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Helping Difficult Students

By Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant

As the new school year begins many educators try to be proactive in anticipation of “difficult” students.  Before the first bell rings on the first day of school, teachers have already perused their new roster of students to look for any whose reputation precedes them.  New teachers check with last year’s teachers on “who to watch for”. Each new and returning teacher scrutinizes student names and begins preparing ways to deal with them — before the students even enter a classroom.

When “difficult” students show up on the first day of school, they feel each teacher’s intense eyes. They sense the attention and intensity from new and returning teachers, and feel being labeled right from day one.  Experience, and human nature, shows that when a student feels labeled, he/she seems drawn inexorably in its direction to fulfill the prophecy that label foretells.  To ensure that this doesn’t happen in our classroom, and to help “difficult” students get started in the right direction, let’s help them to feel like a true member of the classroom, not like someone who every teacher is “watching out for”.  By seeing them in a new way we help them to see themselves in a new way.

Demerits or suspensions may eliminate a difficult student from class or school.  But will they “fix” or replace difficult behavior?  We need to motivate and encourage students to replace old habits with new and better behaviors.  Start the new school year with positive behavior patterns, not by setting a student’s life on “autopilot” from day one!  Teenagers need role models to show them how NOT to automatically take the path of least resistance and revert back to old behaviors.  They need all the guidance and encouragement they can get to take control of their confusing lives.  Many students hoard unexpressed anger which then leads to improperly expressed anger.  (A guidance counselor will help a student to pinpoint sources of anger.)  We encourage a student to build accepting and connecting relationships with peers and teachers by first accepting him/her.  
A student with a difficult reputation who is told on the first day to sit in the front of the room, and “be seen but not heard”, may think:  “I can’t leave the mistakes and failures of last year behind!  Here we go again! I might as well give this teacher what he/she expects.”  Teenagers are smarter than most of us realize.  They may be lagging behind in English or Math, but they’ll pick up on nuances in a teacher’s behavior like a primatologist.  Any extra attention and frequent check-ins will communicate loudly and clearly to them, “Got my eyes on you”.  Certainly, no teacher wants to create a distrustful relationship with a student from day one.

So, let’s make every effort to not address difficult students differently than we do others.  When we smile and chat with a “good” student, let’s not change our face and raise (or drop) our voice to address a difficult student.  That means, “I am stuck with you in my class, but I don’t believe in you — I expect you to misbehave since that’s all you can do.”

Let’s shy away from telling difficult students on day one, “I will NOT allow you to repeat previous behavior problems in my class!“  This threat may intimidate a student into being quiet for a while, but it also undermines our ability to build rapport. It puts us at odds and in competition with the student – who will then really want to push buttons to get under our skin and misbehave.  An even more damaging (and common) strategy is to ignore less disruptive behavior from difficult students.  Unfortunately, they’ll see this as:  “I’m not like everybody else so I might as well misbehave, act silly, and be a distraction.”   Instead, from day one let’s encourage new and positive behaviors/habits in all students to help them control themselves.  Let’s treat difficult students like everyone else in the class – same consequence for anyone who misbehaves, and same praise always.

Let’s make every effort to NOT treat difficult students differently than their classmates, or employ strategies, tactics, and teacher behaviors meant only for bad girls/boys.  When we do, in effect we’re saying to them:  “You’re incapable of behaving like a normal student.”  So, let’s try to not label a student from day one with the message that misbehaving is all he/she knows to do.  Declaring loudly in class that we have our eyes on them sets them up for failure. No one wants another frustrating, here-we-go-again school year.  No one wants a clown in the classroom, who takes nothing seriously and has no care for tomorrow.  We help difficult students, from day one, by showing them through our actions and our commitment that we hold them to the same soaring standards as everyone else . . . that we believe in them.

Author’s Note:  I salute the dedicated SPHS teachers and school administrators who support and assist (try to save) “difficult” students!

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