Mindfulness & Wellbeing

10 Effective Approaches for Reaching Difficult Students

Succeed at teaching difficult students with these approaches.

Students come in all shapes and sizes, ages, cultures, and demographics. However, like any other person, they can sometimes be difficult to reach for any number of reasons. Whether it be a learning disability, hardship, or trauma, they require extra effort and attention. 

Luckily the master teacher can wade through all the challenging behaviour and succeed at reaching difficult students with ease.

Congratulations to you for taking on their cause—it may be the best thing you’ll ever do as a teacher. To help you out, we’re suggesting 10 guidelines here that you can use for reaching difficult students. What follows is an amalgamation of advice gleaned from personal experience, advice from experts, and from other teachers themselves.

The 10 Commandments of Reaching Difficult Students

You’ll recognize some like Ross Greene, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Carol Dweck, and Stephen Covey, as well as timeless advice from ages past and present.

1. Keep Calm and Breathe

You may find that this is the best thing you can do first and foremost. The benefits of deep breathing are many. If you can master the art of breathing through your blood boiling, you can diffuse your own anger during challenging situations. 

Pro-Tip: Breathing cold air through the nostrils awakens a part of the brain that creates good feelings. It wakes you up and breaks you out of the moment.

2. Give Voice to Feelings

The secret to reaching difficult students is getting to the root behaviour that creates a wall. Once you're there, you can take down that wall and understand that there are feelings behind the behaviour which may be irrational. This is also called the Empathy step.

Pro-Tip: If a challenging student can voice their own feelings, all the better, but they might need some help. You might start with stating what you observe: “I see you’re having difficulty.” Then ask leading questions like, “Can you tell me why?” Viewing  the situation through their eyes and affirming their feelings builds trust.

3. Don’t Use Labels 

Calling children lazy, bad, rude, or ADHD does nothing to resolve difficulties. If we want to succeed at reaching difficult students, we must remove any and all labels of any kind.

Imagine you’re having difficulty with a student with challenging behaviour. Rather than giving you tools or skills to work on, your principal simply docks your pay. They then proceed to dress you down in front of your peers, calling you “incompetent.” Would you feel as though you had been heard and understood? Would anything be solved?

Rather than scolding and shaming, state the problem as you would a math problem:

“I see a lot of juice on the floor. Juice on the floor can make people slip and hurt themselves. I care about everyone and don’t want anyone to get hurt. What can we do in the future to prevent such a thing happening? What can we do now?”

4. Step Outside the Moment

When pinpointing lagging skills, come up with ways to them outside of the situation. Let’s say the child has difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, and novelty. This manifests itself as they freak out when you change plans on them or switch unexpectedly from one task to another.

Pro-Tip: Think about ways that they can practice handling unpredictability outside of the situation, at another time. This is another step in getting at root causes and establishing useful tools that can be applied to similar challenging situations.

5. Avoid “Win-Lose” Situations

Give up the power struggle when working on reaching difficult students. “Do this, or else” sends a scared cat into the corner, ready to pounce, presenting even more challenging behaviour.

6. Keep It Private

Speak to a child about their troublesome behaviour in private, away from peers. This shows respect by not wanting them to lose face or be embarrassed in front of their friends. It also gives you time to address concerns you both may have and results in a collaborative effort instead of a power play.

7. Document Everything

This doesn’t mean building a rap sheet on a student. Instead, it’s about recording observations regarding the child in order to get at root causes. Again, certain lagging skills will manifest themselves very predictably.

Pro-Tip: Make note of it, and when it comes time to collaborate with parents and the student about strategies for solving the problem, you have ample documentation to help solve the puzzle. Documenting should not be for the goal of being “out to get them”—it’s evidence and clues for assuring mutual success.

8. Use Empowering Language

In the interest of fostering independence, use language that promotes an intelligence that has the capacity to grow. By getting them to see that their abilities are not fixed by an oversimplified label (“he’s smart”, “she’s not”) you teach a growth mindset that empowers them to change their own lives.

Avoid unwarranted praise, but say, “I like how you persevered to the end. Your brain hurts because it’s growing.”

9. The Fewer the Words, the Better

Sometimes reaching difficult students just means moving to their space or making eye contact with a smile. Maybe pose a question to jolt them out of their daydreaming or conversation. Take an indirect route, so they don’t feel as if you’re singling them out.

10. Remember How You Were

You didn’t know how to do something in the past, but since you were taught, now you know. Remember also that someone had the patience and compassion to spend that time with you. Students are all like this in varying degrees.

Some need help socially. Some have physical difficulties and many are more sensitive about them than others. If you keep this in mind, you will become a master at reaching difficult students. Your ability to bring students who don’t normally want to come will multiply ten-fold.

If you can make a difference in one child’s life out of the many who find schooling easy, your efforts will have been worth it.