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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Working With ‘Difficult’ Students - Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 05, 2016 14 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

Cheryl asked:

One student can change the chemistry of whole class. How do you bring balance to the Force in your class?

In Part One, Kevin Parr, Gianna Cassetta, Allen Mendler and Signe Whitson contribute their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Kevin and Gianna on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, it’s time for Annette Breaux, Cheryl Mizerny, Jeryl-Ann Asaro and Stan Croft to share their responses. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Annette Breaux

Annette Breaux is a popular author and speakers on education. She is the author or co-author of numerous best-selling books including Quick Answers for Busy Teachers and The Ten-Minute Inservice. Reach out to her at AnnetteLBreaux@yahoo.com or on Twitter @AnnetteBreaux:

What can you do when one student disrupts the whole class? Sounds familiar? It seems there’s one in every class. He’s on a mission--to make you miserable. If he can do that, victory! So let’s get him out of the class, right? Well, where will he go? Though there’s no “one” answer to this problem, there are some simple things you can do that will make a big difference.

First, know that I’m referring to a disruptive student, one whose behavior is aggravating. I’m not referring to a student who poses grave danger to others around him. That’s another situation altogether.

Here are three things you must first determine before you can effectively deal with the problem:

  1. Who is this student as a person? What does he like/dislike? Are there any struggles he is currently facing at home or at school? Knowing this information is vital.
  2. Is the student struggling academically or socially? These types of struggles often mask themselves behind mischievous behavior. On the flip side, is he being actively engaged and challenged in your classroom?
  3. What does the student attribute his behavior to when you speak with him privately? Simply asking a student why he behaves a certain way can reveal a lot. If the student answers by saying, “I don’t know,” then vow to help him figure it out.

Next question: Is the student convinced that you care about him? If not, you’re going to have to work at changing that perception. Students often misbehave when they feel their teachers don’t care about them. It doesn’t mean the teacher doesn’t care. It often means the student simply has not been convinced that the teacher cares.

Once you determine what’s causing a problem--and you’ve convinced a student that you care and want to help him--you’re on your way to actually helping him.

Here are a few suggestions for dealing with a misbehaving student:

  1. When you speak with the student privately, give an example of his behavior, reasons the behavior was inappropriate, and a more appropriate way to handle the situation next time. Don’t assume that students always know how to behave appropriately.
  2. DON’T take the student’s behavior personally. The second a student knows he’s pushing your buttons, you’ve given control to him. He knows it, and the whole class knows it. Hide your buttons!
  3. Remember that no one repeats a behavior unless he’s receiving some kind of reward for it. Find out what that reward is. If it’s simply attention-seeking, give him attention - but not when he misbehaves. Rather, start shifting positive attention his way.
  4. Set the student up for as much success as you can. Notice everything good he does. Assign appropriate responsibilities to him. Make him feel important.
  5. Offer your private time to him, at recess or at some other time if you don’t have “recess” at your school. Say, “Right after lunch, I’ll give up my free time for you. We’ll talk about what’s going on and put our heads together to come up with a solution.” This trick works wonders! It takes about 30 seconds, because the student doesn’t want to miss his free time. Remember, you’re not taking away his time--you’re giving him yours.

If misbehavior becomes chronic, it’s fine to attach a consequence. Just make sure the consequence is appropriate. Don’t allow your frustration level to determine the severity of a consequence. Remember, though, that when a student believes you care, when he’s convinced that he cannot push your buttons, and when he feels successful in your classroom because you challenge him and spark his creativity, you’ll optimize the chances that his behavior will improve drastically!

Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience-primarily at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches sixth grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Her teaching is guided by her belief in reaching every student and teaching the whole child: socially, emotionally, and cognitively. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher:

In Their Shoes

When there is that one student who is disruptive yet again and pushing all of my buttons, I stop and remind myself of the words of Russell A. Barkley: “Kids who need love most will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.” I firmly believe that no child wants to do “bad” things intentionally. They are simply looking for ways to navigate through life’s experiences. By helping them muddle their way through, teachers can help students with emotional self-regulation and will reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the source of the misbehavior.

For the first fifteen years of my career, I taught special education for students with severe emotional and behavior problems. Initially, I tried every system recommended by experts in the field. I used checkmarks on the board, charts on their desks, ignoring the behavior, and removing them from my classroom. None of these worked as well as plain, old-fashioned empathy. By putting myself in the child’s shoes, I began thinking in terms of addressing the root cause of the behavior rather than merely dealing with it. The results were incredibly successful and I no longer needed behavior management systems.

There are infinite reasons why a child may act out in your classroom, but minor behavior issues tend to fall into a few general categories. The child may be seeking attention, feeling incompetent, or feeling disconnected. By addressing the foundation of the inappropriate actions, the student will be more apt to buy into and meet the teacher’s behavior expectations.

If a child is seeking attention, provide “legal” ways for the child to get what they need from you and their peers. For the children who do not receive enough attention at home, they are desperately seeking someone who will acknowledge them. It is important to find every opportunity to catch them being good and personally interact. For the children who receive their parents’ undivided attention, they are looking for the same at school. Determine an agreed-upon avenue for the child to be the center of attention in class without ruining a class activity.

Many children feel inadequate academically. This is where the talents of the teacher become paramount. The teacher needs to scaffold the instruction and provide multiple avenues for children to demonstrate their learning. If they know you won’t give up on them and let them fail, they will stop acting out to avoid the activity. Nothing breeds success like success.

By far, a commonality among school tragedies is a sense of exclusion from the school community. Every student must internalize that they are trusted, respected, and an integral cog in the machinery of the classroom. Design opportunities for isolated children to collaborate with others under your supervision so that you can help them make connections.

Teachers report managing student behavior as a primary stressor of their profession. By making a few simple changes, classroom behavior will improve and the teacher’s stress level will lessen. A win-win for all involved.

Response From Jeryl-Ann Asaro

Jeryl-Ann Asaro loves her job as an eighth-grade English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book, Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education. She has taught at four levels -- elementary, middle, high school, and college but has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 14-year olds is her favorite place to be -- crazy, but true:

One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch! Every teacher has been dealt that dreadful hand which includes a difficult student. How do you handle those students, so their behavior does not impact the learning of others? Here are some hints and tips to get you started!

Have students choose their own seats on the first day (use rows). You can quickly determine where your problems will occur. Set the tone by separating the “culprits” early on and keeping them apart all year long. The students swiftly learn you are not a pushover!

At the beginning of the year, design lessons which help you get to know your students. You can even include parents in on these types of assignments. As the year unfolds, chat about those interests, so the student realizes you care, and you are paying attention.

In the first semester, find something positive to say, and send a brief email home to the parent/guardian praising the “moment in time.” The parents of difficult students usually receive negative feedback. When you get the parent on your side, the student often follows!

Prevent the difficult student from having the power! Be firm. When the confrontation begins, keep your voice at an “inside voice” level, and force yourself not to yell or scold. When you scold, the class often takes the side of the student, and then you have lost the power battle. Instead, ask the student to stay after class, and speak with him or her privately. Be polite and use “I” messages. Even the most difficult student can have empathy. Sometimes getting that student to see your side will help you all year long.

Be proactive and not reactive. If a consistent pattern develops, you need to nip it. In private, give the student a warning that you will need to get administration involved. Visit administration in advance and explain your situation. Chances are, you are not the first teacher to have problems. Tell the administration that you are going to call if the problem happens again, and you will be sending the student out. Let them know to just hold that student until you call to have the child returned to your class (let the student worry a little). Frequently, the “scare” is enough to stop the behavior, and the student knows you mean business. The bonus of this action is that the rest of the class knows too!

Constantly circulate the room, and land near the desk of the difficult student. This idea sounds so easy, and it works! It is way more difficult to cause trouble when the teacher is close by!

Have a sense of humor. Not everything the difficult student does is done purposefully. Do not blame that student for all negative behaviors in class. Sometimes, a little laughter and gentle, but respectful, sarcasm can be very effective.

Be flexible. As much as you need to be consistent and fair, students are not cut from the same mold. Have a heart! You may need to realize that the student is dealing with a situation outside of school that does not allow him or her to bring a best self to class.

Never forget; you are the role model. You cannot expect a classroom full of well-behaved students if you, as their leader, are not above reproach. The students who are the most difficult are usually the ones with the most baggage. They likely need your compassion and support. Gaining their trust and respect is of the utmost importance.

Response From Stan Croft

After coaching collegiate track and field a dozen years, Stan Croft made a career change and became a teacher. He has taught at an alternative school (The Integrated Learning Program) for students with behavior disorders in Omaha, NE for the last 6 years. Stan has a masters degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Behavior Disorders:

I hate it when there is a disruption in the force, and usually it feels like a whole planet has been destroyed when you go home at night. How can you make things right will keep you up until an idea or plan can be hatched to eliminate the death star.

First, what is the cause of this Darth Vaderish behavior and hope for a cause that you can manage rather than something beyond your control? Have a conversation with the student, other teachers, administrators, specialists or anyone else that may have insight (parents/caregiver).

Next, two possibilities have arisen; the issue is something you can work on through the many strategies you use everyday to be successful in the classroom. Build a relationship and use lessons that help this student be involved. I have a colleague who had success recently assigning a student who was very uncooperative to run the computer presentation during class. It kept him engaged and righted the force in her class. Use an appropriate academic accommodation, work on behavioral strategies that target what this student is seeking, discuss what is going on from the perspective of this student and share your view of the problem. Create solutions that work for your situation and space.

Or, the reason is entirely out of your control. This is more difficult and frustrating because there may not be a satisfactory solution. Now is the time to offer choices. Work with your administration and know or develop an appropriate sequence of interventions. During a class disruption immediately begin offering options, choose to work on the assignment now or after school. Use appropriate language or sit in the hall. Develop a set of options that work for the situation and are approved by your administration.

May the force be with you.

Responses From Readers


One thing a teacher can do is to give a disruptive student an important classroom job. Another is to form class committees and be sure he/she is included. Still another is to invite him to have lunch with you and ask his opinion of certain classroom practices or enlist his help in aiding another student or students. Everyone in this world wants to feel important. Classroom disruptors believe they have been overlooked or mistreated, so they try to elevate their importance by disrupting. give them other, better ways to earn the attention and prestige they want.

Thanks to Annette, Cheryl, Jeryl-Ann and Stan, and to readers, for their contributions!

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