angry kid yelling with his hands forward

4 classroom management strategies for dealing with difficult students

There will always be those students who seem more challenging to connect with, those who just don’t seem to listen, or those who are perpetually unengaged… and a few who check off all of the above boxes. It can be frustrating for all involved — yourself, the parents, and, of course, the students themselves.

No matter what grade level you’re teaching, it’s critical your students learn and grow despite any obstacles they face. The good news is that there are strategies that you can put into action to get all your students on the right track.

Let’s take a look at a four-step game plan for managing difficult students and improving their experience in your classroom!

4 steps to handle challenging students

young student with round glasses with a magazine in his hands looking forward
Photo credit: Pixabay

1. Get to know them

This is something that goes without saying — and for that very reason, some teachers forget to put it into practice! It’s important for you to connect with your students at the start of the school year. However, if you’ve reached a point in the year where you feel that this can be improved, it’s never too late! Particularly if you have a student who has been hard to manage, you should try getting to know them a little better. Certain behaviors may have root causes, such as life circumstances or even a personality type that just doesn’t mesh with your own.

Find out what makes your student tick through observation, communication and activities. You may be surprised to discover that your student is deeply uncomfortable in group situations and is acting out, or perhaps they’re frequently hungry at school and would benefit from a breakfast program or some other intervention.

Facilitate a stronger relationship with your student to make this detective work easier. Rather than giving in to frustration and drifting further apart from the difficult student, you should try to double down on figuring out the real issue. Most people, of any age, are not just inherently ‘bad’ or ‘difficult’ — there is generally a cause, and figuring out what it is will equip you to better manage the situation.

Speaking of communication, you should also put effort into connecting with your student’s parents or guardians on a regular basis. Be sure to keep them in the loop and let them know of any positives as they occur. But you should also reach out with any concerns while they’re still relatively minute in case a problem can be nipped in the bud before it gets out of hand. Your student’s parents can be allies for you; if you can get on the same page with them in terms of expectations, rewards, and consequences for their child, you’ll have a much easier time managing that student’s classroom behavior.

Parents can give you insight into how their child operates and what their past experience has been like with other teachers, for instance. If fostering a relationship with your student’s parents is also difficult, that may give you a better idea of what your student is going through and could let you know what the student might be lacking at home that you can help to provide, at least to some degree, at school. For example, it could make a world of difference to dedicate even a minute or two of undivided attention to listen to your student on a regular basis — for whatever reason, circumstances at home may make a student feel unheard or unappreciated.

two girl students closely working on a paper together
Photo credit: Pixabay

2. Set them up for success

If you have a difficult student, treating them as such will only make things worse. In particular, it may be the case that this student already has some negative assumptions about themselves, especially if they’ve been identified as a ‘difficult student’ since kindergarten or if that label has been reinforced at home or elsewhere. Your student may have simply abandoned all attempts at changing their behavior because of this reinforcement, so they may repeat old patterns and continue on in that prescribed role. Changing the narrative will help!

First things first, instill and maintain clear expectations in your classroom. This is another practice best done at the outset of a school year — but, as with getting to know students, it’s never too late to either begin or strengthen expectations. At any grade level, it’s always a good idea to have a short set of important class rules on display. Some rules may seem like no-brainers, but laying out clear expectations can really benefit students. After all, students shouldn’t be determining what’s expected of them by guessing. Students of all ages will find comfort in knowing the rules and boundaries.

Success can also be set up for students by implementing a reward system. Class rewards are a great way to draw in the more challenging students as they work to accomplish something as a part of the classroom team. For example, you could have a chart on display on which everyone receives a check mark each time the room is left tidy after class. When a certain number of check marks have been earned, the class may get a free period.

Individual rewards will also benefit a trickier student. Keep the goal reasonably small and attainable, and build up goals from there. Also, be sure to make an individual reward something that’s important to the student and that will also benefit them educationally. This may be twenty minutes of tablet time on a Friday if they’ve met a small goal for that week, such as not interrupting you or others during lessons. Be sure to revisit the goal each day with the student to talk about accomplishments and progress.

group of students smiling and doing the peace sign at the camera
Photo credit: Rebecca Zaal

3. Have fun, fun, fun

Everyone, young and old and everywhere in between, likes to have a little fun. Shake things up in your classroom and take note of any changes to your difficult student’s behavior. An engaged student is less likely to act out or withdraw. Play games, have special theme days, and build a sense of community in your classroom.

Not sure where to start? Classcraft can supply a ton of engaging fun for your class. Try implementing games that match the topics you’re teaching, or ones that simply help to make the classroom an enjoyable place to be. Avoid getting stuck in a rut — sure, routines are awesome for students and can make them feel good, but there’s always wiggle room, and games are a good place to add a bit of a spark to education.

Difficult students might respond well to having some of the pressure taken off by using games and applications as a non-confrontational and exciting way to learn. These games can also help in your quest to zero in on students’ special skills, talents, and modes of engagement that are easy to miss through more traditional teaching methods.

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Photo credit: Pixabay

4. Supply the right tools

Certain skills can be intrinsic. Some people are born leaders or have a great sense of natural empathy. But these skills can also be taught and nurtured if they aren’t showing up on their own. Give students the tools to become leaders and the insight to foster empathy. Talk about what these skills look like, model them yourself, and allow students to have the chance to put what they learn into practice.

Does your difficult student have a knack for history, a certain math skill, or a love of science experiments? Figure out where they can shine, and let them do so! Your student can lead a group with their special expertise and gain loads of confidence and positive feelings about school at the same time. You can even start very simply: maybe that student can be in charge of a task in the classroom, such as attendance, or can be a source of help for other students in some way.

In short, give them a sense of purpose through leadership and consideration for others, and watch your student evolve and take pride in their place in your classroom. Fitting in and serving an important purpose can be a game changer for them.

Encouraging students is key!

Managing difficult students does not need to be quite so… difficult. But it does require some patience, observation, and creativity. All four steps of the classroom management for difficult students game plan have a common thread: Help students feel at home and integral to your classroom. If you cringe a little when your difficult student steps into your room for another day, they can feel that — so flip the script! Figure out what your student brings to the class that’s positive and unique, and use that as a beacon to draw them in and help them thrive.

Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelgaffar /

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