Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 12. Dealing With Difficult Students

Beginning teachers are likely to be tested and challenged by students—a lot. This isn’t personal; rather, it’s a rite of passage. Teenagers often just test the limits of their behavior to see how far they can go, which actions will be tolerated, and which ones won’t.

The good news is that your colleagues and administration know this, and they will give you some time to find your stride. You are likely to be reassured again and again by the dean, principal, and department head that this is normal behavior on the part of your students, and if you experience any predicaments with students you can’t handle, you should refer them immediately for disciplinary action.

Most often, this means a student who

•   Is consistently late to class

•   Repeatedly does not bring in necessary supplies

•   Threatens or disrespects you, publicly or privately

•   Threatens or assaults another student

•   Refuses to follow your instructions

•   Disrupts the class with inappropriate behavior

Depending on the policies of your administration and the norms of your school, any or all of these behaviors will not be tolerated. Especially as a beginning teacher, you must expect (and request) support from other school personnel to help you keep your classes under control and your students’ behavior within reasonable limits. It is simply not realistic for you to expect that you can handle all discipline problems yourself, even if you had the time to do so. At the same time, you must take responsibility by setting clear rules for behavior and implementing them consistently.


You have probably already had some preparation in the theory and methods of classroom management. This includes such areas as setting expectations for behavior, controlling the flow of activity, handling discipline problems, and keeping students engaged and motivated to learn. We will review some of these major concepts and urge you to keep them in mind when—not if—you encounter challenges with difficult students.

Prevention. By creating a comfortable environment and establishing rapport with your students, you set the stage for peaceful, cooperative classes. You will also need to establish rules and enforce them consistently. Routines will help your classroom to function smoothly. Welcoming your students to the room each day will give you an opportunity to interact with them as they enter. Plan for a smooth transition from one activity to the next.

Using highly motivational activities for instruction is another prevention tool. When you immediately capture student interest and make the topic relevant, you will gain their attention at the beginning of the period and they will have little time to act out.

You should also note (and perhaps recall from your own experiences as a student) that most kids are not particularly interested in what is offered in school, as they do not find it relevant to their most cherished interests (finding love, acceptance, approval, money, respect). They are forced to learn things that they would never select for themselves. They are subjected to routines and procedures that are, at best boring, and at worst, quite annoying. No wonder some students act out and become difficult to handle. In a sense, they are honestly communicating what they feel, which is boredom, anger, and frustration. Of course, your job is to engage students while helping them stay within appropriate boundaries. Therein lies the conflict.


•   Greet students at the door.

•   State the objective. Students need to know what they will be expected to know and be able to do.

•   Relate content to prior knowledge. Make sure students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills in order to meaningfully relate to your lesson.

•   Plan for student involvement. At some point during the period, have students work with a partner or in a small group, to get them more actively engaged in their learning.

•   Address learning styles and multiple intelligences. By integrating different learning styles, you offer a variety of activities to suit all different types of learners.

•   Chunk material into manageable sections. Students will be successful if presented with small amounts of material, or sequences to a skill. This way they will see progress and not feel as overwhelmed.

•   Focus on higher order thinking skills. Move away from facts and details. Plan for challenging engagement.

•   Allow student input in decision making. When students have ownership in how they will process material, they are more likely to follow through. Give them as much choice and control over their learning as possible.

•   Organize activities that are relevant to real life. Students need connections to their world.

•   Use concrete examples. Again, this will help students to relate to the subject you are presenting. Realia (real objects) and visual aids are extremely valuable.

•   Elaborate on text material, if appropriate, and model reading strategies. Students need help developing their reading skills.

•   Vary strategies. By changing formats of presentation and assessments from time to time, you will keep the students stimulated.

•   Provide for movement. Students get tired sitting at a desk or table all day long (especially kinesthetic learners). They need to move around.

•   Project enthusiasm. Your passion in itself can be motivating.

•   Give prompt feedback. Giving feedback to students on their work—whether it is a response in class, comments on a new skill they’ve learned, or feedback on a homework assignment, an essay/report, or a test—is also highly motivating.

•   Give lots of praise when it is deserved. Students benefit when it is confirmed that they have done well and are making progress, whether they’re learning to type, throw a basketball, speak a new language, or learn a principle of physics.

•   Keep your sense of humor and remember that students want to have fun.

Mild Intervention. There will be times when students lose interest and begin to daydream or engage in another activity. Minor discipline problems are to be expected. After all, you are working with adolescents. If this behavior does not interrupt the class, such as when a student is simply looking out the window, there are several ways you can respond. If it is not serious and will probably go away in a minute or two, consider the following options:

•   Ignore undesired behavior. If it isn’t bothering the other students and won’t distract you, wait and see what happens.

•   Use nonverbal communication. Use body language, such as pointing to the task.

•   Stand near the student. Sometimes just moving closer to the student will be enough of an intervention to get the student to refocus attention to the assigned task.

•   Give a verbal response. Gently, speak to the student to gain attention and draw the individual to the task.

•   Use an “I” message. Tell the student how you feel when he or she is not paying attention.

•   Make a direct appeal. Ask the student to refocus on the lesson.

•   Remind student of rule(s) and expectations for the class.

•   Try using humor to deal with the situation. Speak in a way that students will enjoy, and it may bring the distracted individual back to the task at hand.

If you find several students are disengaged, take this opportunity to evaluate what is going on in the classroom. Is there a message being sent to you? Is the activity paced too slowly? Too quickly? Are students confused? Is it too easy? Too difficult? Have you misjudged their attention spans? Maybe they are indicating that a change is needed. Treat such incidents as useful feedback in which the students are telling you that what you are doing is not working and it is time to try something else.

Major Interventions. When discipline becomes an issue, you will have to become more active and direct in your responses. You will need to quickly communicate with the student. Also, you may need to involve other people outside the classroom. Possible actions include the following:

•   Request that the student put away whatever object currently has gained attention.

•   Remove stimulus. Take the object away or call for security to take care of the situation.

•   Encourage involvement. Ask the student to do something that would be attractive or intriguing to him or her. Give the student responsibility for something in the classroom.

•   Give logical consequence. Remind the student of what action will follow if the behavior continues.

•   Withdraw privilege. Let the student know there will be a change in the future, if compliance with the class rules does not take place.

•   Change seat. Have the student sit in another location.

•   Write a note to the student. In private, communicate your response to the unwanted/undesired behavior. You may be able to do this during class, if you are discreet.

•   Contact parent or guardian. Call home and discuss the behavior.

•   Give a detention. Have student stay after school.

•   Send the student to the dean’s office. As a last resort, direct the student to leave the class and report to the administrator responsible for discipline.


Among those difficult students most often mentioned by beginning and experienced teachers alike are those who have trouble staying focused. Students who have trouble concentrating, whether formally or informally diagnosed with attention deficit disorders such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), can be challenging for both the teacher and the other students in the room. I (Ellen) remember one student in particular who always seemed to be the center of my attention—talking to other students, shouting out answers to questions, even walking around the room. The students in the class had difficulty with his constant interruptions as well, sometimes even expressing their frustrations aloud.

The following suggestions have been effective for handling students with attention deficits:

•   Seat student near you. Your physical presence will help the student to focus on what is required.

•   Provide for opportunities to change tasks.

•   Prioritize “misbehaviors.” Address the ones that you would most like to change first.

•   Give reminders as students begin an unacceptable behavior. For example, speak to the individual who begins to get out of the assigned seat.

•   Help students to self-monitor their behavior.

•   Decrease distractions. You may need to put away artifacts and objects that you have collected and put on display. Even bulletin boards need to be assessed for their “busy-ness.”

•   Respond to repetitive questions with one-line answers. Acknowledge the student as briefly as possible and move on.

•   Remind students that accuracy is as important as speed. Encourage students to spend extra time to make sure answers or responses are correct.

•   Comment when desirable traits are displayed. Make sure the student gets positive feedback during the period.

•   Give handshakes. Physical contact can be helpful.

•   Be calm and clear. Remain composed.

•   Assign classroom responsibilities. Provide for movement in the room.

•   Confer with others. Work in collaboration with other teachers to develop a management plan to effectively work with attention deficit kids.


Whether with disengaged students, or those who are acting out dramatically, it should be considered a last resort to send the person out of the room. There are consequences to taking formal disciplinary action. For one thing, it brings attention to the fact that there was a problem you couldn’t handle yourself. Although you are allowed a certain latitude in this regard, you don’t want to resort to sending kids out of your classroom very frequently, or it may look like you haven’t established control over your classes.

In general, whenever a student appears noncompliant, uncooperative, or defiant, whatever you do, you don’t want to escalate matters by making a public show of authority or force—unless it is absolutely necessary. It is far better to censure privately. Speak in a low, calm voice. Give directions firmly but avoid threats.

Consider not touching students when there is a discipline problem. Some children will react violently—not only will they shake off the gesture, but they may attempt to strike back.

Remember: Everyone else in the room is watching closely to see how you handle yourself. There is a show going on, and you are the main attraction. You are being tested. Your response is crucial.

Remain cool, poised, and in control of yourself. Do not become defensive. Likewise, try not to put the student in a position in which he or she loses face in front of peers. This is a tough challenge but can be accomplished if you have established a reasonable discipline policy in the first place.


Most schools have a formal discipline procedure that you are mandated to follow. In a way, this takes the heat off you because your job is simply to enforce the rules established by the administration. You will be required to give a student warnings and perhaps contact the parent(s) or guardian(s), or document an attempt to do so, before a referral can be made to remove a student who is difficult in the classroom.

Usually, all disciplinary actions call for a written report. Make sure you keep the needed forms within arm’s reach. Once there is some altercation, you will want to maintain fluid motion rather than be seen fumbling around. Remember again: This is a drama that is unfolding that is usually far more interesting than what you have planned for class that day. Keep in mind who is watching. Don’t show disgust, frustration, anger, or other negative emotions on your face. Don’t let students know that you’ve been rattled. It is just a game, and you are playing your role.

If you must exile a student from your classroom, do so as quickly and smoothly as you can. Do not raise your voice, even if the student screams at you. Remain infuriatingly unruffled, repeating again: “You are out of control. You must leave. Now. We will talk about this at another time.” You will probably need to give the student a hall pass.

If the student refuses to comply—a very rare situation—the first step is to call for reinforcement. Meanwhile, direct the rest of the students to engage in some activity so they aren’t frozen in the role of an audience watching a drama unfold. Instruct the class to work with partners or in groups, some activity that increases the energy and noise level and helps them to work off the vicarious stress they will have experienced watching one of their classmates appear humiliated.

In any discipline policy, you must enforce rules consistently, fairly, and dispassionately. This is not personal—it’s not about you; it’s about teaching the offender, and the rest of the class, about maintaining order and appropriate boundaries for the sake of everyone’s safety and comfort.


Taking part in a fight earns an automatic referral to the dean or principal’s office in most schools. Both or all participants must be sent. Call for security, or send a reliable student to get support, and caution the other students away from the fight for their safety. Get help; do not try to break up a fight yourself: You may get hurt. Many well-intentioned teachers, even those who are quite large and strong, have ended up quite bruised, physically and emotionally, when they have tried to break up fights on their own. In some cases, the student(s) might even turn on you.

The unruly student—the one whose parents you’ve talked to three times, the one you’ve warned three times in class, the one who steps over the line with her distractions—will have to be exiled to the dean’s or principal’s office if you are to continue instruction successfully. Take time to write the referral carefully. Many people will see your description of the situation. Use legible handwriting with attention to grammar and spelling. A copy of the form will become part of the student’s discipline folder.

You will have a couple of choices to make in how to handle the situation. You can call the student to your desk, or you can walk over to him or her. Be prepared for the student to act out in some way. She may read the referral out loud. She may protest unfair treatment. She may promise to be good and stop talking. Hold your ground. It will be over in a minute. The student will leave, the noise will subside, and you will be able to resume the activities you planned for the period.

If you are suspicious about whether the student will show up at the office, send an escort along. If the student refuses to go, call for help. Schools have students log in their arrival times to keep track of them. Follow up at the end of the day to see that the student did sign the log and what consequences were implemented by the dean or principal. This will also allow you to check to see if other teachers have been having trouble with the same student. If that is the case, you may wish to consult with colleagues to coordinate some future action to prevent other problems.

After the altercation itself, you may wish to discuss the matter with the class, if that is appropriate and there is some lesson to be learned. You do not owe the students an explanation, but sometimes it is helpful for morale to talk about conflict, resolution, and feelings. They have been witness to a “power play.” Younger students may need help interpreting the situation, analyzing options, and understanding authority. They may benefit from a brief respite themselves before they are able to turn their attention to their work.

In unusual situations in which you feel emotionally overwhelmed or injured, ask for relief. An administrator, a teacher with a free period, or an aide from another room can come in for a few minutes to give you a break, time to collect your thoughts and feelings and figure out how to approach the students.


Conflicts can be viewed as an opportunity for growth. They teach you about your own limits. They underscore issues of power and control. They bring to your attention unresolved issues that you may need to examine more closely. They regulate distance in relationships when one or more parties may feel threatened by intimacy. The important thing is to reflect on what happened during the altercation, what the conflict or disagreement or acting out was really about. Consider the following possibilities:

•   The student was after attention and was willing to win it at any cost.

•   A power struggle ensued because each of you was determined to win control.

•   The student felt disrespected and felt the need to assert him- or herself.

•   The student was acting inappropriately, asking for some intervention.

•   The student was manipulative, controlling, and game playing, enjoying the challenge of getting underneath your skin.

•   Things escalated out of control because the student was asking for direction, structure, or limits that you weren’t able or willing to provide.

•   The problem behavior was triggered by your asking the student to do something that he or she was unable to do.

•   One of your buttons got pushed, and you overreacted.

•   The student displaced anger toward you that was really directed elsewhere (a parent or other authority figure).

•   You misinterpreted the situation, and the person you disciplined wasn’t the primary culprit.

These are just a few of the possibilities. Usually, the situation is so complex that a number of factors are operating, some that involve the student, some that involve others in the class or in the student’s life, and some that involve you and your own personal issues related to power and control. Most often, there is some interactive effect operating, and each of the participants in the struggle had some role in its genesis and maintenance.

For you to learn from the experience, you must reflect on what happened, what you did that may have exacerbated the problem, what you could have done differently, and what parts had nothing to do with you whatsoever. This is a very difficult task to undertake alone. It is far better to consult with a colleague to help you unravel the predicament.

A good place to begin in your learning process is to check with the dean or assistant principal who handled the matter. See if there is any background information related to the student’s behavior that is relevant to the episode in the classroom. Find out how the situation was resolved in the office. Most important, arrange some time in which you can meet with the student or parents (or both) to debrief the episode and smooth things over for the future. You do not want to be stuck with an enemy in your class who is committed to revenge and payback for some perceived injustice.

Unfortunately, with some kids, there is little you can do to put things behind you. He or she enjoys the power that comes from remaining obstinate and disruptive, from challenging authority figures; the acting out becomes intrinsically rewarding for the student no matter what you do. With some cases, you will just have to accept the limits of what is within your control. It does take two committed parties to heal a rift. Whatever happens, you must let go of things and move on. Almost every week, if not every day, there will be some similar episode. You must develop your own ways to handle and process these struggles, to not take them personally; they simply come with the job. No sense in complaining about them too much (as some teachers do); that doesn’t change things either and will only make you bitter. Accept the reality that in almost any class you teach, there will be a few individuals who are singularly unpleasant—no different than anywhere else in the world where there are always a few people who seem to thrive on making others’ lives as difficult as they can.


Whether a private conference with the offending student has taken place or not, there will be a critical time when he or she returns to your class. This could occur the next day, in a few days, or even the following semester.

You will want to avoid future repetitions of the same problem. At the same time, you want to reconnect with the student in such a way that you both can forgive, forget, and move forward. It is truly amazing, sometimes, how your best relationships with kids will evolve from these conflicts.

I (Jeffrey) worked with one student who was my worst nightmare. He had a smart mouth. He was always questioning things, and he couldn’t seem to sit still for long, always in motion. Truth be told, he was a lot like me.

Initially, I tried to bring him under control, but to no avail. I tried everything I could think of to stop him from being disruptive in class. Nothing worked. I consulted with many colleagues to get advice, but perhaps this young man had his own confidants as well: Every time I came in with some new discipline strategy, he would change his own approach. He always seemed to be a step ahead of me.

We butted heads throughout the year. I spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about him, feeling inept and incompetent. It felt like he saw through me, that he knew I was a fraud, that I didn’t really know what I was doing. Actually, a part of me secretly admired him because he was confident and assertive.

In time, I came to really value this boy’s contributions to my class. He remained slippery and unpredictable, at times even incorrigible. I never did develop any consistent discipline plan to bring him under control. But over time, that didn’t seem to matter much. We eventually developed a deep respect for one another, to the point where he actually became my favorite student. The turning point for me was confronting my own need to beat him in this battle of wills.

When the student does return to your class after being sent to the office or suspended, try to make sure the reentry is as comfortable as possible. Let the student know if the seating in the classroom has been changed. Inform the student about what topic is being covered. Be attentive without being solicitous. Try to structure things in such a way that you can avoid future confrontations.


I (Cary) think teachers should find a balance in the ways they discipline. The best way to keep students from acting out is to make them respect you by setting specific expectations. If I respect my teacher a lot, then I’m not going to create many problems.

One teacher was just too nice. She made threats, but she never carried them out. She didn’t do what she said she would. Over and over, students would do crazy things and she was powerless to stop anyone. Everyone took her as a joke. Nobody really learned much in that class. We liked the teacher, but we didn’t respect her.

Respect is a two-way street. The teacher must also take into consideration the feelings and needs of the students in the room. Teenagers react well to reasonable explanations. The language you use to speak to the students, as well as your tone of voice, send potent messages to the class. An initial discussion of class rules and the school discipline policy, combined with conscientious planning and thorough preparation on your part, will limit the opportunities difficult students will have to test you.