Skip to main

April 19, 2021

What to Do for the Most Challenging Students in Your Class

You’ve set up your classroom. You know your kids and curriculum. You have the basics down.

New teacher classroom management

VIDEO: New Teacher Survival Guide: Classroom Management

Everything is running smoothly, except…

There’s one student who disrupts your class on a regular basis. One student who doesn’t respond to the expectations of the classroom.

The whole situation may have you feeling frustrated and discouraged.

Stop right there.

The first thing you need to realize is that this is not about you.

As personal as some students can seem to make it, your first task is to change your own perspective. Children who misbehave or adolescents who act out are almost always expressing an emotion or a problem that’s just beneath the surface. The key to improving their behavior is to figure out what function that action serves and then address the root of the problem.

So, where do you start?

Collect Data

Whether the behavior is calling out, fidgeting, fighting, being destructive, disrespectful speech, or refusal to work, you won’t know whether the behavior is improving if you don’t have a baseline for where it started. Depending on frequency, a few days of tallies and times may give you enough to move forward.

Be Observant

  • Note what happens before and after the student’s behavior. Look for triggers and rewards. These could be environmental, situational, or behavioral.
  • Ask a trusted colleague to observe and tell you what they see.
VIDEO: Tracking Behavior with a Number Line

VIDEO: Tracking Behavior with a Number Line

Try Using Video to Gather Data

  • Watching a video of your class can be enlightening and allows you to see things you might miss in real time.

Examine the Context

  • Look for the ways you or others in the classroom may be escalating the student’s reactions or reinforcing unwanted behaviors. Check out this chart for more specifics on gathering this type of information.
  • Sometimes Misbehavior Is Not What It Seems.
  • Consider the student’s culture, family background, and school history.
  • If the student has an individualized education program (IEP), speak with your colleagues in special education before implementing any strategy.

Design A Plan Of Action

Once you understand the problem, meet with the student privately. Wait until you can do this calmly and without accusations.

  • Explain explicitly the behavior that you want to see, as well as the actions that are disruptive.
  • Emphasize that how the student behaves is his/her choice.

Along with the student, and if possible the parents, create a plan. Simple rewards and punishments may work with young children in the short term, but are seldom effective over time. Instead, consider what specific behavioral response needs to change and how best to instruct and encourage that change.

Prepare for failure and have a contingency plan that includes when and how to remove a child from a situation if needed. Similarly, plan for incremental success and what response would be most effective for encouraging further improvement. Keep your principal informed of all aspects of your program.

Remember that fair is not treating every student the same. Fair is meeting the needs of every child. How you deal with each child’s behavior should be determined by what that child needs.

Children of Trauma

Much has been written about children of trauma, but here are a few blog posts to get you started and provide some background:

For students who have experienced mild trauma, empathy and consistency can go a long way. For those with severe traumatic experiences, three key factors are calm, routine, and forgiveness.

  • Use a calm, low-emotion tone of voice whether you are giving simple directions, explaining what a student did wrong, or praising him/her. Kids with a low arousal threshold do best with a neutral tone.
  • Establish a routine in your classroom with consistent expectations.
  • Alert students when the schedule or expectations are going to change.
  • Remember that you may have no way of personally understanding what that child has gone through. This may not change your experience in the moment the misbehavior is occurring, but it may help you say hello with a smile the next day.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Although autism was once a low-incidence disability, its prevalence has risen dramatically over the years. Students with autism can have widely varying behavior, ability, and sensitivities. The scope of this blog post cannot encompass all you need to know. However, here are a few tips to get you started when interacting with autistic students:

Very simply, some issues associated with autism can be the result of sensory overload.

  • Permit your student to take breaks when needed.
  • Provide a schedule for the day. Lower functioning students or those unable to read may need a picture or object schedule. Students who can read will do well with a written schedule. Autistic students will often accept the unexpected as long as it is filled in on his or her schedule.


It’s Not What They Will Do, It’s What They Won’t Do

At some point in your teaching career, you’ll run into a student who refuses to work outright or who does little or nothing throughout the day. Students with ADD, autism, or depression and students of trauma can all fit into this category at times. But there are other students who experience none of these issues, but fail to participate or cooperate for other reasons.

VIDEO: My Teacher Look: Getting Back on Track 

VIDEO: My Teacher Look: Getting Back on Track 

After ruling out all of the possibilities above, as well as hunger and lack of sleep, I was at a loss for how to help one of my students. Finally, I found this blog post, which identifies motivation as a critical element in managing student behavior. Some students are primarily motivated to exercise power over what they do. My program for the student in my classroom became one that let him know that he had the choice to work or not to work, but if he chose not to participate or complete assignments, he also chose not to participate in anything fun until the tasks were completed. When he was ready to work, we welcomed him back.

Every student is unique and there’s no one strategy that will work every time. Dealing with behavior issues can feel frustrating and isolating for teachers because they’re varied, complex, and impacted by a number of social, psychological, and physiological factors.

Remember, you’re not alone. And don’t be afraid to reach out for support when you need it!

If you’re looking for more resources on classroom management, check out Teaching Channel’s Class Culture and New Teacher Survival Guide Deep Dives, and explore this blog post to find strategies that will work for you. You can also take a peek at the Back to School Starter Packs that are chock full of resources, including handy checklists to keep track of your progress.


Search the K12 Hub

More From Teaching Channel

Want to partner with us?

We’re always looking for new authors! If you’re interested in writing an article, please get in touch with us.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Get notified of new content added to K12 Hub.

Over 100 New Courses Just Added! Explore Now >>