Working with Challenging Students
In one scenario the teacher had a troubled student who was especially challenging. “Mary” had been abandoned by several adults including her mother and was currently living with her grandmother. In a typical day there would be a midmorning meltdown. My student was trying all sorts of ways to build a relationship, but seemed to be getting nowhere. It was almost as if her student was afraid to make attachments. (She was.) Mary no longer trusted adults, including teachers. So many people had let her down that she was afraid to trust, afraid that connecting would mean losing someone again ……when they left or she was forced to move again.
We talked about the fact that it would be very difficult to build a relationship of trust when this student no longer trusted. It was almost as if the teacher was being tested. Will you like me even if I behave badly? Will you still be here in 1 month, 2 months….? Will you care if you know I will not be here next year? I reminded my student that change would not occur overnight. It would be a long process.
My former student made a plan and stayed the course, starting every day with a smile and working through the daily meltdowns with patience and encouragement while trying every strategy/intervention she knew or that colleagues shared with her. She never gave up on Mary. Slowly Mary lasted a little longer each day before the breakdown…until finally there were good days. We focused on celebrating small milestones as the struggle continued. It took most of the year, but positive change occurred.
If you have a challenging student, try these ideas:
- Stay positive and excited about school and your classroom. (You can do this.)
- Greet this student (and all students) every morning and at every opportunity with a smile and a positive comment. This is going to be a long process.
- Don’t lose your cool, especially in front of other students. Keep your feedback for individual conferences.
- Get to know about this student (and all of your students.)
- Talk to the parents/caregivers.
- Talk to other teachers…how is s/he doing in specials, the lunch room, the playground?
- Use class activities to get to know all students, but really target this student. If you are using a writing journal, create prompts that will tell you about this student. Use interactive journals …you respond to his writing and maybe ask more questions.
- Use interest surveys and other get-to-know activities.
- Build lessons or student choices around his/her interests.
- Go to recess with your class and try to connect with this student.
- Invite students to have lunch with you. Once or twice a week, invite a couple of students to have lunch with you just to talk.
- I know a teacher who takes the kids to the gym one day a week for afternoon recess and they play basketball together.
- Consider a mentor. Is there someone else in your school s/he seems to connect with? Maybe s/he could be a helper or an assistant to make him/her feel important and part of the school.
- Does s/he play sports? Go to one of his/her games.
- Two-minute intervention
During two minutes each day for 10 consecutive days, find a way to develop a relationship. Stay away from expressing anything critical during this time. It is time to share information about yourself or ask questions to get to know the other person better. If the other person is reluctant to talk or rejecting, do not get discouraged. Make a commitment to keep at it every day for two weeks.
Mendler, A. (2012). When teaching gets tough: smart ways to reclaim your game. Alexandria VA: ASCD.
- The moment you see any growth, celebrate and use those positive calls home.
- You might consider a home visit, but be sure to check with your principal and take a buddy.
- Does your school have a student support team that can offer suggestions or help?
- Children Respond to a Positive Learning Environment
- Ten Ways to Deal with Difficult Students
- Handling Difficult Students: Lessons from Mrs. G
- Classroom Management – How Do I Teach With “That Kid” In My Class?
- The entire October 2012 edition of Educational Leadership is devoted to the Challenging Child.
- From Surviving to Thriving: Mastering the Art of the Elementary Classroom: Chapters 7 & 8 have suggestions for building relationships and working with challenging students in your classroom.
Share your ideas with us.