Ready-to-Use Tools: Strategies for Working with Challenging Students

Nothing is more valuable than a teacher’s time and energy! Often times those precious resources get monopolized by a few challenging students while the other students in a class are left to fend for themselves. Our students are no different than the rest of the population; some require more time and effort than others. Personally, it’s the challenging students that excite me and drive my love for working in education. Ever since my first days as a teacher I’ve had a soft spot for the kids that others may see as a bit “crazy” or high-maintenance. I don’t disagree that difficult students can be frustrating and tiring but I also embrace the challenges that accompany these students and enjoy the roller coaster ride of emotions that comes with the task.

Realizing that not everyone agrees with my opinions, I thought it would be beneficial to provide some suggestions and strategies for working with this brand of student:

  1. Build the Personal Connection:

This is often the hardest thing to do with students who are the biggest challenge, not because it’s a difficult task but because it requires so much patience for a student who is already taking a lot of your time and effort. However, the dedicated attempts to build a relationship with these students will pay off many times over once that connection is established. Try some of these easy ideas:

    1. Meet your students at the door with a handshake, high-five, fist-bump, and a friendly smile each and every class period while welcoming them to class. (Also recommended: An entrance procedure and a regular beginning of class routine for students to enter into once they’ve been greeted.)
    2. Ask your students questions about themselves! Simple questions about their weekend will lead to information about their interests. Remember their interests; keep written notes if necessary and follow up with more conversation in the future.
    3. Get out and support them. There’s no better way to show a kid that you’re in their corner than by showing up on the sidelines, backstage, or front row at their performances, games, etc.
    4. Make positive contacts with the parents. Call, e-mail, or meet them in person; do this early and often. If a student has recently become a challenge, balance the bad with good. Parents who only see/hear negative messages about their little angels will be the first to turn against you.
  1. Watch Your Language:

How you talk to your students matters; that much is obvious. At times, it’s not just the tone, the words, or even the message that is the most important. Motivation and mindset are huge pieces of helping to build a child’s self-esteem. You’re not always going to be there to support this student as they move through life; it needs to be something they can do on their own. Intrinsic motivation and the understanding that hard work and effort can and will pay off are especially crucial for your most challenging cases. Often times it’s the toughest kids who have the lowest self-esteem. Help them build their self-worth by beginning to watch your language:

Challenging Students

  1. Be Proactive and Create Success

Often times our communication of satisfaction can be vague and brief. It is important to point out exactly what behavior you are noticing without judgment. When a challenging student cleans his art supplies as you have requested, a simple “thank you” is too general and broad to have a lasting impact. Instead, let the student know you’ve noticed by saying, “You cleaned all of your brushes and your work station is spotless!” This specific feedback gives no judgment of the situation but it acknowledges that you’ve noticed and the student will know that they’ve been recognized. This strategy allows the teacher to slowly work past the defense mechanisms that challenging students build up to criticism. Keep at it and be consistent, students need to be recognized; they don’t need to be judged!

  1. Pay Them with the Right Energy

 Challenging students need attention, there is no question about that, but by focusing the timing and type of attention you can begin to foster more positive interactions with troublesome children. With difficult students we almost always give them negative attention immediately after they break the rules, thus reinforcing their behavior with energy. In order to promote success, and therefore a more positive approach, it is crucial to zero in on positives. With challenging students, focus on the behaviors that are non-negative. In other words, celebrate the smallest things even if they may seem like no big deal, especially at the beginning of this process when every little thing counts! Don’t wait around in an attempt to catch them doing well, create the success by instigating opportunities for success and celebrating anything possible.

 Challenging students often elicit an avoidance response from teachers when they aren’t acting out. It’s natural, a student takes up so much energy when they are off-task, then when they are actually behaving we revel in the freedom and tend to ignore them. Instead of avoiding a challenging student, focus on their non-negative behaviors and celebrate them. It won’t happen over night but over time these small successes will gather momentum and begin to pull that negative student up.

  1. Fill Your Emotional Bucket

 Challenging students are going to wear you down; it’s natural. Knowing that and keeping it in mind is crucial to success with difficult students. Our students aren’t like significant others who we can break up with and move away from if we don’t get along, working together with challenging students is essential. Reflect on your successes with these students, celebrate them, and enjoy the positive moments as much as possible. You’ll see growth and you’ll see progress and it will make your day when you do! However, just like Dr. Seuss has taught us, you’ll have you’re slumps and so will your students. There will be days when that challenging student who seemed to have turned a huge corner has a hiccup and reverts back to their old habits. It will be tough but in those times it is more crucial than ever that you are patient and understanding. No one, even challenging students, forgets who was there for them during the hard times and on the bad days!!

We work in a job that often times feels thankless; it’s not easy to do these things when you feel under appreciated. Know this — you are appreciated and loved! Perhaps your students don’t have the social-emotional abilities to communicate their appreciation to you but they love you! Look for it in small places: Their growth in your subject, the way they smile as they enter your classroom, the small and sometimes weird things they noticed about you (Did you get new shoes? You cut your hair! Why do you drink coffee from the same mug every day?) and for us middle school people, just the acknowledgement that you exist is sometimes a huge sign of respect and appreciation!

Everyday we come to work ready for a new adventure, we know the toils and challenges of being a teacher and understand the benefits that come with our role. Challenging students are an inevitability of our job. They’re the “crazy” ones, they’re the ones that make me love coming to work every day, and they’re the geniuses!!