The proverbial hamster wheel is a constant in a teacher’s life. We take on everything and anything that comes our way: new curriculum, standardized tests, lesson planning, paper grading, bulletin boards, classroom supplies, technology, etc. But most teachers will tell you that the absolute hardest part of teaching is a challenging student. There are varying definitions of a challenging student, such as talking incessantly, not being able to sit still, or being apathetic, unfocused, disruptive, or defiant. This year I have three—it can make for a long year, but here are some strategies that can help you with the challenging students in your classroom:
- Connect with the Student: As hard as this may seem, it is imperative that you find some way to connect with your challenging students. These students are often the hardest to love, but they are the ones who need our love the most. Sometimes I paint the biggest smile I can muster to show I care. Many challenging students walk through our classroom door with so many negative feelings about school—it’s difficult to feel good about school if they have constantly been reprimanded day in and day out. Talk about the students’ interests, let them be a helper, reinforce positive behaviors, and give a hug or high five. Let them know you care about them just as much as the other students in your classroom.
- Have Clear Expectations: In order to have successful classroom management, you need to have a system in place with clear expectations for all of your students. With that being said, you cannot nitpick every behavior with your challenging students. This will drain you and create animosity, so try to focus on one or two behaviors at a time. For example, with one of my challenging students, I am focusing on not being physical towards other students and not being defiant. Another student is working on focusing and task completion. They both have the same consequences, but different behaviors on which to work. Once we make some headway with those behaviors, we may move on to the next set of behaviors. I also talk a lot about what it means to be a good friend/student as well as teaching my students character education. Students need to be taught what is expected and what the consequences are when expectations are not met.
- Parent Conferences: It is so important to meet with parents as soon as possible. Always start the conference with some positives before diving into any problems. Parents need to feel you are working with them instead of against. I always tell my parents I want the best for their child, as they do. Be positive, yet direct. Parents need to know exactly what concerns you have. Recommending medical advice is a delicate topic—you may want to ask questions about diet, sleep, etc. There can be some quick and relatively easy ways to fix behavior with a change in diet or sleep, but that is for a doctor to decide. Admittedly, there will be some parents who may need to hear information year after year to truly process what is happening with their child. Still, do your part and let them know. Building a positive relationship with parents is instrumental in helping your challenging students. Once parents feel they can trust you, they are more likely to listen.
- Think Outside the Box: Part of the reason these kids are challenging is because there is no single way to solve the problem(s). Sometimes I feel like Mary Poppins rummaging through my magical bag for solutions! Use your resources: ask a social worker/counselor, colleagues, or former teachers to get ideas. For the kids that can’t sit still, provide flexible seating or play action songs and let them move around. For the talkers, allow times when they can talk with friends. You may have to dig deep to find other solutions, but keep digging! One of my students cannot handle the cafeteria—he eats for ten minutes, and then is a complete distraction. So, I found an older student to be his lunch buddy. He loves it because he is getting one-on-one attention, and I have not made it seem like a punishment. I love it because I can truly have a duty-free lunch!
- Classmate Support: It is important to have the other students on your side, so to speak. When a challenging student is being disruptive, violent, or unkind to a peer, I will often ask the peer how it makes them feel. Deep down everyone wants a friend, and just hearing how their behavior is making a peer feel can really be effective. On the flip side, I also teach my students to encourage positive behaviors as well. When my challenging students show signs of improvement, we all celebrate with high fives or words of affirmation. And on a few occasions, if the challenging students are gone, I have talked to my class about those students to offer words of advice and encouragement in helping get them on the right track. I will also pair my challenging kids with positive role models, which I find helps immensely. However, be sure to share the love and move kids around often so there isn’t just one student bearing the load.
- Keep Yourself in Check: I completely understand wanting to lose your patience, but don’t. Remember you are the adult and they are just kids trying to learn. Remain calm, consistent, and loving. Sit the students near you or better yet, far away from you. Ignore those behaviors that just get under your skin like snapping incessantly or tapping a pencil. Go home and whine (or wine!) to a friend, but don’t let it consume you. Focus on the other students who make you smile every day. Take it day by day, don’t stress about how you have two more quarters left, and think about how far you have come. Focus on any progress you have made and be sure to take care of yourself with a proper diet, sleep, and exercise.
It is not easy having challenging students. It was good for me to write this article to remind myself to take a step back and focus on what works. I do believe following these strategies can help ensure a successful year—it’s working for me and it can work for you, too. So, power on and remember why we are here: the students. And while we all love those rule followers and hard workers, there is a special place in our hearts for the challenging students as well. Many times, they help us grow as teachers, just as much as we are helping them grow as students.
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