Difficult students come in all shapes and sizes, ages, cultures, and demographics. However, they all share one thing in that 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 behaviour and reach even the most difficult students.
We’re offering you 10 guidelines here that you can use for teaching 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
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 you can do first and foremost. The benefits of deep breathing are many. If you can master the art of breathing through your blood boiling, you can diffuse your own anger during challenging situations. Learn the ways of the “patience warrior” to help you walk this beneficial pathway.
Breathing cold air through the nostrils awakens a part of the brain that creates good feelings. It wakes you up and breaks you out of the moment.
2. Give voice to feelings
This is getting to the root cause and seeing the ‘bad’ behaviour that creates a wall. Tear down that wall and understand that there are feelings behind the behaviour which may be irrational. This is also called the Empathy step.
If a challenging student can voice their own feelings, all the better, but they might need some help. You might start with stating what you observe: “I see you’re having difficulty.” Then ask leading questions like, “Can you tell me why?” Viewing the situation through their eyes and affirming their feelings builds trust.
3. Don’t use labels
Calling children lazy, bad, rude, or ADHD does nothing to resolve difficulties. Imagine you’re having difficulty with a student with challenging behaviour. 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.”
Would you feel as though you had been heard and understood? Would anything be solved? 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 outside the moment
When pinpointing lagging skills, come up with ways to them outside of the situation. Let’s say the child has difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, and novelty. This manifests itself as they freak out when you change plans on them or switch unexpectedly from one task to another.
Think about ways that they 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” situations
Give up the power struggle when dealing with challenging behaviour. “Do this, or else” sends a scared cat into the corner, ready to pounce, presenting even more challenging behaviour.
6. Keep it private
Speak to a child about their troublesome behaviour in private, away from 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 you both may have. It becomes a collaborative effort instead of a power play.
7. Document everything
This doesn’t mean building a rap sheet on the poor kid. It’s about is scientific research observations regarding 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 the 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’s evidence and clues for assuring mutual 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
If a child is 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. Take an indirect route, so they don’t feel as if you’re singling them out.
10. Remember how you were
You didn’t know how to do something in the past, but since you were taught, now you know. Remember also that someone had the patience and compassion to spend that time with you. Students are all like this in varying degrees.
Some need help socially. Some have physical difficulties and many are more sensitive about them 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.