Building positive relationships with difficult students

No matter how tolerant, easy going and organised you are, there will always be the student(s) who you find challenging or as the title suggests, “difficult.”
It is equally difficult to give an exact description of a “difficult” student. For some teachers and teaching assistants, it may be the student who is forever exhibiting low-level disruptions. Fidgeting, time wasting, finger clicking or just generally being awkward. For other adults the “difficult” behaviour can be far more challenging. Arguing, confrontations and refusal to comply with any request, can push even the most tolerant of adults to their limit.
There is also the perception of the difficult student to consider. The challenging and argumentative student in the French lesson may well be the most able, model student in the sports hall. Many teachers have walked into the staff room at break or lunchtime complaining about the problems they have encountered over the last hour with a particular youngster, only to be met with:

“Well, I never have any problems with him!”

Situations like this are far from helpful in both the short and long term; they can really make you question not just your relationships with students, but also your own professionalism and abilities.
Perhaps a better definition for whom you consider to be a difficult student, would be:

The difficult student is the one who when they are away from school, I am happy!

Simply longing for the student to be away from school, or better still, moved to a different class/group, is not going to solve your problem about building positive relationships. After all, if you are not prepared to attempt change, you are most certainly going to have some difficult times in the classroom that will invariably affect your emotions outside. Building positive relationships with difficult students has a whole range of benefits:

The student begins to learn about building relationships and understands the importance of empathy
You have both short term (each lesson) and long term (you are working with this student for the whole year!) benefits
Other students and staff see you and see a very practical example of role modelling
There is less need to use “Behaviour Management” techniques and strategies!
You, the student and the classroom environment, remain calmer
There is far greater opportunity for the student to experience success in your lessons, thus in improving achievement and self-esteem.

Practical Tips

It is important to keep in mind the reasons for building positive relationships, and this is true for all students, not just the difficult ones! You should at all times be aiming to provide a teaching and learning environment which allows all involved to achieve their maximum potential. You should be able to teach and the students in your care should have the opportunity to learn.

Try to plan your style of approach with the “difficult” student, take into account the following:

What exactly are the issues that cause you concern? Try to specifically identify the behaviours.
When do these behaviours occur? All the time? When asked to “put pen to paper?” At the start of the lesson? When sitting with certain classmates?
What have your responses been to date? Are any more successful than others?
Talk over the problems with another member of staff. Listen to their techniques. Try to observe the student in another situation.
Raise your issues with all appropriate concerned parties, student, parent, form tutor, head of year etc

Once you have a clearer picture of the student this may throw some light onto the reasons for their behaviour, and why you should find him/her so difficult.

The next steps may well take some time to implement. The student will obviously now feel that you are “On their case!” Remember you are the role model do not be led down the road of confrontation and reluctance to communicate. This will only prolong the whole situation. It is worthwhile having a range of strategies to try. As in any good problem solving process, once you have identified the problem, come up with a range of solutions that should be considered and then tried.

Meet on a 1-1 basis with the student. This should be quite formal and away from an audience. State the relevant issues and try to come up with some solutions with the student
Make time to see the student in other situations. At change of lessons, in the dining room, break time etc
Practice some self calming techniques
Be supportive and look for opportunities to use praise (No matter how difficult this may seem, remember you are the role model in this situation)

Communication is vital. If you are only prepared to “deal” with the student during lesson time, then he/she will, in your eyes, remain difficult.

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