Keep Your Cool: Tips for Handling Difficult Students

Keep Your Cool: Tips for Handling Difficult Students

Imagine this: you are trying to give a lesson on the past progressive tense.

You stand up at the white board talking about agreement between the subject and the helping verb and that this tense is used to describe a continuous action that was happening at a specific point in the past. While most students are listening and concentrating, a child in the back taps his pencil, kicks his feet against the desk, leans back in his chair and then falls over on to the ground. With the clatter from the back come laughs from the front of the classroom, an end zone style dance from the student in question and a complete loss of concentration about any facet of English grammar. What is an ESL teacher to do?

Almost every teacher has had a difficult student in one class or another, and some of us are lucky enough to have one in every class.

Though we want to be good teachers and be sensitive to our students, having a difficult student in class is confusing and frustrating for us. We want to give our student the best education that we can, but we do not want to condone misbehavior and disruption. If you find yourself in this situation now or in the future, take heart. Here are some tips for handling difficult students that will help you teach better and enable them learn better at the same time.

It’s Not About You

  1. Though it may be a tough thing to hear, the first step is to remember it is not about you. As a teacher, you are there to educate, guide and help your students. You are not there to have a captive audience hanging on your every word. We teachers sometimes have to shift our focus and remember why we started teaching in the first place. It is so easy to be caught up in our natural patterns as a teacher, especially when they have been effective up until this point. Having difficult students reminds us that we, too, need challenges and changes in our teaching style. If you can germinate the attitude in yourself that you can always improve, always learn, always find some way to be a better teacher, teaching a challenging student becomes an opportunity rather than a chore. Use the situation to your advantage to refine and deepen your craft as a teacher. All of your students, both current and future, will benefit from it.

Take a Closer Look

  1. Ann, a special education teacher, gives this advice when dealing with a difficult student. “Read your students.” What she means is to pay attention to facial expression and body language as you teach. Challenge yourself to spend more time facing your students than you do the white board. Look at them and notice the difficulty coming before it hits you and your classroom in full force. As you do this, pay attention to why the misbehavior is beginning. Sometimes students are not challenged. They may be a quick learner and find themselves bored before the lesson is over. They may be a struggling student who has not understood previous lessons and is giving up on this one as well. There may be a learning disability coming into play. If you suspect this, talk to an expert on the signs of and solutions for different learning disabilities. Another reason they may be acting up is because of a cultural issue of which you may not be aware. All of these situations and more can make class hard to handle for both you and your student. Take heart, teacher. There are things you can do to make things easier on you both.

Change It Up

  1. Group work can be the most effective way of engaging under and over performing students. Pair your most advanced students with those who are struggling. In this, your advanced student will become more of a teacher, challenging her to explain and learn the material better. Your struggling student gets individual attention and, perhaps, a different explanation of the concept being taught. Sometimes, too, a student with the same native language as the one who is challenging may be able to explain something in way in which it is easier for the challenging student to understand. Though you are the teacher, you do not have to make all the learning happen solely by your hand. Use the resources you have in other students to reach the ones you are having difficulty reaching.
  2. You can also change things up by breaking out of your curriculum when necessary to challenge students who are beyond what today’s schedule says to teach. There is nothing wrong with assigning special projects to advanced students or letting them work at their own pace even if it is beyond where the class is. When a student is not challenged in class, it is not uncommon for that student to exhibit behavioral problems. A student who is challenged, on the other hand, will be more cooperative and tolerant when the class is studying something he understood long before that time.
  3. Getting physical is another great way to help students who have difficulty sitting and paying attention to a whole lesson. When a student starts fidgeting, it is time to get your students up and moving. If you can, relate some physical action to whatever you are teaching. Use Simon Says to teach the grammar of commands. Have a student follow your instructions and move about the room. Do partnering activities where students must move their desks or walk to another area of the room. Anything you can do to engage the body with the mind will help these students be more attentive and absorbent to what you are teaching. Even if you cannot relate something physical to what you are teaching, take a seventh inning stretch to make the final part of the lesson more accessible.

There are many ways to help engage students who may have behavior issues. The most important thing to remember is not to take it personally.

Students do not refuse to engage because they do not want to learn. If you can find the underlying issue behind the disruptive behavior, you can tailor your lessons or assignments to best meet your students’ needs. As a teacher, you do not always have to do things by the book. In fact, the best teachers are often the ones who do not.

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