How to Manage Difficult Students in Your Classroom

Difficult students can ruin a school year. When you encounter challenging kids in your classroom, take these steps. First, use proactive strategies to fend off bad behavior. Second, establish reactive consequences to curb it. Third, forge strong partnerships. You may also need to develop an individual plan. Remember to remain consistent. And never let your emotions get the best of you. You can do it!

Managing Difficult Students

Ms. Sneed Faces Some Difficult Students

She knew about them before school began. Who? The Big Three. Yep, Ms. Sneed had been informed that she would have three difficult students. It was going to be a challenging year. To gear up, she learned a little about each one:

  • Jerome needed constant redirection. In addition, he experienced multiple meltdowns each day. Screaming, running away, and general disruption occurred frequently.
  • Cami could be a bright ray of sunshine or a stormy black cloud. In the same respect, she could be kind to others – or truly mean. Cami experienced great difficulty working in groups.
  • Heath was devious. He constantly looked for ways to get out of work – and into trouble. Surfing undesirable websites during class time tempted him greatly. Ms. Sneed liked to say, “Heath would rather lie than tell the truth any day.” He was a handful.

Use Proactive and Reactive Strategies for Your Difficult Students

Before school began for the year, Ms. Sneed talked to each child’s previous teacher. However, she knew that each teacher was different. What worked for them may not work for her. Therefore, she would try their strategies and also try her own.

Ms. Sneed’s strategies always supported one goal: Keep everyone safe, comfortable, and learning. Since that goal included the Big Three, her plans included ways to keep them in the classroom – and out of the hall or office.

Difficult Students - Teacher's Creed

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Proactive Strategies

For Ms. Sneed’s first line of defense, she used proactive strategies. In other words, she tried to prevent – or at least minimize – problems.

  • Preferential Seating – As Ms. Sneed arranged her initial seating chart, she considered each child’s needs. She placed Jerome at the front on the far left. That way, she could redirect him while teaching and easily move him out of the room if he melted down. Cami’s desk was placed in the back, also on the far left. The back corner would keep her from arguing with others, and she could also be moved out of the room with ease. Since Ms. Sneed had to keep an eye on Heath all the time, he sat right next to the teacher’s desk – where she could also see his Chromebook screen.
  • Preferential Groups – Since group work triggers difficult behaviors, Ms. Sneed knew she needed to choose learning groups wisely. She often placed the Big Three in smaller groups with mild-mannered students. Other times, she placed them in a group together. (Surprisingly, difficult students may work well together. Furthermore, grouping them together means other groups can work productively without constant upheaval.)
  • Clear Expectations – At the beginning of the year, students helped Ms. Sneed establish simple classroom rules. When kids worked in groups, each member had specific duties. With clear-cut rules and roles, difficult students lost the ability to argue.
  • Alternate Activities – As Ms. Sneed prepared her lesson plans, she considered problems that might arise. Jerome might melt down when faced with a long or complex assignment. Cami could fly into a rage during group work. And Heath may move into inappropriate websites while using his Chromebook. Preparing alternate lesson plans took too much time, so she simply kept ideas at the back of her mind. For example, she might reduce the number of problems assigned to Jerome or switch to a traditional textbook activity for Cami or Heath.

Difficult Students - Be Proactive

Reactive Strategies

Preferential seating, preferential groups, clear expectations, and alternative activities helped Ms. Sneed ward off problems. As any teacher knows, however, sometimes it’s not enough.

When kids acted up, Ms. Sneed always reminded herself, “Keep calm and carry on.” It was really, really hard not to yell. However, having a plan helped. This was her second line of defense.

  • 1-2-3 – To keep quiet and calm – and to keep teaching – Ms. Sneed used the 1-2-3 method. The first time someone acted up, she looked them in the eye and held up one finger. The second time, she held up two fingers. When she reached three, the student moved to a time-out area in the back of the class for five minutes. No screaming. No disruption. And no one leaving the classroom.
  • Walking – For some students who melt down, walking works. When she noticed rising tension, Ms. Sneed would simply ask the student to take a walk around the school. Depending on the student and situation, they might walk alone, with another student, or with a classroom aide. Yes, the student left the classroom for a short while, but it was better than a total meltdown.
  • Temporary Removal – Every time Ms. Sneed considered sending a child to the counselor – or to the main office – a deep sigh escaped her. However, sometimes temporary removal – or even some sort of detention – was necessary. This was Ms. Sneed’s final line of defense.

Difficult Students - Limit Reactions

To Face Difficult Students, Forge Strong Partnerships

Now Ms. Sneed had been around the block a few times. Therefore, she realized that she needed help. And lots of it.

  • Administration – At the beginning of the year, Ms. Sneed met with the principal. She laid out her plans and explained how she might need help. As the year progressed, she circled back to her administrator often. She reported on how things were going – and the help she anticipated she would need. Because the principal was informed – and could see that Ms. Sneed was working hard to help these kids – she did not balk when asked for additional aide time.
  • Counselors – Similarly, Ms. Sneed touched base with the counselor often. Mrs. Grount had worked with these kids for several years, so she provided valuable background information and suggestions. If someone was having a particularly bad day, they could go to Mrs. Grount for help. In addition, Mrs. Grount would come to the classroom to get a child who was melting down.
  • Parents – Although Ms. Sneed hated contacting parents, she forced herself to maintain constant communication with parents of difficult students. When the parents knew the extent of behaviors, they became much more receptive to interventions. Furthermore, some parents provided great insight for behavior plans.
  • Support Staff – For her plans to work, Ms. Sneed needed support. Fortunately, her principal willingly supplied aides to help get Jerome on track at the beginning and end of the day. (As the year went on, she tracked his behavior to get even more aide time.) Since Heath had problems staying out of inappropriate websites, she also enlisted the help of their school tech trainer. And, as a matter of fact, every time Ms. Sneed had a difficult student, she thought deep and hard about who could help.

Difficult Students - Forge Partnerships

Over the years, Ms. Sneed had come to realize that asking for help showed strength, not weakness. When managing difficult students, a teacher must reach out. Through partnerships, the child can be better served. Furthermore, stress on other students – and the teacher – is reduced.

Track Behavior

Whenever Ms. Sneed felt that a difficult student needed more help, she recorded daily behaviors. Early in her career, she wrote in a journal. But later on, she developed a simple checklist to track behavior.

During this particular year, Ms. Sneed realized that Jerome would require additional services. After all, she couldn’t ignore – or leave – her students while she helped him defuse. Therefore, she created a special behavior tracker just for him.

Difficult Student - Track Behavior

Tracking Jerome’s behavior for several months proved that he needed extra support. As a result, Ms. Sneed received additional aide time.

Develop a Strong – but Simple – Plan

In addition to all of the strategies mentioned above, Jerome required a special plan. Instead of addressing all of his issues, Ms. Sneed focused only on those that prohibited learning (Jerome’s or other students’).  Shouting, refusing, pushing, and running away were targeted. Because he dreaded any parent-teacher contact, this became the natural consequence.

If Jerome exhibited any of the targeted behaviors, he received a warning. Once three had been exhibited in a given range of time, the teacher called home. At first, Jerome melted down whenever his parents were called. Before long, though, the targeted behaviors subsided. Jerome began to self-regulate. And, surprisingly, even when Ms. Sneed called home, Jerome was able to handle it calmly.

Again, Ms. Sneed’s plan kept everyone – including Jerome – safe, comfortable, and learning.

Remain Consistent, Keep Emotions at Bay, and Never Give Up

So, you may ask, was Ms. Sneed able to keep her cool all the time? Absolutely not! Sometimes her blood boiled and she snapped. It happened. But then she’d take a deep breath and carry on.

Dealing with difficult students is emotional work. Heck, teaching is emotional work! Most afternoons, Ms. Sneed felt exhausted. However, the next day, during her morning reflection, she gathered herself up and reminded herself of this. “Consistency maintains order,” Ms. Sneed chanted. And, you know, it helped.

Do you have a difficult student (or two) in your classroom? It’s tough, but you can prevail.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.

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