Teaching Challenging Students

Teaching students with problems can be one of the most difficult tasks that you will ever face in any profession, especially if you have a classroom full of difficult students.  Many teachers go into the classroom thinking that they will be the next “Freedom Writers” or “Dangerous Minds” teacher who gets all of the reluctant learners from the inner-city to become superb students and citizens.  Unfortunately, the movies do not give justice to how difficult it actually is to reach a classroom full of students with discipline issues.  There are some tricks, though, that the movies do not explicitly give, and no, it is not Hollywood magic.

First of all, you need to spend a lot of time building relationships with and between the students. You need to play games to get to know each other, and while you are playing these games, enforce the structures that you want set up in your classroom.  If you want students to ask before they leave their seats, enforce this over and over again.  Maybe even have candy as a reward for the first few games.  Do as many activities as you can that are relevant to building relationships and classroom structure.  The students need to feel like they have a voice in your classroom, and that the classroom is in fact, not your classroom, but yours and the students’.  For some great ideas on how to implement activities that build your classroom rapport and structure, try to get your school to order some copies of Making Learning REAL: Reaching and Engaging All Learners in Secondary Classrooms by Carol Miller Lieber. This book has a whole month worth of ideas and many activities and ways to set up your classroom in the structured way that students with behavior issues need.

During this time, use the activities as an opportunity to get to know your students.  Find some common ground with them, whether it be televisions shows, movies, music, or maybe a sport.  Joke with them, but not sarcastically or rudely.  Let students work in groups together on non-academic activities to get to know each other.  The non-academic activities allow everyone to feel comfortable and not threatened by anyone’s ability or inability. You need to make a point of talking to every student.  Every student needs to feel liked and feel noticed, especially if you are working with students that are inclined to have challenging behavior issues.

As you proceed through the year, you will continue to do activities that connect everyone in the room and make sure that your students are personally invested in what happens.  Of course, as time goes on, you will sprinkle more and more content-based lessons into your class periods.  You cannot feel guilty about being slow to get to this, because if you set up your classroom right, the quality of the learning in your class will be much higher than it would have been otherwise.  When you teach your lessons, make sure that you built in a variety of activities.  Students need to talk and move around.  Students need to have social time as well.  If you have long periods, give students breaks.  Of course, you would have to teach and practice the breaks early on so that students are clear on the expectations of the break. Some kids may bore very quickly if all they do is sit and listen.  To keep students engaged and to make sure that the classroom is not redundant and meets all students’ needs, try to get a hold of a copy of  Win-Win Discipline by Spencer Kagan, Patricia Kyle, and Sally Scott.  This book is relevant for elementary and secondary classrooms and offers ways to structure cooperative learning and how to deal with discipline in an objective way that teaches kids responsibility.

Ultimately, if you have a classroom full of students with discipline issues, then you will still have to take further steps.  You have to be very dedicated to your profession in order to reach a classroom full of reluctant learners.  Give these kids a chance, and get them involved in the community.  Try to find some field trips that they can go on that are relevant to what they are learning.  Do this early on, before major discipline issues break out, because the students will then be more likely to want to prove themselves.  They will become engaged and care about your class early on. If you need funding, do fundraisers.  Your challenging students will also have to get permission slips, and even though you might be nervous about this, they tend to remember permission slips about a thousand times better than they remember their homework. Giving disengaged and behaviorally-challenged students a chance to do something outside of class can really reform some of the kids that you never thought you could reach.  You might even give them some choices on possible field trips.  Include them in on the planning and maybe even explain the expenses, so they have fund raising goals in mind.  Let them make some of the necessary phone calls using their cell phones.   Even have some of your shy or less articulate students make the phone calls. You can discuss as a class what the student (s) should say.  This gives the class ownership of doing something exciting.  Field trips and/or outside of school activities are one of the best ways to hook students who would normally not care about your class at all.  Try doing things like this as much as possible.  Some of the students that have issues at school grow up in neighborhoods where they do not get to know anything else besides that neighborhood.  If you give them a chance to see other things and experience the world outside of school and their neighborhood a bit more, than apathy might just change over to hope and engagement.

If you are a teacher that is currently working with a large group of challenging students, then you have your hands full.  No matter what, though, it is so important to not take things personally, be patient, have integrity, be the adult, and care for and like your students.  This may seem cliché, but if you are disgusted at the thoughts of your class, your students will know.  Kids pick up on things very easily, and your distaste for them will backfire on you.  The kids with the most problems need acceptance and patience from adults.  Most of all, they need to be given a chance.