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!


  1. Management in classrooms is always hard. But it's rewarding when it turns out great at the end. Thanks for sharing your post.


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