needs to be done on this, since it counteracts well-engrained methods in school use today.





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