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Classroom Management Tips for Handling Difficult Students

Janelle Cox

Using classroom management to reach and teach difficult students who act out is not an easy feat. In fact, even the most experienced teachers have a hard time using classroom management to handle this type of student. Research shows that using compassionate discipline, which is using a variety of tools to intervene with student misbehavior in a sympathetic manner, can help even the most challenging students. This classroom management strategy, combined with empathy and not seeing yourself as a failure when you are unable to fully reach every child, is an effective quality to help you get through these challenging times. Here are a few more ways to deal with difficult students who tend to act out in your classroom.

Classroom Management: Understand the Student Will Test You

The students who are disruptive and who act out are usually the children who have made bad choices in the past and who have learned that adults may not be trustworthy, so says research. These children may or may not come from broken homes where the adults in their life have abandoned them or have disappointed them in the past. They hope there is one adult out there that they can trust so they test you, and they continue to test you time and time again. This is where the disruption in the classroom comes out, as the student watches to see how you will respond to his behavior. Most of the time they are expecting you to fail, but sometimes you may pass their test. If you are lucky to do so, then you may get tested again and again just to see if they can break you.

What you need to do is understand that this cycle is happening, and that these types of students will test you over and over again. Most of the time they are not doing it intentionally, because they have been down this road before and most adults probably haven’t passed their test, so they are still looking for that one adult who will take them under their wing and really understand them. Instead of being complacent with the way things are, waiting patiently for the year to end so they can be another teacher’s problem, try taking the time to get to get to know them and really understand them. Realize that they will test you and you can still be an effective teacher that can reach them.

Always be Consistent

You have heard this time and time again, that consistency in anything that you do is key to being successful. Whether it be in relation to your classroom procedures or how you run your classroom, you always need to be consistent in order for anything to be effective. The same idea goes for dealing with a difficult student who is always acting out in your class. If you are inconsistent with your rules and expectations for the student, then there is a very little chance of their behavior ever improving. If you want things to change, then do not have vague expectations and be inconsistent with your rules. You must always be constant in relation to everything that you do in the classroom, especially when it comes to dealing with a student who is acting out.

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Create a Structured Environment

Many difficult students come from an unstructured, and oftentimes unkempt, home. It is important that you create a learning environment that is clean, structured and organized because it will help to represent a sense of order that the student is not getting at home. A well-kept classroom offers these types of students a safe atmosphere where they feel comfortable and valued. There is less of a chance for a difficult student to act out in a structured learning environment, than an unstructured one.

Offer a Choice

The last thing that you probably would think to do is to offer a difficult student a choice, but by doing so you are showing the student that his/her choice will depend upon their consequence. They will quickly learn that every choice that they make, whether good or bad, has a consequence, and that they can change the outcome by making the correct choice. If they choose to make a bad decision, just know that it was their choice and you too have to deal with it. If they choose to resist, then it is on them, not you.

Be Kind and Compassionate

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, compassionate discipline is an effective way to intervene with a difficult student because being sympathetic can lead to a change in behavior. An example of this comes from a kindergarten teacher who was having a very difficult time with one of her little boys in class. This boy in particular would act out repeatedly, and no matter what the teacher did, he would not falter. So one day she decided to show him some compassion and brought in his favorite book to read to the class. She also found out that he was really into baseball, so she correlated every lesson to fit in with a baseball theme that day. The result was amazing -- this little boy did not act out the whole day. This example is not meant to suggest that you have to bribe a child or even correlate all of your lessons around the child, it is meant to show that taking the time to get to know the student who is having a difficult time in class can really go a long way. Being kind and having compassion can help a child who doesn’t receive this kind of treatment at home.

Struggling teachers handling difficult students sometimes hold to the belief that all students, regardless if they are good or badly behaved, should automatically show them respect because they are an authority figure. While this may hold true in some aspects, respect goes both ways and it earned over a period of time. Defiance and disrespect is usually just another test from the student and overtime it can be overcome.

Do you have any tips on how to handle difficult students who act out in the classroom? What types of situations have occurred in your classroom and how did you handle it? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below, we would love to hear what you have to say.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for, as well as a contributing writer to and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators.

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