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Working Effectively With Difficult Students

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by Jennifer Little, Ph.D. Little has specialized in teaching challenging pre-K to grade 12 students.  Her business, Parents Teach Kids, changes the lives of children and their parents.

Many teachers have faced the professional challenge of a classroom full of high-need students. These young people may face multiple difficulties such as drug and alcohol use, low reading skills, learning disabilities, disciplinary problems and personality conflicts with teachers.

This was the case in one of my 11th-grade classes in my first year of teaching high school English. Needless to say, Shakespeare was not high on students’ list of priorities. Learning how to manage the classroom and teach these young people was my top priority.

I didn’t learn how to help them that year, nor over the next few years of having similar students in my classes. It took a graduate program of theories in special education, almost 10 years of practical experience working exclusively with those excluded from general education classrooms, and two years of teaching graduate students in education before I could say I enjoyed working with challenging students. 

Many teachers quit within five years if they have too many high-need students. I stayed, because I was learning from every one of them. They taught me about their challenges and how I could help them succeed. 

Here are some of my key takeaways:

  1. Give them control over their assignments.  Structure assignments so students get to choose from among several options; those options could include alternative approaches to mastering the same content. For example, they could do a photo/video essay (including verbal explanations) on a topic of their choosing related to the content being covered in class.
  2. Explain how academic content applies to their lives.  Just telling students they will need Skill X in their lives won’t work. They need specific examples of Skill X applied in adult lives. For example, my students resisted working on percentages and decimals. Once I showed them how my paycheck disappeared, they realized money was important. I then gave them assignments that had them calculating: income from hourly wage jobs, the specific deductions (from a percentage) employers took out, and (theoretical) expenses of living (rent, food, transportation, utilities, etc.). Typical reactions were initial shock followed by willing attitudes to do the work, even if it was difficult.
  3. Ensure success.  Seeing their (point-based) grades improve was a real high for students. Praise them often and honestly, not falsely over trivial accomplishments or deeds. Let them know they can succeed and show how they are making progress.
  4. Teach the skills they are missing so they can do what they need to do.  I found that many students did not know how to communicate in complete sentences, so I taught them how to write a sentence. Many did not understand description, so I taught them how to describe things. Many couldn’t give directions, so I taught them how to give (and follow) directions.
  5. Be honest and direct with them, not afraid of them.  Because of some young people’s prior history of failure or poor social relationships, school may not have inspired feelings of safety. Structure and boundaries, when defined and enforced, give both you and students a sense of security.
  6. Enjoy the people they are and do not expect them to be who they can’t be at the moment.  Students are evolving, and they need you to find what is good in them during each moment they spend with you.  Work with the individual who is experiencing life with you; it may be the best part of their day. 
  7. Dare to be different.  Face your own limitations with acceptance and coping skills. Teach students how to accept themselves and compensate for their limitations. Accept the challenges of working with them and find ways in which you and they can be successful. Be their role model—demonstrate responsible behaviors and a positive outlook on life. You may be the only influence they carry with them for the rest of their lives.

We need to begin to see difficult students as first and foremost, students. They are challenging because they have experienced failure in schools for many years, and because sometimes we who are responsible for teaching them don’t know how to do so effectively. Only when we admit that we need to improve our skills—and that students can help us—can we begin to help them succeed.

Related resources

Handling Difficult Students: Lessons from Mrs. G.
When It Comes to Volatile Kids, Pick Your Battles
Classroom Problem Solver
Develop Students' Motivation

 

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