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Dealing With Challenging Students in the Classroom

Updated: May 1, 2023

Most educators identify “making a difference in a child’s life” as one of the main reasons for becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, this goal is not as simple as one may think. Many teachers feel defeated due to the amount of problematic behaviors they are forced to deal with on a daily basis. The type of behavior problems that are the most prevalent and possibly the most detrimental to the educational atmosphere are called low-level disturbances (minor infractions). Low-level disturbances include behaviors such as: side bar conversations, not following directions, not completing tasks, speaking out during instruction, using cell phones, being disengaged, sleeping, and making rude or discourteous statements to the teacher and peers. Whereas principals use in school suspension, out of school suspension, and expulsion for hostile and violent offenses (major infractions), low-level disruptive behaviors are not threatening enough to necessitate being sent to the office, removed from class or dismissed from school. Consequently, dealing with low-level disruptions falls at the feet of the teacher.

Low-level disturbances cause teachers to spend a significant amount of time refocusing their attention from instruction to dealing with misbehavior, resulting in a loss of instructional time. Often teachers become frustrated because they feel ill-equipped to deal with these behaviors and overburdened by the number of incidents they are faced with daily. Further, many teachers assume misbehavior originates at home [parents] and cannot be fixed in the classroom. Unfortunately, some teachers learn to accept these low-level disruptive behaviors as “part of everyday life in the classroom.” However, learning to tolerate low-level, disruptive behaviors is not a solution to the issue. Teachers must have strategies in place to reduce and diminish problem behaviors within their classrooms. Then and only then will they be able to successfully help all students achieve.

We have all heard the Benjamin Franklin axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Benjamin Franklin was speaking about the importance of being prepared to prevent fires when he spoke these words. The same is true for classroom management. Preventing disturbances is a major component of classroom management, and the more preemptive the teacher can be using proactive strategies, the less likely he/she will be to encounter problem behaviors. Please do not be misguided, even the most seasoned, experienced teacher with a thorough well-thought-out plan will be challenged with misbehaviors from time to time. The key is that effective classroom managers will work relentlessly to address students’ misbehaviors in a professional, mutually respectful way that holds the offending student accountable while minimizing disruptions to learning.

Below are seven strategies to help teachers deal with challenging students.

1. To Thine Own Self Be True

Developing and practicing self-awareness is one of the most important things teachers can do to improve their classroom management skills. Effective classroom managers must be aware of their emotional intelligence and how they react when confronted with disrespectful or defiant behaviors. If teachers want to be taken more seriously by students, they must first look inward to examine themselves, their actions and their words. Often teachers, especially newer teachers, undermine their own authority without realizing it, and then wonder why they are not more respected.

2. Relationships: The Most Important “R”

Since the inception of high stakes testing, educators in America’s public schools have focused their efforts on the 3Rs – Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Unfortunately, the most important R - Relationships has been forgotten. Positive teacher-student relationships are the linchpin to preventing disruptive behaviors and distractions in the classroom. When students and teachers trust and respect each other, fewer classroom management issues will occur.

3. Winners Plan Ahead

Planning begins with a careful assessment of all the circumstances a teacher might encounter during his/her instruction. Planning provides teachers with an opportunity to envision the learning they want to occur and analyze how all of the pieces of the lesson fit together. Planning helps to improve the teacher’s confidence. When teachers are confident, they inspire more respect from their students, thereby reducing discipline problems and helping the students to feel more relaxed and open to learning.

4. The Best Way to Win Is Not to Fight

Ancient Chinese general, strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu believed winning a war, or anything in life, was best accomplished without firing a single shot. Teachers should use proactive, preventive strategies to create and maintain an environment conducive to students’ learning and academic achievement.

5. Classroom Etiquette (Do... Don't... and How...)

A critical component of an effective classroom management plan is establishing and enforcing classroom rules and routines. These rules and routines establish the behavioral framework of the classroom by specifying what behaviors are expected of students, what behaviors will be reinforced, and the consequences for inappropriate behaviors. However, simply creating a list of rules and routines is not enough. The most effective classroom managers actively teach and provide opportunities for students to practice the rules and routines, using concrete hands-on activities from the beginning of school and throughout the year.

6. Expert Positioning

Effective teachers have an awareness about what is going on in all areas of their classroom and have a quick response to actual and possible disruptions. These teachers know, and their students know they know, what students are doing at all times. It has been said that they have “eyes in the back of their heads” because they know what misbehaviors are occurring, when they are occurring, and who the perpetrators are. By scanning the classroom and making frequent eye contact with students, teachers can often anticipate the inappropriate behaviors before they actually happen.

7. What You Ignore Sometimes You Empower

Teachers are often advised to ignore behaviors they want to extinguish. While ignoring behaviors is an effective strategy, teachers must know which behaviors to ignore and which behaviors to address. Simply put, ignoring behaviors may teach students what not do but it does not teach them what they should do instead.


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1 Comment

Very interested in the recommendation to develop relationships. I work with beginning teachers and as they develop I hear them mention this more and more. Authentic relationships build on trust established over time.

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