6 Critical First-Week-Of-School Strategies For Difficult Students

smart classroom management: 6 Critical First-week-of-school strategies for difficult studentsIf 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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18 thoughts on “6 Critical First-Week-Of-School Strategies For Difficult Students”

  1. I’m wondering what you make of the push to maintain a 3 to 1 or 5 to 1 positive to corrective ratio. At my school, teachers are observed and given feedback on this ratio. I see the value in it and understand it but I think it often creates an atmosphere of insincerity. The problem may lie in administrators definitions of positive interactions being to limited to verbal praise. What are your thoughts?

    • I’m reading Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards right now, and in the middle of the chapter on “excessive praise.” I definitely recommend it to you (or, really, to your administrators!) I think the problem here is that they’re confusing strong relationships and classroom community for praise.

      Do they measure by the student or in general when they’re observing? Like, do they expect you to say “that was calling out” or whatever, then follow up with, “BUT I LOVE YOUR BEAUTIFUL THOUGHTS!” or do they want you to do the thing where you compliment how another kid raised their hand, with the implied idea of “Why can’t you be more like [good kid]?” Or is it more of an overall total thing?

  2. I have asked this question to many colleagues and have had as many different opinions. How does the classroom management strategy work when you have SEN children included in the class? Should we expect them to be able to follow the same rules as all the other students? Is this fair? What if they simply cannot follow the rules? Do you make exceptions and if so how is this explained to the rest of the children?

    • Hi Melissa,

      I wish I had time to cover this topic here. However, I have written about it elsewhere and plan on covering it again in the future.

    • Hi Melissa W,

      I’m not sure what range of SEN students you might be thinking of, but I can assure you there is good news here. I’m sure other frequent readers and implementers of SCM can attest that this works for any kids!

      Having taught for many years in a co-taught regular-ed/learning support classroom, with around 25-30% of my students receiving targeted support from specialist teachers, all were able to thrive within SCM. This included my low-cognitive and behavior kids who had been on every behavior management chart you could dream of.

      As is stressed on nearly every post on the blog, the “management” side is only half of this recipe. The other key ingredient is orchestrating an environment that kids want to be a part of. I think all kids can recognize a calm, welcoming, engaging class when they see/feel it no matter their learning “labels.”

      In the last 18 months, with SCM, my classroom management experienced such a positive shift, that I couldn’t help sharing my success with colleagues. Now there are two grade-levels in my building that are converts. Really, what have you got to lose? Give it a go! You may be pleasantly surprised!

  3. Such a great article. I work specifically with students with behavior problems and it’s true… all the trainings tell us to do the opposite of what you just articulated here. I feel like it’s so enabling and patronizing. Fortunately, I’ve been reading your blog now for years 😉

  4. I have been given the ultimate challange this year. I would like to see your response. I had a very difficult year last year. I have been moved to the next grade. This means I may have many of the students that I was unsuccessful with last year.

    I would love advice on how to handle this.


    • Hi Howard,

      I am a third grade teacher and am going into my eighth year teaching in Elementary. I have often wondered what I would do if this exact scenario happened to me.
      I’d love to share some thoughts. First of all, treat the first day/week of school as a fresh start. Each year, as educators, we carry over things that worked for us from previous years, adopt new routines or practices from colleagues, books or other sources and simply throw out what flopped.
      Do all of those things and allow yourself to embrace what’s new about this situation. It’s a new grade for you and your students are in a new grade.
      Having said that, make your expectations known for their classroom conduct and create an environment where they can access materials independently. This way, you expect them to be independent problem solvers and they have your support in trying to be a bit more independent than last year.
      Some student/teacher dynamics are a challenge and year two of one of those can sound impossible. My gut feeling though is every student want to be recognized as capable and accepted, safe and supported, year after year. So find ways to show them you recognize that they are.
      In my opinion, teaching is all about your relationship with each student. So it may require bringing in some baseball cards from your personal collection to show a student, or giving up a lunch to invite a group to eat with you in the classroom or making a phone call to a parent right as the school day is ending. This way as soon as the student sees their parent after school, the parent can greet them with a smile and a word of praise about the specific, awesome thing that they did that day and that you cared enough to call and tell them about immediately. These things go a long, long way.
      We are in this profession because we love children and that’s all children want; to be loved.
      With my respect and admiration, I wish you a wonderful school year.
      Warm Regards,

    • Howard,
      I am in the same situation you are in. I had my most difficult class of sophomores last year. This year, I was unexpectedly assigned to teach them again has juniors. I would also welcome any advice!

  5. In my 20+ years of experience, I’ve learned a lot about handling difficult kids, to the point that now I’m the teacher who gets a higher percentage of them. Those same kids are typically the ones who write me the most “ best teacher “ notes. This article is 100% right on. The only thing I add is to LOVE your kids. They can sense it, and it makes all the difference. And I earnestly pray for them every morning on the way to school. I don’t always know what they need, but God certainly does!

  6. This advice is so good. Thank you. I do have a question. How would you suggest handling a child (second grade) whose misbehavior results from a physical condition such as being a drug affected child?

    • That is still a limiting mindset. Asset based mindsets see the child for what they can and are able to do. With the correct settings and instruction ALL children can achieve.

  7. I had to tweet this out. All the things you say NOT to do, are being done over and over again every year! And guess what? It doesn’t help. By the end of the year, the “behavior problem” child has escalated exponentially and is exhibiting even worse behavior then when they started. Great article!

  8. Melissa W,

    Michael does say in his books that certain exceptions can be made for SEN students. You wouldn’t expect a child with cerebral palsy to run the hurdles in PE, right? Why would it be different for kids on the spectrum or who have other special needs?

    Personally, I think the key is to set the bar high FOR THEM. I teach high school and honestly, I only had 1 student last year who failed to meet the same expectations I had for everyone else. The adjustment I made was that they could go take a walk around the inside of the building when things got to be too much. However, aside from them being able to take a walk when needed, they got the same two warnings and then a consequence just like everyone else.

    I don’t know what grade you teach, but high schoolers can certainly understand that being fair sometimes means different things for different students. In fact, one of my students who was very smart, very high functioning, and very autistic won graduating student of the year, an award given by the senior student class.

    Anyway, I hope this is helpful!

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