We’ve all had the experience of that student whom we found difficult to deal with: maybe it was because they refused to play ball and participate in what you had planned for the class; or maybe it was because they were not being respectful towards the other students; or perhaps it was because you felt that their presence often pulled the mood down in the class. Whatever the reason, that one student can often be the difference between you looking forward to going to work and dreading it.

I remember a student that many teachers in my school were complaining about. He had a tendency of disrupting classes, not paying attention to what was going on, as well as having a knack of saying and doing inappropriate things at the most inappropriate times. When he was put into my class, I was repeatedly warned and so I had the benefit of being able to consider my plan of action.

On the first day of the class, I roped him into helping me with a number of tasks: from giving out worksheets to being the group leader in a small task. When he demonstrated he’d made an effort or when he tried to perform a task well, I’d praise him, sometimes quite publicly in front of the other students. When he used an English phrase particularly well, I’d ask him to model it again for the other students, and I’d drill them to say it like he did. Within a day, his behaviour transformed and he became pretty much a model student.

I’m of course in no way suggesting that all students with challenging behaviour can be turned around so swiftly and easily … There is no doubt that every individual and every case is different and there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to all of them. However, in my many years of teaching, I have found that these five ways have worked well for me, and hopefully, they might for you too.

  1. Praise their efforts and their achievements
    A management consultant I once worked with told me that one of the most common reasons for workplace stress is in fact not the workload or the nature of the work, but the lack of appreciation and praise. Having said that, I’m not suggesting for one second that we indulge our students in meaningless and empty praises! Don’t just praise good results either. Praise them for trying and for persisting … and for employing good strategies to solve problems. Praise them for learning from their mistakes, too. In other words, cultivate a growth mindset in your praise.

  2. Ask them for help
    There is something psychologically powerful about being asked for help, especially when that request comes from someone of a higher status or an authority figure. It inherently suggests that you are needed and that you possibly have something that they don’t. The strangest thing about this power is it often makes you feel compelled to play ball and be of service. So try asking your challenging student for help. It just might get them on your side.

  3. Give them responsibilities
    If your student is behaving in a challenging way because they feel underappreciated or insecure, entrust them with a task that will make them feel proud - one that will show them what they are capable of. Make them the class/group’s team leader, get them to be in charge of something e.g. a presentation or an event, or have them mentor a weak or shy classmate. Not unlike #2, by giving them responsibilities, we are empowering them and showing them that they are worth more than they might know.

  4. Ensure students are clear about your expectations of them in the classroom
    What, in your opinion, are the responsibilities of a student? Does that include turning up to class on time? Doing their homework? Not replying to social media messages during lessons? Active participation and cooperation during group work? How can you ensure that everyone in your class is on the same page when it comes to these expectations?

    Consider talking through your expectations and their responsibilities at the start of a course. Get the students themselves to draw up a list of class rules that they find reasonable. You could even make a contract with the students and have them agree to a set of rules that they would like to try to operate by. Have them sign the contract and stick it on the classroom wall to remind them what they’d agreed to. In this way, no one can turn around and say that they didn’t know what their responsibilities were.

  5. Mirror their body language
    We tend to like people who are like us. And this might even take place on a very subconscious level. By copying someone’s sitting position, posture, gestures, facial expressions and/or tone of voice, we can subconsciously signal to the other person that we are on the same wavelength and share the same values and attitudes. NLP practitioners believe that by mirroring the body language of the people we are facing, we can create rapport and even win over people who might start off the relationship with a more defensive position.

I’m aware that many of my readers deal with younger learners and so it’s important to specify that I tend to teach adults, and my youngest students tend to be in their late teens. The methods one might use to deal with challenging adult behaviour might (arguably) be different from those used with younger learners, and so what I’ve written above might or might not apply to your context.

In my next blogpost (which you can find here!), I’ll be looking at five more ways of dealing with students that demonstrate challenging behaviour. In the meantime, share with us your experience in the comments section below!