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Dealing with Difficult Students

Should two or three ‘difficult’ students take up most of an educator’s time? On the days when these students are absent, or pulled from class, everything seems to go smoothly. Teaching is fun; everyone seems more relaxed — no interruptions.  When they’re in class, though, they make a teacher want to pull his/her hair out. Moreover, the frustrations we feel when dealing with difficult students everyday can also cause us to make mistakes.  So, how do we avoid the most common pitfalls, and turn ‘difficult’ students (regulars) into valued members of the classroom?

Most teachers scream at difficult students (those with a proclivity for misbehavior) way too often.  However, spending more time on them than other students is a sign we’re not curbing their behavior, and it’s not fair to the rest of the class.  The correlation between the amount of time spent on difficult students and a worsening of their behavior is that by giving difficult students more time and attention than others, we’re telling them that they’re different, that they can’t control themselves and thus will always need our constant attention.  Example:  “Oh gosh, I have Josue on my roster. It’ll be a long year – he needs so much attention!” No student needs extra attention, but because of some teachers, they think they do.  No teacher should spend precious minutes of every day cajoling, admonishing, lecturing, or getting angry with any student, and indulging in their ever-growing need for attention.  Rather, we need to fuel the intrinsic motivation of difficult students!

In the name of encouragement, we give difficult students false praise often.  But, that brings no lasting improvement to difficult behavior.  Rather, we need to be brutally honest with them.  Difficult students will never benefit from being coddled or from being told “nice” things.  Yet, some educators do just that, and don’t “tell it like it is”.  Example:  Josue, a behavior problem for all teachers, should not be praised on days when he’s less talkative, or hasn’t been sent to the Principal or Guidance Counselor. Teachers should not tell Josue he’s doing a “great job, and good work” on those days.  That is wrong!  Required behavior is not “good work” — not when measured by a standard of behavior that is required of all students for success in school.

False praise is never appropriate classroom management strategy.  Encouraging difficult students is important; but if the encouragement does not match the reality, it is not effective. There is no meaning in puffery, and deep down all students know it.  Praise not based on the truth is no praise.  False praise lowers the bar.  It tells students that not only is mediocre enough, it’s celebrated. When the standard for earning praise is low, students will no longer have any motivation to go any higher.  Moreover, receiving empty, dishonest praise communicates to difficult students that they’re incapable of behaving in a manner equal to their well-behaved peers.

Sadly, if students can get a pat on the back from us for minimal effort, they’ll work that knowledge to get all the attention whenever they need it—making them feel special, even haughty, in front of their classmates.  It will encourage more devilish behavior.  False praise contributes nothing to real, sustained improvement. It merely nudges students to make a temporary bounce from where they are… to slightly, tantalizingly, better. When the buzz from meaningless praise wears off, they’re right back where they started.

Some educators think that difficult students can never be capable of becoming well behaved.  That’s not true!  All students have the capacity to change, to overcome, and reinvent themselves.  We should never think, “it’s the best that student can do.”  Our limiting beliefs not only deeply affects ‘difficult’ students, it also affects what we are capable of doing:  bringing out the best in each student.

We should always give students honest assessments of where they are, behaviorally and academically.  Then, we help them create a clear vision of how they can climb their way up.  But, if we tell difficult students that they’re doing well, when in reality they’re not, we lighten their load and ease their burden of disrupting the classroom.  They will continue to break school rules and interfere with learning, making it a virtual guarantee that such behavior will continue.  On the other hand, being straight with difficult students ensures that there is no confusion:  poor behavior is not welcome in the classroom!  No educator should ever have to plead with a student to behave, or offer praise for minimal effort.  Our commitment to always being honest with students has a powerful and influential side effect: it adds valuable meaning to praise and encouragement when given.  Truth provides meaning.

To summarize, we should NOT spend more time with difficult students:  questioning them or forcing explanations from them, arguing with them, or lecturing and scolding them.  That will only make them dislike us and negates the effects of accountability.  It also opens floodgates and encourages everyone else to want to argue with us, and guarantees that difficult behavior will worsen.  Instead of giving them false praise, ignoring their behavior, or wasting time on them, we should try to gain their respect and trust and help them change their behavior by motivating them to look inward, self-evaluate, and want to succeed.  Once we help them to improve their academic performance we will profoundly impact their lives.  If they keep breaking rules, then we should keep enforcing the consequences.  Difficult students need to be treated the same as everyone else, before they will seek to be contributing members of the classroom.

Author’s Note:
These articles are in no way, whatsoever, intended to be comprehensive or complete.  They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable (and intriguing) discussion.  Why discuss/ review students’ learning capabilities and our current methods of trying to educate them? Educators, students, parents, and our community can learn from one another.  I have the greatest respect and admiration for all educators, especially in Belize!

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