Helping Difficult Students

Behavior management is a major challenge teachers face. In fact, for many, it’s probably the BIGGEST challenge. Many teachers burn out and leave the profession because they struggle with management.

In a previous post, I laid out my 10 classroom management tips to help teachers with their everyday management.

But what about your difficult students?

The ones that don’t respond to your regular behavior systems?

This post is designed to provide tips for working with difficult students based on my experience. Don’t hesitate to get help if you need it.

In this post:

  1. My 10 general classroom management tips
  2. How you can help your difficult students
  3. What to do if you still need more help

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My 10 general classroom management tips

Before you can set out to help your most difficult students, you have to lay the foundation for your class as a whole.

These are my 10 best classroom management tips.

  1. Set clear expectations
  2. Establish clear consequences
  3. Carry out consequences
  4. Be consistent
  5. Constant vigilance!
  6. Overuse positive reinforcement
  7. Take time to reflect with students
  8. Teach students to look for good behavior in peers (scouts)
  9. Change focus behavior and rewards
  10. Raise expectations as their behavior improves; give them more freedom

Remember: good classroom management takes time and A LOT of energy – but it’s totally worth it!

How you can help your difficult students

Okay, so you set up your general behavior management system. But, you have that one (or five) difficult student who just isn’t responding to it. Their problem behaviors are affecting the rest of your class and driving you mental.

So how can you help your most difficult students?

First, determine the functions behind their behaviors

A function is basically the reason behind a behavior. The behavior is just a symptom of the underlying function.

There are 4 functions that could be the driving force behind a student’s problems behaviors.

  1. Attention – wanting attention (in general or of a specific person)
  2. Escapism – wanting to escape from a person, place, or task
  3. Tangible/Activity/Access – wanting an object, permission to do an activity, or to get to go somewhere
  4. Automatic (sensory) – trying to meet an intrinsic sensory need (ex. flapping their arms). The student may not even be aware of their behavior.

Your student’s behavior might have a combination of the 4 functions.

Identify and address the function in order to improve the behavior.

Next, decide on an intervention

You have to figure out what’s going to address the function best.

For example, if a student is seeking attention, the intervention would be to only give them that attention for good behavior.

But be careful, not identifying and addressing the right function can potentially backfire.

For example, you may think a student is trying to escape their math work but they’re actually seeking your attention. Because you identified the wrong function, you spend more time near their desk. However, this causes their behavior to get worse because you actually reinforced their problem behavior.

Then, know your limits

How much can you tolerate?

This is the most important tip: don’t forget your own sanity!

This is critical because, with any intervention, you have to keep your cool! You can’t give in and start a power struggle.

There are things you can tolerate that others can’t and visa-versa.

For example, I can’t stand disrespect.

It gets my blood boiling like nothing else does.

Because I know this, I need to determine in advance how I’ll react when my student says “No!” right to my face so I can remain calm.

Make sure you know how much you can put up with so you can predetermine your game plan. It’s much harder to think and act calmly once you’re already upset.

Last, don’t give up!

I must tell you that things will get worse before they get better.

Whenever you start a new intervention or system, you’ll experience what’s called the J curve. Students will see the change in how you respond to their behavior. Their natural response will be to test you and see what the new limits are.

But even as things get worse, remember that your consistency and determination will win in the end.

Work smarter, not harder

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What to do if you still need more help

Now for the question that been in floating around in the back of your head.

What do I do if it doesn’t work?

You’ve carried out all of these steps but you’re seeing little or no improvement in their behavior.

Perhaps you’re ready to throw in the towel and count down the days till they’re out of your class.

You’re starting to think that perhaps this student just can’t be helped.

Don’t allow yourself to think that way!

When you’re burnt out and frustrated, remind yourself why you became a teacher. Many people go into teaching because of the desire to help students.

So what can you do now?

Get advice.

Collaboration is a key part of teaching. Veteran teachers have a wealth of tried-and-true knowledge and can be a good sounding board.

It also helps to hear someone’s objective opinion. They might help you see the situation in a new light.

It may also be time to set up a conference with the child’s parents and your school counselor.

Parents can provide invaluable information. This could include insights on what triggers their behaviors. Or what strategies work for them at home.

They may even share that something’s happening at home that’ll give you a new perspective.

Just having more information can sometimes make a world of difference.

Seek services for the student like counseling

In addition to getting advice, remember that some kids need more intervention than you can provide.

Don’t be scared to get them that help.

Getting more help for your difficult students doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

It means that you’re doing your best to get them the help they need.

Most importantly, be willing to change your interventions until you find something that does work.

In closing, I’d like you to take a second to picture your most difficult student.

Remind yourself that this child is someone’s little baby, their whole world.

They might be your difficult student for a year, but their problems stay with them.

This has been my biggest take away from my experiences in helping difficult students:

Fixing problem behaviors isn’t about you regaining control, it’s about helping the student.

Imagine them 10 or 15 years from now in high school or as an adult.

What’ll happen if they continue to have these problem behaviors?

Your influence can have a major impact on their life. You can help them break the destructive cycle they’re in and give them a brighter future.

Words to Live By 

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6


  1. Jamee Humberstone says:

    Oh my gosh Michele!! This literally just brought me back to student teaching and how much I struggled with behavior management. These are such great tips and I can remember you sharing these with me. Now, I use them in my own classroom! You’re amazing! Best mentor teacher award goes to you🙌🏽

  2. Pingback: Teaching with Mama Owl - Classroom Management Tips

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