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15 Practical Tips for Dealing with "Difficult" Students

All of my students are labeled "at risk," meaning they have some characteristic that makes them more likely to drop out of school. Working with these kids is my passion, as is guiding them through compassion and understanding. Though some of their behaviors may be difficult, I know that the behaviors are just their way of communicating something their adolescence can't express.

Here are 15 strategies I have found effective with students who are "difficult."

1. Praise often. All the time. With over-the top, ridiculous compliments. Your student completed half an assignment after several 0's? Compliment them! He worked quietly for twenty minutes longer than usual? Compliment! She spoke in class for the first time? Compliment! Compliment exuberantly. Embarrass yourself with your excessive amounts of praise.

2. Never allow students to see your anger. And by "never," I mean NEVER! Some students will be looking to make you angry. Some know only this response to their behavior. Some may think it's funny. Model for them that you, and you alone, are responsible for your emotions. They cannot make you angry, because you have control of yourself.

3. Address problems early - the sooner, the better. Set your boundaries early, and ensure students understand your expectations. Students will push your boundaries, but you must be diligent in compassionately assuring them that their behavior is unacceptable. 

4. Build authentic relationships with students and families. This is my favorite trick! When I notice a student off-task or being disruptive, I walk over to them and talk to them. I may ask about the picture they're drawing, compliment their clothing, tell them I've missed them since they've been out. More often than not, this opposite-of-what-they-were-expecting response, leads them back on task. Get to know their families early, before the student misbehaves. The families' support of you at home will go a long way in the classroom.

5. Never make a threat you are not prepared to carry out. If you make an outrageous threat, you need to follow through. Otherwise, you will have lost all credibility, and every student will know it. Better yet, don't make threats. It's important that you let students know the consequences for actions, but this conversation should be devoid of emotion. Threats carry power and anger.

6. Never punish a whole class for the faults of a few. Obviously. Nobody likes that. And it will turn the class against you.

7. Model the behavior you expect. Want the students to respect you? Respect them. At all times. In all instances. 

8. Set clear expectations. Think your student knows when the assignment is due? Ask them. Be certain they know. Do your students know how to take notes? Are you sure? Explicitly teach them what you expect.

9. Give students a fresh start every day. When a student drives you crazy, day after day, talk to yourself. Literally, talk to yourself before he comes in. Tell yourself to give this kid another chance. Tell yourself to forget the past.

10. Question why a behavior bothers you. Is the behavior the problem, or is it you? Would this same behavior bother another teacher? Does it matter if the kid is sitting or standing? Does it matter if he listens to music when he works? Why does her eye-rolling drive you insane?

11. Never leave downtime. Occupy EVERY minute of their time in your class. Every single minute! These students have experienced many negative moments in school, so it's essential to balance them with positives. Leaving downtime, without specific limitations, opens the door for poor choices. We want to keep these kids "out of trouble."

12. Spend a significant amount of time teaching procedures, routines, transitions, and expectations. Going over procedures on the first day of school is not enough for these students. Many of them struggle with the discrepancies from one teacher to the next, and little changes can make their life more difficult. Explicitly teach your expectations. Revisit these often.

13. Never allow reasons for a student not to learn. He didn't bring a pencil? Again? Give him one. Every day. No paper? Give her some. Forgot her book? Lend her one. She needs help at lunch? Eat with her. 

14. Do not embarrass them. Some students have been in so much trouble, they even find "private conversations" humiliating. In this case, secretly attach a note to their paper. This allows you to relay information without the student feeling singled out.

15. Have fun and laugh with your students often.


The "S-Word" - Don't Call Kids "Smart"! Over the past decade, I've happened across several articles/people/instances urging adults to stop calling children "smart."  They warn that by labeling them "smart," students will become lazy.

Why Educators Should Listen to Pharrell Recently I heard Pharell summarize my entire educational philosophy in one profound statement. When asked where he went to school, Pharrell replied: The universe is my university.

Breaking the Child Teachers and parents constantly lament over some child's willfulness. Certainly teachers need to be in charge of the classroom, but I wonder: How far would you go to gain control of a child?

Classroom Management with At-Risk Students The root of the word, “discipline” is “disciple,” meaning, “to teach.” When faced with problem behaviors in the classroom, management strategies should be used rather than punishment.

My Discipline Policy At-risk students can be some of the most difficult and challenging students to work with. They often exhibit very disruptive behavior, and many times these students do not respond well to authority. The largest battle intervention teachers will face is discipline.

Easing Parent Anxiety Last year, as our state test approached, my parents' level of anxiety increased tremendously. The closer the date came, the more emails and phone calls I received.


  1. These are some pretty good tips. I completely agree with you. I also recently wrote a post about this here If you have an advice to add that would be great! :)


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