Tips to Work with Difficult Students to Improve Classroom Management

  (Updated September 19, 2022)
Shemmicca Moore
Shemmicca Moore
Director of Secondary Instruction; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Gardner-Webb University
Difficult students misbehave in class, throwing paper at their teacher.

Why You Must Connect with Your Difficult Students 

The right to an education is granted to every child in the United States of America. While this is a wonderful right to have, educators must prepare daily to educate all students, including those with behavior challenges. Too often than not, student behavior can impede teachers’ ability to effectively do their job. Most of those who are labeled “difficult students” with behavior challenges are moved for short amounts of time and are then returned to the class with the same problems.  

While removing behavior problems from the learning environment puts a band-aid on the problem it does little in terms of a long-term fix. Therefore, we must equip teachers with tools for working with a difficult student. I have not found the magic bullet to fix classroom behavior for everyone, but the following techniques have led to productive classroom environments during my tenure in education.

Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students 

Know Your Students 

One of the first lessons that I learned as a beginning teacher was the importance of knowing my students. To teach a child it is imperative to know not only their intellectual abilities, but also their social and emotional make-up. Knowing students’ emotional and social triggers will assist in creating a climate where students are at ease and less likely to display negative behaviors. It provides the necessary tools to coax students from making impulsive and irrational decisions and helps with how to reach difficult students. Thus, creating an environment that is conducive to learning.

Knowing your students’ interests increases the likelihood that you will be able to engage them in the learning environment. For the most part, the more engaged a student is, the least likely they are to cause major disruptions in the classroom. Students are rarely behavior problems when engrossed in activities that pique their interests. Embedding their interests into your instruction says to even the most difficult student that you care enough to get to know them.

Build Authentic Relationships 

Building relationships with difficult students is foundational in getting them to respond positively. Children tend to know when teachers have a vested interest in them. This knowledge helps to develop trust in their teachers’ desire to make decisions that will benefit them as individuals. The trust allows corrections to be made concerning student behavior without the probability of an escalated debate. Students can receive correction when they are certain that the person who is correcting them has spent time getting to know them and understands and respects their needs.

Building authentic relationships gives way to the feeling of safety that most students desire Students who are difficult to deal with become less difficult when they view their teacher as a “safe space.” It is in this space where students are more likely to share and reveal who they really are.  

Providing opportunities to share their fears and desires without judgement helps to increase their willingness to receive corrections and adjust. I believe that to correct, you must first know how to correct. Addressing behavioral concerns in one student may look different for another student. Hence the need for authentic relationships which provides insight into the best approach for each individual student and is extremely vital in general, as well as in the beginning of a classroom management plan.

Establish Consistent Expectations 

Having consistent expectations is a non-negotiable when improving classroom management. Students will adapt to your expectations when they are clear and consistent. The danger in not having consistent expectations is students will not know what is and is not acceptable behavior in your learning environment from one day to the next. Consistent expectations are easier for students to follow as they become a part of your classroom’s culture 

You, as the teacher, will cause unnecessary disturbances if you accept blurting answers during your mini-lesson but issue a consequence for the same behavior at other times. This inconsistency typically fuels pushback from students causing them to become argumentative and resistant to the procedures you are attempting to establish. 

Having consistent expectations also helps to show that your students can depend on you. They can depend on you to govern your classroom fairly and in a manner that makes it conducive to learning. Their willingness to follow you and adhere to your expectations are tied to their ability to depend on you to govern the classroom effectively. Consistent expectations set the tone for a productive year for all students. 

Teach Appropriate Behaviors 

As important as it is to teach state academic learning standards, it is equally important to teach appropriate behaviors. One of the biggest mistakes I have seen educators make is assuming that students will enter our classrooms knowing which behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. We must adopt the philosophy that appropriate classroom behavior must be taught if we hope to effect positive change in the actions of our students.  

Furthermore, we must accept that some behaviors deemed inappropriate in the school environment are recognized as appropriate in their homes. We will get a greater level of buy-in from our students if we do not make them feel that what they have been taught in the home is inferior to what we teach as acceptable behavior in our class.

I have found that the best way to teach behaviors is by having short mini-lessons that incorporate various scenarios. Just as I am cyclical in teaching academic concepts, I constantly revisit behavior lessons with the same fervor, which I highly recommend to others. Expecting students to behave in a particular manner, but not teaching and modeling what it looks like is similar to putting an algebraic equation on the board and expecting students to solve for “x.” 

While some students may master the concept many may not because of the lack of exposure. For anything to improve, there must be some adjustment to what is already presented. The same holds true for student behavior. For it to improve, teaching must occur with adjustments along the way.

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*Updated September 2022 
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