Difficult students come in all shapes and sizes, ages, cultures, and demographics, you name it. The reasons for difficulties are as numerous as the stars. However, they all share one thing: they’re hard to reach. Whether it be a learning disability, hardship, or trauma, they require extra effort and attention. But the master teacher can wade through all the outer displays of challenging behavior and pinpoint root causes. They can reach even the most difficult students.
Congratulations to you for taking on their cause. It may be the best thing you’ll ever do as a teacher.
What follows is an amalgamation of advice on teaching difficult students gleaned from personal experience, advice from experts, and other teachers themselves.
Teaching Difficult Students: 10 Key Guidelines
These are the 10 commandments, if you like, for teaching difficult students. You’ll recognize some like Ross Greene, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Carol Dweck, and Stephen Covey, as well as timeless advice from ages past and present.
1. Keep calm and breathe.
You may find that this is the best thing, the first step, the prime directive. If you can master the art of breathing through your blood boiling, you can diffuse your own anger during challenging situations.
I find that breathing cold air through the nostrils awakens a part of the brain that creates good feelings. It kind of wakes you up and breaks you out of the moment. Imagine yourself as a wide-eyed child waking up to the first big snow of winter, throwing open the door and feeling the cold air rushing in through your nose, straight to your brain, awakening your adrenaline, before rushing outside to play.
2. Give voice to feelings.
This is getting to the root cause. You see the ‘bad’ behavior. That creates a wall. Tear down that wall and understand that there are feelings behind the behavior which may be as far irrational as can be imagined. This is also called the Empathy step.
If they can voice their own feelings, all the better, but they might need some help. You might start with stating what you see. “I see you’re having difficulty.” Then ask questions, “Can you tell me why?” View the situation through their eyes and affirm their feelings. This builds trust.
3. See bad behaviour as “unsolved problems,” not cause for a label.
Calling children lazy, bad, rude, or ADHD does nothing to resolve difficulties. Imagine yourself at work, most likely teaching in this case, and you’re having difficulty with a student with challenging behavior. Rather than giving you tools or skills to work on, your principal simply docks your pay or scolds you in front of your peers, calling you “incompetent.” Pretty annoying and disrespectful, isn’t it?
Rather than scolding and shaming, state the problem as you would a math problem:
“I see a lot of juice on the floor. Juice on the floor can make people slip and hurt themselves. I care about everyone and don’t want anyone to get hurt. What can we do in the future to prevent such a thing happening? What can we do now?”
4. Step beyond the moment.
When pinpointing “lagging skills” underlying the “unsolved problems,” come up with ways to teach those lagging skills outside of the situation. Let’s say the child has “difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, and novelty.” This manifests itself when he freaks out when you change plans on him, or switch unexpectedly from one task to another.
Think about ways that he can practice handling unpredictability outside of the situation, at another time. This is another step in getting at root causes and establishing useful tools that can be applied to similar challenging situations.
5. Avoid “win-lose.”
Eschew the power struggle when dealing with challenging behavior. “Do this, or else” sends a scared cat into the corner, ready to pounce, presenting even more challenging behavior.
6. Keep it private.
Speak to a child about his troublesome behavior in private, away from his peers. This shows respect for a child not wanting to lose face or be embarrassed in front of their friends. It gives you quiet time to address concerns of both the student and you, as the teacher. It becomes a collaborative effort instead of a power-play.
7. Document everything.
I don’t mean “a rap sheet” the size of a truck. What I’m talking about is scientific research observations about the child in order to get at root causes. Again, certain lagging skills will manifest themselves very predictably. Make note of it, and when it comes time to collaborate with parents and student about strategies for solving the problem, you have ample documentation to help solve the puzzle. Documenting should not be for the goal of being “out to get them.” It is evidence and clues for further success.
8. Use empowering language.
In the interest of fostering independence, use language that promotes an intelligence that has the capacity to grow. By getting them to see that their abilities are not fixed by an oversimplified label (“he’s smart”, “she’s not”) you teach a growth mindset that empowers them to change their own lives. Avoid unwarranted praise, but say, “I like how you persevered to the end. Your brain hurts because it’s growing.”
9. The fewer the words, the better.
A kid’s disrupting your class? Sometimes just moving to his space or making eye contact with a smile is all that’s needed. Maybe pose a question to jolt them out of their daydreaming or conversation. Hint: take an indirect route, so they don’t feel as if you’re singling them out.
10. Remember that you were as they are.
No, not the exact way, but to some degree. You didn’t know how to do something in the past. You were taught. Now you know. Students are all like this in varying degrees. Some need help socially. Some have physical difficulties. Many are more sensitive than others. If you keep this in mind, you will become a master detective and isolate root problems.
Your ability to bring students who don’t normally want to come will multiply ten-fold. If you can make a difference in one child’s life out of the many who find schooling easy, your life would have been worth it.