Working with difficult students – Naomi Epstein

 Will The Real Difficult Student Please Stand Up?

— Naomi Epstein

Naomi Epstein

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity”

Albert Einstein

photo by Gil Epshtein

In every class in every year there will always be at least one student whom we would call difficult but difficult is a relative term. The reasons that cause us to feel that a certain student is harder to teach than the other students in the same class are not objective and not even constant. The student you found that most frustrated you (or brought you to a point where you were consciously aware of repressing anger) in one class that you taught, may have nothing in common with the difficult student in another class.

Two years ago, my most difficult student was a very clever girl who constantly interrupted me when I was explaining something on the whiteboard. She either had to inform me at once that her previous teacher had explained it differently (and better!) or needed a clarification question answered without delay.

Last year’s most difficult student was a boy whose sole aim in the classroom seemed to be proving that he had no need for a teacher and didn’t need to pay attention when he so obviously needed help and guidance.

This year my most difficult student is a girl with a constant whine in her voice. In her previous school when she whined enough she was either excused from the task or received a great deal of help.

The really slow learners or the hyperactive student who regularly knocked over the tin of pencils on my desk didn’t make it on my most difficult list. Making sure the hyperactive student had an excuse to move around during the lessons and ensuring the slower learners had support material was a very clear-cut and effective move. It’s those other ones that got under my skin.

So what did I do?

The first two students are still my students, but aren’t on my list anymore. I let off s lot of steam with my colleagues and my supportive husband. I took deep breaths before their lessons and tried to stay patient. I talked to them outside of the lesson. I looked for things I could compliment them on, unrelated to the lesson. But the main thing that happened had to do with time. Eventually, to different degrees, they learned to trust me. I really am trying to help them succeed.  Unfortunately, one can’t rush that realization.

The main thing that happened had to do with time. Eventually, to different degrees, they learned to trust me. I really AM trying to help them succeed. Unfortunately, one can’t rush that realization.

The penny has begun to drop with my  whining student but hasn’t reached that cha ching sound yet. Next year will be so much easier. Of course, then, there will be someone new.

— Naomi Epstein

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Working with difficult students – Vladimira Chalyova

Meeting Everyone’s Needs   — Vladimira Chalyova

I believe in second chances. In fact, I believe in giving second chances for as long as they’re needed. That’s basically my attitude towards difficult students, though I cannot really relate to putting the word difficult next to the word student. For me, such students are either lacking something or have more to give than the teacher is asking them to give.

I am convinced that such students would thrive if they were given enough opportunities to express themselves.  Unfortunately, it’s unlikely they’ll come right out and explain what they need. They might not even realize what they need. That’s why it’s so important to be a careful observer and an active listener.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a good frame of reference.


There’s probably not much you can do to help with the basic physiological needs at the bottom of the pyramid, but you can work to understand where students are coming from and how that might be contributing to classroom behavior.  With such understanding you’ll know that students who are falling asleep aren’t bored. They’re lacking a basic need: sleep, and there’s a reason for that. Talk with them privately learn about their situation and thus avoid misunderstandings. With higher level needs such a love, esteem, and self-actualization you’ll probably find something lacking in every challenging student you encounter. Think about:

  • The way you teach: your beliefs versus their needs and expectations.
  • The atmosphere in the group: is it supportive, safe and friendly?
  • Your own personality: are you always fair, open and understanding?
  • The bigger picture: do students know why they are doing what they’re doing?
  • Space: is there space and time for students to put their personalities into their work.

If I’m able to eliminate issues related to basic needs, I can focus on belonging, esteem and self-actualization by asking myself questions like those in this illustration:

These ideas from John Medina’s book Brain Rules is also a framework:

  1. We can fully concentrate for only 10 minutes. Then it is time to wake up the brain with a break that is somehow related to the topic.
  2. Our brain loves balance so provide a combination of rules and improvisation. Make it clear how things work but give time and space to practice it in various situations.  Don’t let students wander around hopelessly in exercises or feel stupid because they can’t get a rule from context because their brain works differently.
  3. The more senses you involve while learning, the stronger the memory path that is created and I presume the more students will remember. Definitely, learning will be more enjoyable.

By paying attention to brain rules like these  — especially with teens and young adults — we make learning actively purposeful and therefore increase the level of class satisfaction.

Psychologist Ed Diener writes thatpeople evaluate their own lives more highly when others in society also have their needs fulfilled. Thus life satisfaction is not just an individual affair, but depends substantially also on the quality of life of one’s fellow citizens.”

Replace the words lives/life, society and citizen with learning, the class and classmate.

The spirit of a class is as important as the information we pass to our students. If everyone in class is learning happily and needs are being met, challenging students are less likely to be difficult.

~  Vladimira Chalyova

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Working with difficult students – Chuck Sandy

I Am A Hopemonger.  Are You? Chuck Sandy

Our students arrive at school complete and perfectly human. That is to say, they arrive as people in flux. They are on a journey. Our classroom is a stop along the way. It is a privilege to be with them for the time we have been given together and we must make the most of this opportunity.

Some people will have arrived from a pleasant place. Their journey has left them shining. I love these students. Others will have arrived from some place less pleasant. Their journey’s been more challenging. They’d like to shine but are not sure how.  I love these students, too. A few will have arrived from a place that wasn’t pleasant at all. Their journey has left them tired and discouraged. They, too, would like to shine, but have forgotten how. I love them, as well. Then, there are always people who’ve arrived from an awful place. Their journey’s been so hard they’ve come to believe they can’t shine. I love these students most of all.

It’s my job to make everyone shine and I’ll do whatever’s necessary to make that happen. I don’t need to worry about those people who’ve arrived from pleasant places. It’s the ones who’ve come from awful places who are harder to love as they display the destructive strategies they’ve used to get this far. It is how they have survived and they do it perfectly. They are not failures.

My calling is to learn where they came come, what it is they are good at, and who they believe themselves to be. I may have to spend some time on my knees with them. I may even need to hang out with them in the smoking areas, squatting down beside them, but I will do it. I will get them to understand that they have arrived in a good place. I will pace them, build rapport with them, and as I get them to trust me enough, I will model new strategies for them — strategies they can use to replace the ones that are no longer necessary because they have arrived in a good place. None of this is easy, but it is the real work.

The student I love most right now is into dangerous sports, dresses in a style that says I’m scary, and works hard at being an unlovable outsider. Almost all of his teachers have written him off as someone with a bad attitude. They don’t care that he is one of the top BMX riders in Asia. I doubt they know how loyal he is to his crew or about his troubled relationship with his father. I know and I care.

It took a year to find that out, squatting down beside him until I could get him to stand up beside me.

Last semester he was told that because of his bad attitude he wouldn’t be able to join his classmates on a study abroad trip. His first reaction was to drop out of school. I was devastated, but I understood his reasons as he explained them to me. The other day I was so happy to see him on campus. He’s back and when I asked him why, he shrugged and said as he touched my shoulder, “I’ve got friends here. Anyway, how’s your heart? ” Better than ever, I told him.

In his essay Confessions of a Hopemonger, Herbert Kohl writes that “within everyone, no matter how damaged, hostile, or withdrawn, there is some unique constellation of abilities, sensitivities, and aspirations that can be discovered, uncovered, or rescued. The concept of failure has to be eliminated from the mind of the teacher”.  I believe this to be absolutely true.  At the end of the same essay, Kohl confesses: “I am a hopemonger, and I have also been accused of caring too much about students who other teachers have written off. “

I confess. I am a hopemonger, too. Are you?


Working with difficult students – Steven Herder

I wonder if any of you veterans or wise younger teachers feel the same way?

The longer I’m in the classroom, the more that difficult students have morphed from being powerful and disruptive, to being a manageable challenge in the classroom. They used to be able to throw me off my game completely; their stares of disinterest, boredom or defiance wreaked havoc on my delicate teacher identity. Now, more often than not, they end up becoming some of my most memorable students because they are so used to being misunderstood and judged inappropriately, that simply by recognizing that they need something before jumping to judge them, I have a much better success rate than I used to have.

If I were asked to give advice to any younger teachers, I guess I would say the following 5 points:

  1. Never forget the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
  2. Give choices rather than ultimatums.
  3. Be willing to lose a battle, in order to win the war.
  4. Be a teacher; sometimes that means taking a stand when push comes to shove.
  5. Be clear about your expectations, what’s negotiable, and where you draw the lines in your classroom.

Sitting here thinking about advice to that younger teacher, I immediately recalled students and situations that I handled either very well or very poorly. I’d like to offer a little more explanation or an anecdote for each of the 5 points above.

So, if you believe point 1 and approach the classroom from that perspective, I would be willing to bet that you have just eliminated 70% of your potential problems with students.

If you haven’t learned the power in point number 2, try having a child, because nothing has taught me more clearly and repeatedly that (little) people respond better to choices than to threats, than dealing with my own kids. Trying to force my children to eat their dinner, take a bath, or go to bed always ends up in a battle. Negotiating through choices with them works 90% of the time.

Regarding point 3, it took me a long time to learn that it was okay to lose sometimes to an individual or to the whole class. In fact, it was much better to lose sometimes because it empowered my students, gave them more responsibility for their learning, and showed them that life isn’t always about winning, but very often more about how you play the game.

I clearly remember the feeling in point 4 of not taking a stand in a classroom situation with a problem student in one of my early classes. Looking back, I’m sure that everyone knew I would back down if push came to shove. I remember an older teacher simply saying, “You have to be their teacher”. At the time, I had no clue what she meant. Finally, after a number of disheartening classes, I finally confronted one of the ringleaders, not from any preplanned strategy, but simply as my instincts took over. I stood over her desk, and demanded that she turn over her _______ (I can’t remember if it was a comic book, chewing gum, or a gun) but I can remember deciding that I would stand there for as long as it took for her to realize that I was her teacher. Even though it felt like hours, it was in fact some minutes before other students convinced her that I was serious, and nothing else would continue until I got what I had asked for. Things never became great with that class (because I had waited too long to be their teacher), however things definitely did get better. And, a few years later, that student and I got along.

Finally, I can honestly say that I can’t remember the last time I had a student throw me off my game for 2 lessons in a row. Besides getting a little older and a little grayer, I think I have finally learned how to see a problem coming and deal with it before it gets the best of me; the secret to that is in point 5.

I wonder if you can help me increase my list of 5 points of advice to a younger teacher?


Working with difficult students – Vicky Loras

Vicky LorasHow to Give Difficult Students Another Chance… and Another, If They Need It
We have planned the best lesson ever, imagined great things developing in class and then a student turns everything upside down by upsetting the balance. It has happened to all of us.

In my opinion, difficult students fall into two categories: students with discipline issues and students who are hesitant and shy.

Students with discipline issues often refuse to take part in activities and find ways to disrupt the class. This can be equally disruptive for the educator and the other students.

I remember once when teaching a small group of students, one person constantly found ways of disrupting lessons, practically bullied classmates and was always interrupting me. I had to think of ways to approach her without pushing her away. It was very difficult at times. We are human and can get frustrated.

I strongly believe that students causing discipline problems should not be singled out or humiliated in any way in front of the class. It has to be dealt with immediately and privately. Before doing so, we need to clear our heads of anger or frustration before making decisions or saying things we might regret. That will only bring the opposite results and the problem may be left hanging.

I had a teacher who didn’t immediately deal with a classmate who was constantly attacking other students and the teacher himself. The tension lingered in class for days and the environment felt toxic and unproductive. It affected the learning process and the relationships students had with the teacher and each other.

By dealing with a discipline issue immediately we help other students trust us and feel they are all valued – that they are in a safe and calm environment.

For those of us who’ve been a language learner, we know how difficult it can be for students to express their thoughts, particularly in front of the whole class.

I still remember a frightened Vicky in Italian class! I would not utter a single word in class, or if I did, I spoke very quietly. Unfortunately, my teacher did not pay attention to me that much and chose to ignore me rather than help me overcome this issue. From being a teacher, I now understand how hard it can become for the student and the class to function properly; however, we need to help these students feel as comfortable as possible and stress the fact that even if they make mistakes, they are there to learn from us as well as from and with their classmates

Again, as with the student with discipline issues, the hesitant / shy student needs to be spoken to privately and asked where they think they have problems and what they could do to slowly overcome their shyness.  With students who have strong reactions, we need to ensure them that we are there to help and not pressure them or make them feel uncomfortable in any way.

We can have them work alone for the first few lessons, perhaps even write what they would like to say and with their consent read that out to the whole class, remembering to praise them in order for motivation to slowly become more present. Then, we can pair  them with a student they feel comfortable with to work on a collaborative task. Most of the time it works and they blossom into great and brave learners!

We’ll always have difficult students no matter what we do. It’s nobody’s fault. However, we need to make sure we deal with the problems they cause promptly and effectively.  We  also always need to remember that negative moments can be  learning experiences for us and for  students. When we all work together, it can only turn positive!