The realization that we have one or more difficult students in our class raises our levels of anxiety and stress, tests our patience, distracts our attention, and challenges our skills. But this doesn’t have to be a source of worry and dread.
Often, defiant, manipulative, or volatile students turn out to be bright, talented, and engaging. Though they can be frustrating one moment, they can be delightfully entertaining the next, and even sensitive and vulnerable the next moment.
The progress and success these students will experience in coming months will likely be the result of how we view them, how we engage them, and how we nurture them. The perspectives we adopt, the choices we make, and the relationships we develop will have a powerful influence on what lies ahead. Each of these elements is within our control should we choose to employ it. Here are six perspectives and strategies you can adopt to make your work with your most challenging students successful while preserving your sanity.
First, approach the situation as a valuable learning opportunity. You might ask, “What can this student teach me?” Become an observer and learner. The insights you gain and skills you develop will help you to become more successful with the student and prepare you to be even more successful with similar students in the future. Once you learn lessons, you’ll not have to relearn them. Plus, you’ll have additional strategies and approaches upon which to draw. Further, your engagement with and learning how to work with a difficult student can be more energizing when you see it as an investment rather than as a trial.
Second, separate the student from their behavior. When you accept the student, even when they misbehave, it allows you to care for and even love them without accepting their behavior. You need to help the student feel your regard for them despite what they say or do, and over time position yourself as advocate and coach while they work to change their behavior.
Third, understand that at some level the student truly believes the behavior works for them. Therefore, some students continue in unacceptable, even destructive behaviors despite consequences. Help students see and experience how changing their behavior leads to better results that serve their interests. Your challenge is to help them to see and develop alternative paths to meet their needs and achieve their goals. Only then will they consider abandoning their old behaviors.
Fourth, recognize the skills supporting the students’ behavior. Many behaviors you find unacceptable depend on well-honed skills. With some imagination and creativity, they can redirect and reapply these skills in more acceptable ways. As examples, they can recast manipulation into the ability to influence and even sell. Defiant behaviors might be transformed into self-advocacy if supported by different strategies. Through talking with them and coaching them, they can learn to reframe and employ their skills in a positive direction.
Fifth, commit to never purposefully embarrass or “corner” the student without a valid, face-saving choice. When you create these circumstances, you risk severing your relationship with them, and they might lash out more destructively. The resentment resulting from these experiences can last a lifetime, prohibiting you from ever reaching them. Rather, give the student choices. Provide opportunities for them to decide. Invite them to offer ideas and suggestions regarding how to resolve challenging situations.
Sixth, emphasize the purpose and relevance of what you teach, while noticing and reinforcing the importance and value of the student’s efforts and strategies. When you ask students to learn a skill or study a topic, explain why the learning is important and share examples of how they benefit from what they learn. Reluctant and resistant learners often are more open and responsive when they understand the “why” behind what you ask of them. As the student engages, make it a point to notice where they concentrate their efforts and strategies. This allows you to provide encouragement and coaching for continued progress.
Difficult students don’t make our work easy, but they provide surprising opportunities for us to grow and learn. They also offer some of the greatest occasions to make a lasting difference in the lives of young people who need us most.
For more information and resources on managing behavior, check out our You Can Handle Them All…