Simple Ways to Reach Your Challenging Students


challenging studentsIn one of his academic articles, Andrew Burke reports that teachers make some 30 non-trivial work related decisions every hour and engage in as many as 1,500 interactions with students every day. No wonder teachers are so exhausted!

The opportunity to engage with students as many as 1,500 times every day presents us with lots of opportunities to “get it right”—and just as many opportunities to fall short.

While these four strategies from blogger and ESL teacher Larry Ferlazzo won’t guarantee that we “get it right” all the time, they may prove useful for strengthening your relationships with challenging students.

Simple Ways to Reach Your Challenging Students

Conduct regular student reflections
Most of us regularly tell students what we expect of them; less often do we ask them to set expectations for themselves. One way to have students take stock of their behavior and intellectual growth is by having them write weekly reflections. As an example, you might consider having students answer and discuss prompts like these:

  • Are you a positive or negative person?
  • Are you a good or not-so-good listener?
  • Who are some people that you respect? How do you think they act when things don’t go exactly the way they want?
  • Do you think intelligence is fixed? Can it grow with effort?

The idea is for each student to write about how they see themselves in the context of that particular topic and determine if they are satisfied with themselves. If not, encourage them to reflect on how they can improve.

In his class, Ferlazzo begins each week by having students write a goal and closes each Friday by asking them to assess whether or not they were successful in reaching it.

Use daily evaluations
Writing students’ names on the board is one amongst many “old school” methods of discipline still used in the classroom.

Instead of resorting to this, try using daily evaluations instead.

To start, discuss important elements of a healthy classroom. This should be a conversation that includes everyone. Based on this discussion, develop a check list, have students grade themselves on each criteria and assign themselves an overall grade at the end of each day.

Self-assessments should only take a few minutes to review and comment on.

No more phone calls about bad behavior
Instead of calling the parents of a student who was not behaving well, Ferlazzo suggests telling disruptive students that you will not be calling their parents—at least not that day.

Instead, let them know that the phone call will wait until the following week so that you can report all the good things they’ve done and how they’ve improved in the last week.

Arrange a secret sign with students that lets them know they need to stop
Private conversations usually help curb disruptive behavior, but they may not be necessary if you and the student arrange a “sign” that lets the student know a specific behavior needs to stop. This may be as simple as standing next a student or tapping on his or her desk.

If you stop by Mr. Ferlazzo’s blog, you’ll not only find a collection of useful teaching resources, you’ll also be able to read the six remaining classroom management tips we mention here.

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Like other students, the challenging students too need opportunities to grow, develop and feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement. For this, you need to understand them, their motivation, their thought process and their learning style, basic reading, writing abilities.

I am all for the “no more phone calls for bad behavior.” The parents of students with bad behavior that usually warrants a phone call can become jaded to these calls over the years. They might go through the same conversation over and over again about how they are going to help improve their child’s behavior. A refreshing, positive phone call home can reinforce the positive behaviors the student exhibited in the class while showing the parent that not all communication about their child will be negative. This can lead to a stronger parent-teacher relationship that will ultimately be best for the student.


I have also utilized a “secret sign” with students that signals a behavior needs to be stopped. Many students, including some students on the autism spectrum, can certainly benefit from this type of signal when a behavior needs to be stopped. Using this technique will help stop the behavior before it escalates while not bringing much or any attention to it for the rest of the classroom. Perhaps the action or behavior might be embarrassing or very inappropriate rather than just attention seeking. Halting the action as early as possible with a pre-set silent signal with your student can alleviate any further distraction and problems for your classroom.

Thanks so much for reading, Christopher, and for sharing your own experiences with me!

A healthy classroom needs to be developed to tackle such situations. Perceiving the children mind can be a tough task but it's more important when it comes to tackling the challenging ones. Ac Christopher said, Secret signs is one of the best ways to this, such techniques actually seem to work and i agree to his experiences as well Thanks Chris!!

I find it best to really get to know students that are misbehaving.  They have stories that are often so bad that I often admire them despite their misbehavior.  Get to know them better, respect them and they will respect you back.  Despite what they say....everyone wants their teacher to like them!

Well put, Carolyn. Thanks for sharing!

This was a really helpful post! I had never thought of creating a secret sign to use with a student. I know that it is never fun to be disciplined in front of the whole class so it would be nice to have a more subtle way of telling the students to stop. I also love the idea of regular student reflections. They will have the ability to set goals for themselves and follow through with them. This will help them to become more self aware not just in the classroom! I wanted to add a little bit to the "No more calls about bad behavior" along with calling for disruptive students, teachers should call home simply to brag for the students who are doing great in class! Can you imagine as a parent getting a call from the school just to talk about how awesome your kiddo is! :)

Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment, Caitlin! I'm really glad you found this helpful.

No more phone calls about bad behavior
Instead of calling the parents of a student who was not behaving well, Ferlazzo suggests telling disruptive students that you will not be calling their parents—at least not that day.

Instead, let them know that the phone call will wait until the following week so that you can report all the good things they’ve done and how they’ve improved in the last week.

I love this idea!  Although the immediacy of punishment is important in decreasing future disruptive behaviors, this approach gives the student motivation to change the behaviors instead of relying only on punishment, which is less effective than positive & negative reinforcement and also leads to numerous pernicious side-effects, like increased aggression.

I am going to do my student teaching next semester and I feel that you had a lot of great ideas. I like the "no more phone calls for bad behavior." Since I am in going for a secondary education in mathematics, I feel that students need to respect the teacher and more importantly the other students in the room. I know that a phone call home would not due much for students who don't care, but I feel that is a small portion of the class. I have see teacher do a phone call home to let their parents know how well their students have done or behave in their class. My parents received a phone call like this with my sister last year. My parents felt very proud of her that she was the only student who received an A on the test.

We have talked about a "secret sign" in my classroom management class. I see this being a very effective tool for students who don't know when they are being disruptive to the whole. I have seen this tool be used before while observing a teacher. The teacher had a student who talked a lot and would not stop. Every time the teacher went over to him, she would give him the worksheet to start working so he would not be disruptive during the lecture. I felt that this help him focus on a task while all the other students were trying to learn.

Thank you so much, Alex, for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

This is a great post! I really like the positive approach to behavior and reflection. Often times, we don't get to the "why" with students. We need to help students understand their motivation and actions. Some of the points Ferlazzo made I will test out.



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