How To Stop Wasting Time And Attention On Difficult Students

How To Stop Wasting Time And Attention On Difficult StudentsMost teachers talk to difficult students—those with a proclivity for misbehavior—way too often. If you’re spending more time on these students than others, it’s a sign you’re not curbing their behavior.

It’s also not fair to the rest of your class.

There is a correlation between the amount of time spent on difficult students and a worsening of their behavior.

The reason is simple. By giving difficult students more time and attention than others, you’re telling them that they’re different, that they can’t control themselves and thus need your constant attention.

You’ll often hear teachers say, “Oh my gosh, I have Anthony on my roster. It’s going to be a long year. He needs so much attention!” The fact is Anthony doesn’t need any extra attention.

Though now he thinks he does.

Every teacher he has ever had has spent precious minutes of every day cajoling him, admonishing him, lecturing him, getting angry with him, and indulging in his ever-growing need for attention.

The solution is to simply cut difficult students like Anthony off from any extra time and attention (from you). Instead, let your classroom rules speak for you. If you treat difficult students like everybody else, they’ll start behaving like everybody else.

Following your classroom management plan every time a student breaks a rule frees you from being forced to use your words to get students to behave as you desire, which not only doesn’t work, but is also a major cause of teacher stress.

As soon as a student like Anthony realizes that you’re going to treat him like everyone else, his behavior will change.

Part of the reason for this change is because he is being held accountable for his actions without the added commentary from the teacher—which makes him resentful (see article on lecturing). The other part is because he’s thrilled to finally not be treated like an outcast.

If Anthony is new to your classroom, the change can happen quickly. If, however, he has been in your room for a while and has grown accustomed to your frequent conferences, reminders, warnings, and the like, it may take awhile.

Cutting difficult students off from the attention they’ve been receiving doesn’t mean you should ignore them. It means that, when it comes to behavior issues, they should be treated the same as anyone else who breaks a rule. However, you must go out of your way to let them see this new reality for themselves.

Let difficult students see you enforcing rules for every student, regardless of who they are. Let them experience the same level of praise as other students. Much too often, difficult students are praised for things that aren’t worthy of it, which hurts your cause and is detrimental to them.

If a difficult student does something well, let them know in the same manner you would all of your students. And when they break a rule, tell them what rule they broke and then enforce a consequence.

And if they keep breaking rules, keep enforcing consequences.

Lasting improvement doesn’t come from frequent pow-wows, lectures, or feel-good pep talks. Difficult students improve because of the lessons learned from being held accountable for their actions.

Focus your attention on creating an enjoyable classroom experience for your students, and refrain from speaking to individual students about their behavior or giving more attention to those that misbehave more often.

Instead, follow your classroom management plan and heartily let your students know when they’re doing well.

Your most difficult students will appreciate being treated the same as everyone else and, as a result, seek to be a contributing member of your classroom rather than the outcast “behavior problem” they’ve been in the past.

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9 Responses to How To Stop Wasting Time And Attention On Difficult Students

  1. Molly October 16, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    I’m concerned about this article and was hoping that you were willing to listen to some criticism. I am a special education major in my last semester of school, in addition to this I have a son with some emotional disturbance. Now I agree that labeling a child leads to him feeling different than others and therefore, insecure, and may lead to other behaviors as a result, but I have a strong feeling that there are those occasions where a student may need some extra attention to help him adjust, transition, or just to accommodate some unique needs, such as social ineptitude. Some children may have constant conflicts with other children because of a chemical or personality disorder. This student might have a 504 plan or an IEP, so I would hope that you understand that this will entail some personal attention to help him through the day, often for kids like this it is daily.
    I am afraid you’re giving advice to teachers who may not know this, and this could be detrimental for the students who may end up having the most traumatic school year because their teacher thought it a good idea to ignore his constant cries and complaints and horrible behaviors, or worse, suspend or expel him when he may have just needed a particular plan of action that will work for him (or her). This goes against much of what you believe in I think, but kids behavior problems are not addressed properly. many times a behavior problem is a way of communication. In this case this student will need to be heard, but first you have to tell him your willing to listen. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t be disciplined, but I am saying that you must be able to recognize when a student needs a different kind of approach.
    Thank you, and Good luck
    ~Molly Harrell

    • Michael Linsin October 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

      Hi Molly,

      I only recommend strategies, tips, and solutions that will inspire students to become better, happier, more confident, and more successful than ever before. The 130 plus articles on the website and the book Dream Class represent a loving classroom environment, one where all students are able thrive and flourish under the caring eye of a strong, capable teacher.


  2. Amy November 17, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    As a teacher with years of experience and a masters in special education, I have yet to see a child improve in behavior when given special attention for disruptive or non-compliant behavior. Instead, these students with emotion/social difficulties become more self-centered and willful. What I have seen work wonders, was ignoring behaviors (encouraging classmates to do the same), but interacting during times when these students were on track and being encouraging when these students were behaving positively. The turn around once these students realize that you are consistent, is amazing.
    However, if a student is bullying other students, especially physically, all this goes out the window. No other students emotional, academic or physical wellbeing should be sacrificed for the sake of another student or group of students.
    To me, the current behavioral plans, that force entire classes to evacuate during meltdowns, while the emotional disturbed student is given special privileges until he/she has calmed down — is an outrage and an insult. I have heard of plans written that included the classroom being removed and the Principal coming to sit next to a SED student in a bean bag chair and read to him until the melt down is over. What a shame, that an education team would agree to a plan that would encourage, manipulation, narcissism, waste of time and resources, and inconsideration of others. For certain, this sort of plan does not prepare an SED student for the real world, where one day this same young man or woman will be facing jail time, regardless of his/her label.

    • Michael Linsin November 18, 2011 at 7:27 am #

      Hi Amy,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experience with our readers. Excellent points.


  3. Amber December 9, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    Is this for all ages or just little kids?

    • Michael Linsin December 9, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

      Hi Amber,

      The article refers to school-age children.


  4. Bev January 24, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    I have been using this strategy and it works. I teach Spanish and have two classes with 30 kids, so my classes can be chaotic. If I tried to talk to a student, he/she wouldn’t hear me anyway. I just give detentions until the behavior changes. If I feel that someone needs me, then I help as much as possible. If I try to help and the student ignores me, then I won’t return as often to help that student. For me, it’s just easier to give detention.
    We have an ‘invisible mentor’ program here and I have had success with several students. I just use detention for students who don’t care and don’t try.

  5. Gabrielle August 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm #


    Hopefully this article isn’t too old and someone can help me out. I am a camp counselor (no professional educational training, though I have worked in classrooms). I only have these kids for two weeks and I am worried that at day 3, I may be too late to change one child’s behavior. He missed day one, where we went over rules and has been trying to push my buttons since day 2. He is a year older than my other 26 campers and true be told, no one likes him. He is rude, mean, and cannot stand to lose. The other campers don’t like him and according to a fellow counselor, have often complained out the mean things he has said to them (I have yet to hear anything directly or indirectly from any campers). Today he told me that he hates me, the other counselors, the camp, the campers and the museum we reside in. I talked with dad a bit on how we can think of ways together on having more fun at camp since we are stuck for seven more days, but I feel lost. I’m going to try ignoring him (when he gets angry and spiteful) and telling everyone else to as well, but is there anything I can really do in 7 days? Six truly since we already know he is missing a day.



    • Michael Linsin August 8, 2013 at 8:24 am #

      Hi Gabrielle,

      First and foremost make sure he knows and understands the rules and what happens if he breaks those rules. Accountability is crucial. I recommend reading through the Difficult Student category of the archive. Although geared for classroom teachers, it should be helpful to your situation.