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Working with Challenging Students

October 11, 2012

We frequently get emails from former students – Subject Line: HELP. They begin with, “I have this student….What do I do?”

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?

Helpful Resources:

Share your ideas with us.

Linda C.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Betsey Folsom permalink
    April 4, 2017 6:09 am

    “Mary” sounds very familiar. It is sooooo sad that sooo many Marys are in our classrooms. And bless all the teachers who walk in with a smile on their faces to a room full of them.

  2. March 14, 2017 6:50 pm

    Reblogged this on From Surviving to Thriving and commented:

    It’s that time of year….problems begin to surface in your classroom. Excellent strategies and interventions in this post.

  3. October 12, 2012 6:08 am

    It is always good to hear from former students. I received this email yesterday.

    I think of “Mary” often and wonder how she’s doing. She brings a smile to my face. Did I tell you that even though she went to a different school the next year, she came back to see me? It’s the little victories. 🙂
    Former Student/Current Teacher

  4. Lisa permalink
    October 11, 2012 8:20 am

    I’d also like to recommend the entire issue of Educational Leadership for October 2012. The focus is “students who challenge us.” By this time in the school year, students and teachers have settled into the school year and behavior issues often begin to arise. This publication offers strategies and suggestions for working with a variety of students.

    • October 11, 2012 9:25 am

      Thanks for the affirmation. That resource is included in the list. I agree. Ed Leadership is an excellent resources.



  1. Responding to Student Behavior | From Surviving to Thriving
  2. Challenging School Environments « From Surviving to Thriving

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