One of the most common tasks we have as educators is trying to teach challenging students. It will happen to all teachers of all levels eventually. Every once in a while there’s one student that tries our patience to the limits. Perhaps they’re rude or disruptive. Maybe they’re lazy or apathetic—you name it. Whatever the case, that one kid makes you question why you became a teacher. And that really bothers you.
After all, you work hard and you’ve got your lesson plan down. You’ve rehearsed it and considered all scenarios and now this kid completely derails your plan. They take the attention away from the other students, and your blood begins to boil. Yes indeed, it’s a delicate pathway to teach challenging students.
Time for a little strategy to keep you and every learner in your class safe and secure, especially the one giving you trouble.
How to Teach Challenging Students Safely
Knock on wood that this never happens, but let’s say the situation escalates. It can go two ways from this point on:
- Scenario 1: You say or do something you’re sorry about and regret afterward.
- Scenario 2: You use mindfulness practices to calmly de-escalate the situation.
If it’s Scenario 1, consider the following:
- First of all, remember who you are. You are a human being and humans make mistakes.
- If you’re afraid of repercussions, find an admin you can safely talk to. If they know before the parent calls, they can help you.
- Forgive yourself. If you subscribe to the mindset that every mistake is a learning situation, then every failure is an opportunity to learn.
- Make amends. You can accomplish this without relinquishing all credibility you hold with a student.
The other scenario, Scenario 2 would see you exercising mindfulness to reach challenging students:
- You pause and take a deep breath.
- You calmly do whatever you can to separate the problem individual from harming others. Either move the student out of the others’ space to a cool-down area, or if you have to, move the class.
- You take time to address the student when they are calm and rational.
- You follow up and make sure you are developing a trust relationship.
When teachers lose patience, it’s because they themselves lack skills or tools to react adaptively to challenging situations. It is hopeful that challenging episodes don’t get that far. If you set up your classroom from the very start for success, you will be in the company of master teachers.
Here are a couple of resources of master classroom management that we highly recommend:
- The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong
- Smart Classroom Management, a site run by Michael Linsin
- Lives in the Balance by Dr. Ross Greene
What We’ve Learned (and Pass On to You)
Having kids come up with their own rules is overrated. There are better ways to accomplish the task of giving them ownership of the class. Start with a vision of how you want students to enter your room and what you want them to do from the start, and model this the first day.
You teach an entire lesson on entering the classroom and setting up. You act out the part with your bookbag in hand, entering properly, and you get them to do the same. Nothing moves forward until this lesson is mastered by all. Once you establish your flow of the classroom, creativity can flourish. In the end the trick to staying calm is remembering this isn’t about you. This is about the success of your learners.
Why isn’t the child understanding how to behave in your class? The answer is lagging skills. This is not to say that the skills cannot be taught. When we exercise and teach a growth mindset, we teach that intelligence and skill are not set in stone. If students learn from mistakes, then you can keep things in context.
You have to be detective here. Observe and make hypotheses about why a child is exhibiting challenging behaviour, but don’t stop there. When there is a calm moment outside of class, take time to talk with the student in a non-threatening setting. In other words, change your lenses. Bad behaviour is not really unpredictable, is it?
These are unsolved problems that need to be addressed as just that. A patient teacher doesn’t act from a place of judgment or any label they might want to put on a kid. If you can get to the heart of a student’s difficulty and teach them useful skills in how to interact with others, then you’ve already done a great thing, and possibly won the heart of the student.
You may say, “But I don’t want to give special treatment!” In fact, you must. Consider this: would you fix a Mac the same way you fix a PC? Would you troubleshoot Windows 10 like you do Windows XP? Would you service a Bentley like a VW Beetle? Would you accept glasses from a perfect stranger even if you have a different prescription?
Of course not. All students will develop at their own pace. True, you’ll be pushing and pulling trying to get students from point A to point B, but everyone has their pace. As one individual on Quora responded to the question of how a teacher keeps their patience: “Whatever it takes, it takes. Learning is on their timetable of development, not mine.”
Keep Calm and Teach
Lastly, here are some tips from Rebecca Alber on Edutopia about being responsive when trying to teach challenging students:
- Breathe. Leave the room if necessary. “I am breathing in for 4 … I am holding for 4 … breathing out for 4, and holding again. Repeat.”
- Count. What’s your magic number? 3 seconds, 5 seconds, or 10 seconds?
- Use question to instruct. Instead of “don’t do that” try “how might you rephrase that comment so it’s more respectful to your classmate?”
- Pause/think/speak. It’s called “creative tension” or “dramatic pause.” You can call it “listening for the gears turning.”
- Smile. This can work wonders and break surface tension.
- Don’t touch a burning pot. Wait to address behaviour issues at another time—before or after class, in the hallway, or over lunch. Don’t do it in front of other students where it then becomes a power play.
- Stay healthy. Get lots of rest, seek help, and talk to other teachers.
When you teach challenging students, you fulfill one of the most fundamental human needs in existence: connection. This one thing has so many benefits to both people involved that it’s hard to summarize them. Nevertheless, making a connection says one thing for certain—it says you matter. And maybe that’s all that challenging student who makes things so hard for you needs to realize.