New Teacher Survival (series) #4: Working with challenging students

Let’s face it, kids are human, and some of them are more easygoing than others. We’ve all had that one kid in our class who knew exactly how to push our buttons and seemed to make it his or her mission to ruin our day. Sound familiar? If not, you are lucky! I have at least one student every year who pushes all the boundaries and tests my seemingly endless patience.

There is definitely a spectrum of bad behaviors and I’ve seen them all. From subtle eye-rolling and forgetting to raise one’s hand, to literal assault and blood-shed. I could write multiple volumes about what works and what doesn’t, but for now I’m going to focus on the low-level, everyday annoyances that can disrupt learning and derail your class on a daily basis.

Just like you have tiers of intervention for academics, think of behavior management as having multiple tiers as well. Tier 1 would be your run-of-the-mill, whole class point system. This is the level that generally keeps things moving along and relies mostly on peer pressure to be successful. Tier 2 is an additional level of behavior support, think star charts for individual students, or weekly communication to parents.

If you feel like you need more behavior support for a particular student, ask yourself a few questions first:

1. Does the disruptive behavior happen at a particular time, or during certain types of activities?

If you can identify what is causing the behavior to happen, you are halfway to solving the problem. If you can determine that a student is bored, struggling, or having a hard time at home, you can try and adjust your teaching or help them in another way. Preventing the behavior from happening is better than constantly doling out consequences.

2. Does the student respond to positive reinforcement?

If so, try to capitalize on this. Give praise every time they do something right, even if it feels excessive. Make sure your positive comments are more frequent than the negative. Using a classroom management tool like ClassDojo is great for this, because you can actually see the breakdown of positive to negative feedback for each student.

3. Is their family supportive of your efforts?

If so, try to communicate with them frequently. The most powerful tool you have to improve student behavior is a good working relationship with their family.

4. Still not improving?

Don’t reinvent the wheel! My first year, I had four different students on four different behavior plans which was almost impossible to maintain. If you need to implement a behavior plan, use your existing structure, and focus on 2-3 behaviors at most. For example, if you use ClassDojo, or another point system, come up with a contract that states how many points for a specific behavior a student must receive each day or week to earn a prize. The prize doesn’t have to be fancy, it should be something that is easy for you to provide on a weekly basis. It also helps immensely if there is a reward at home as well. Your student should help design their behavior plan. Students are much more likely to buy in if they’ve had a voice in its creation.

Like I said before, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to behavior issues, but this is a good place to start!


This is Part 4 of a 4 part series by Emily Dahm. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here