Tips for Handling Difficult Students

Learn How to Combat Classroom Disruptions and Unwanted Behavior

Difficult student

 Westend61/Getty Images

Dealing with constant disruption and misbehavior can make the already-intense demands of teaching all the more challenging. Even the most effective teachers often struggle to choose disciplinary techniques that get the job done.

The goal is to spend less time reprimanding difficult students and more time motivating and encouraging your class but this simply isn't possible if you don't have a plan in place for setting expectations and following through. When your behavior management system doesn't seem to be cutting it, keep these tips in mind.

Define Expectations

Clearly state your expectations for all students and be explicit about what good behavior entails. Your students must understand the consequences of behavior that does not meet expectations and know that they will be held accountable when they do not follow the rules.

Get your students to help you write rules for behavior and sign an agreement at the beginning of the year to make them feel more responsible for upholding high standards. Write these out and display them in the classroom. Some rules are universally true in almost all schools. Remember to include expectations about being courteous to others, respecting teachers and school property, and waiting for instructions before acting in your list.

Justify Expectations

Just as important as setting clear expectations is explaining why expectations are in place. No, you don't have to justify your choices to students but part of your job as a teacher is to help children understand why rules exist both in and out of the classroom. "Because I said so," and, "Just do it," are not explanations that will help them understand.

Teach students that behavioral expectations are not in place simply because you want them to be. Rules for behavior are designed to keep them safe and make school more productive—adhering to them removes the need for discipline and enables healthy relationships between a teacher and their students. Have a constructive conversation with your whole class about why good behavior benefits everyone.

Enforce Expectations

Once you've laid out expectations, model the behavior you are looking for. Provide a few examples of how to act in different scenarios so that students are clear on what is expected. Only after you have done this can you begin to enforce the rules.

Remember: Rules for behavior should not be about what you like. Never tell a student that you "like" or "don't like" what they are doing—this implies that good behavior is meant only to please you and nullifies the purpose of rules entirely.

When dealing with students who challenge expectations, explain why their behavior is harmful to themselves and others, then work with them to correct it. Never humiliate or publicly scorn a student that is making poor choices. Instead, educate them about how their choices affect the class and be patient as they learn. Try a behavior management plan for routine rule-breakers to track progress and call attention to issues.

Praise Good Behavior

Behavior management should involve praising good behavior just as much as—if not more—it involves reprimanding students that are out of line. This encouragement is crucial to motivating students. If success is not appreciated, there is little reason to put effort into achieving it.

Always notice and lift up students that set good examples for the rest of the class, even if they are just doing what is expected of them. Establish a classroom culture that celebrates good behavior and have a system in place for how students will be recognized when they meet or go above and beyond expectations. Your students will want to be a part of the winner's circle and you'll find yourself disciplining less when the class sees that hard work doesn't go unnoticed.

Stay Calm

Frustration and anger are natural responses to stressors like misbehavior but your job as a teacher is to remain cool and collected, during these instances more than ever. Your students count on you to guide them and be a role model even when they are acting out. Take a deep breath and remove yourself (or a student) from any situation where you fear that your emotions will get the best of you.

Remember that all children come from very different backgrounds and carry very different baggage, so some might require a good deal of correcting before they catch on. The ultimate way to show a student how you want them to behave is by modeling appropriate behavior and reactions in times of vulnerability.

Family Communication is Key

Get families involved. There are a number of reasons for a child to misbehave in school that you could never be aware of without help. By communicating your concerns to parents, you may discover that something completely out of your control is affecting a student. Keep families informed about their child's behavior and lean on them for support. Always highlight positive behavior and improvement as well.

Choose your words carefully and never pass judgment. Be objective about what you notice and give examples. Parents might feel defensive when you broach this subject—approach the conversation with care so that an agreement can be reached about how to proceed. A student might require accommodations or modifications to be able to meet expectations and families are your greatest resource for understanding these needs.