3 Simple Tips to Manage Difficult Students: Tip #1

I've previously written about 3 simple tips I use to manage my most difficult students (find it here),   In this post, I will explain more about Tip #1: Get to Know Them.

Getting to know ALL your students, is an important part of building a successful classroom environment.  For most of our students, getting to know one another is easy.  At the beginning of the year, teachers do many fun and engaging "getting to know you" activities to help build community and to learn about "who" is in our classroom.  One of my favorite activities that I do is to write my students a letter all about me and their assignment in my classroom is to write a letter back telling me all about themselves. (I keep extra copies of my letter and use it throughout the year as I get new students).  I also use a simple survey to gather information about my students. Getting to know your students - their likes and dislikes, their family life and background, their previous school struggles, and more - can help to build a rapport and help you find meaningful ways to reach them as a teacher and as a caring adult.   Most of the students in our classroom enjoy coming to school and enjoy getting to know their teacher and their classmates and are willing and happy participants.

I have found though that some of my most difficult students are not receptive to these activities or they "pretend" to be.  My most challenging students often come to school with a mindset that school is hard (academically and/or socially) and that they are not going to be successful.  They may act tough, like they are too cool for these activities or they may act like it's a joke and not take it seriously. Maybe they believe that previous teachers disliked them.  Maybe they think they are not good at school.  Maybe they have no real friends.  Whatever the reason, deep down inside is a child crying for attention.

This simple idea came from Angela Watson's The Cornerstone for Teachers' post "The 2 x 10 Strategy: A Miraculous Solution for Behavior Issues".  Angela learned about the strategy from her Encouraging Teachers Facebook group (which you should really join when the opportunity opens up. Get on her email list to find out when the next enrollment period opens.  It's a fabulous group!)
The challenge is to gently and persistently approach this child and work on building a relationship.  I know I said that my tips are simple, and they are, but this will take some time.  I use the letter they have written to me, the survey I've given, or my observations to start a conversation. I might notice an interest in a sport or a type of music, creative doodles, or a comment about a movie or event - I take note and jot this information down. I make a strategic plan to talk to my target student every single day.  I may greet the student in the morning and have a brief conversation in the hallway. We may chat in line on the way to lunch or I'll steal a few minutes at recess. Some days, they will brush me off and that's OK.  I don't take it personally and I'll just try again the next day.  For our "chats", I come prepared with some conversation starters from what I've learned about them or some silly jokes.  I open our chat in a light-hearted way and steer clear from asking them about tough topics or academics in our first few conversations.  I want to gradually build trust in a genuine way. The plan is to talk to my target student for two to five minutes every single day for ten days.  That's it.  You will find that the student may start to seek YOU out for a conversation and may start to become more receptive to directions in the classroom.  

One of my more recent and  most challenging students, (I called him "Joe" in my earlier post here) took a bit longer than ten days to get to a point that he would actually talk to me.  In the beginning, he brushed me off repeatedly but I would just smile and say something friendly like "have a great day" until eventually he responded.  Joe loved to doodle and his doodles were very dark.  I could tell from the doodles that they were  referencing video games.  Lucky for me, I have a 15 year old son who loves video games,  Much to Joe's surprise, I knew quite a bit about video games. I asked him what he liked to play because I liked to play too.  He asked me what my favorite game was and I said, "don't laugh, but it's Mario Kart".  He laughed but then said, "I really like that game too!".  I was surprised (the dark doodles were not Mario-esque) but happy to make that connection with him.  He thought that it was great that an "old" lady like me  enjoyed video games too. Every day after that we talked about it and  our conversations eventually turned to other topics at well. His behavior gradually improved to the point where he was actually making some effort in class and causing far fewer disruptions.  "Joe" became one of my favorite students and one that I will never forget.  While, he didn't achieve a lot of academic success that year, he showed great improvement and, he and I both had hope that he could succeed in the future.

Of course, I recommend getting to know ALL of your students because they are all deserving of our attention.  Making a strategic plan to get to know your most difficult students will help you to build a positive relationship which may just lead to more positive behaviors in the classroom.

Have you had success with a difficult student?  What helped you turn things around?  I'd love to hear your success stories!


3 SIMPLE Tips to Help Manage Difficult Students

Think of one your most difficult students.  One or more students come to mind right away, right?  We spend more time thinking about our most challenging students and what we can do to help them to be successful in the classroom.  You've tried the common tricks in your toolbox like positive reinforcement, rewards, and even negative consequences and nothing seems to work.

1. Get To Know Them
Find a way to connect and build a rapport with a student. Talk with them every day outside of the classroom, such as recess or invite them for lunch. Do they enjoy basketball?  Shoot hoops with them on the playground.  Let them teach YOU how to do something at recess.  Let them explain how the details of their favorite video game. Last year, I had a super-challenging student who was very difficult to connect with.  I noticed that he really didn't have any true friends but loved getting other students' attention with his disruptions.  I spent a few minutes every day just chatting with "Joe" about non-school related things. It took me a solid month to build up to a meaningful conversation but I was determined. I found out that he never played kickball and was embarrassed to try and was worried that the other students would make fun of him. I enlisted a few of my good kids to invite "Joe" to play and they invited me to play too.  The entire class played kickball that day and the students were so happy that every single classmate was on the field.  They patiently taught "Joe" the rules of the game and gave him some practice time to kick the ball.  When he got his first time up in the game, the students were coaching and cheering him on and he was grinning from ear to ear.  From that day on, he played kickball every day!  He really enjoyed it and I loved seeing him chatting and playing with his peers.  Did he become a perfect student in my class? No, but things improved immensely.  He had a sense of belonging and began to make connections and form real friendships with some of his classmates.

Read more about getting to know your difficult students in my post, 3 Simple Tips to Help Manage Difficult Students: Tip #1.

2. Enlist Their Help
I often make my most challenging students my go-to helper.  If I notice that they are getting fidgety and potentially about to cause a problem (or just starting to), I will give them something "important" to do.  My favorite task to give them is to deliver a note or item to another teacher.  I'll write a quick note to a teacher friend for my student to deliver.  The note may just be something silly that says "have a great day" or "you are awesome".  It may be something unimportant that I need to return to them (Mrs. T needs this DVD returned right away and tell her thanks!).  Just getting the student up and about on a seemingly important errand can give them the classroom break that they need. Currently, I have a student who just loves to feel important (and really, who doesn't?).  I give him a special job or task when I know he needs a quick break.  I might have him do something as simple as emptying the pencil sharpener, delivering a message to another teacher, or returning a library book for me. Now that he knows that I like his help, I have my student asking me for things he can do to help and I always take him up on his offer.  He'll stop by before class to see if I need help straightening the desks or filing papers.  Allowing him to help me in little, yet meaningful, ways gives him positive attention, makes him feel special, and gives him a sense of accomplishment.

Read more details about enlisting their help in my post 3 Simple Tips to Help Manage Difficult Students: Tip #2.

3. Give Them A Safe Space
Give your students a quiet, peaceful place where they can move to calm down when they are getting frustrated, agitated, or upset. I have a desk set up in a corner of my classroom that we call the "Calm Down Station".  My students know that they can take a time-out at any time they feel they need a break.  At the desk, I keep a box of hands-on stress relievers such as a bean bag, pattern blocks, and clay. I also have a glitter wand, paper, coloring pages, and an assortment of markers and color pencils. I have taught my students how to use the Calm Down Station and I make a note of the students who use it and how long they stay there. If I feel that they are avoiding work, I will gently ask them to return to our class for a few minutes or bring their classwork over to them to complete. Read more about this strategy here, 3 Simple Tips to Manage Difficult Students: Tip #3

We all have students that will need extra attention. Having a simple, workable plan in place can go a long way towards having the best class possible. What strategies would you add to the list?  
Read more details about each tip in my separate blog posts, Get To Know Them, Enlist Their Help, and Give Them a Save Space.

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