If you have one or more difficult students in your class this year, then the first week of school is especially important.
You have one chance to set them on the right track from the beginning.
—Which is far easier than trying to coax them there over time.
Or worse, trying to undo a failed approach come October.
So what follows are six critical first-week-of-school strategies for your most challenging students.
1. Pretend they’re just another member of your class.
Focusing on difficult students, checking in on them, using proximity with them, and otherwise spending more time with them than your other students are all forms of labeling.
They look around and know they’re being treated differently, which makes them feel different and confirms what they’ve learned from the teachers before you:
That “behavior problem” is who they are and something they can do little about.
2. Assume they can meet your class expectations.
When you treat challenging students like everyone else, they tend to behave like everyone else. Thus, it’s important that you assume that they’re just as capable of following rules.
This will affect your subconscious behavior, keep you from labeling them by mistake, and send the message that you believe in them.
This is the first step in rehabilitating their self-worth and redefining the image they have of themselves. Once they begin to believe they’re capable, improvement comes fast.
3. Withhold excessive praise.
Difficult students have been praised so often and for so long that it’s lost all its meaning. Perhaps more than anything else, it tells them that they can’t do it.
They’re smart enough to realize that being the only student to get an enthusiastic “Way to go!” for pushing in their chair isn’t a complement. It’s insulting and limits their potential.
Make a point of not praising any student for common expectations. When you do praise, make it worthy and subtle, as if you expect more of the same.
4. Enforce quickly and move on.
Never tiptoe around difficult students or be fearful of holding them accountable. These, too, are labeling behaviors that can also give them a sense of entitlement.
When they do misbehave, calmly give a consequence and then walk away. Leave them with having to deal with it, wrestle with it, or think about it all on their own.
Don’t ruin it by telling them how they should think or feel or by adding a pep-talk, lecture, and the like. Give them the time, dignity, and trust to reflect on their misbehavior and choose of their own volition to be better.
5. Build rapport naturally.
You can build strong rapport with difficult students by just allowing them to enjoy being a regular student. It’s such a refreshing change from their previous experiences that their appreciation alone is often enough.
It allows you to say hello or make conversation as you would any other student, and it’s easy and organic. In time, as long as you follow the advice above, the relationship will grow stronger and more influential.
Just be sure that you never try to force it or have ulterior motives. No strings attached is the secret.
6. Stop the endless conversations.
There are times when you may need to speak with students who are struggling with a personal issue. However, too often, in order to feel like we’re really helping, these conversations can end up excusing or justifying poor behavior.
In most cases, difficult students don’t need a counselor. They need a leader and role model who sees their worth and potential and treats them as if they really can do it.
The best thing you can do is listen, let them know that you’re there for them, and express your unshakable belief that they can do hard things and overcome their difficulties.
Simple But Radical
Tragically, the most commonly recommended strategies for difficult students are often the opposite of what they really need. In fact, for the most part, they do nothing more than reinforce bad behavior.
We’re losing scores of students as a result.
But I’m heartened to know that thousands more SCM readers discover our materials every year, and become equipped to make a real difference in their lives.
We must be on the forefront, unafraid to speak up and challenge the status quo. One of the best ways we can do that is within our own classrooms, where colleagues and administrators can see the difference with their own eyes.
Where they can witness how a simple but radical change in approach can empower our students to live and behave with respect and dignity.
Confident and prepared to face the real world.
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