6 Powerful, Soul-Searching Things To Say To Difficult Students

We had a large email response to a recent article called, How To Talk To Difficult Students.

Most readers emailed to express how much easier dealing with difficult students had become after putting the suggestions to use.

But others wanted specifics.

They wanted to know exactly what to say to difficult students—and when. Excellent questions, to be sure, and I’m thrilled to revisit one of my favorite topics.

But before moving ahead, it’s important to note that unless you hold your most challenging students accountable for their poor behavior, then little of what you say will make a difference.

Because the words you use only hold meaning for them inasmuch as they deepen, underscore, or highlight lessons already learned—or in the process of being learned.

A timely word or two, though, can help bring these sometimes-hard lessons to life, allowing students to see their mistakes—and successes—in a new light.

The right words can also help build rapport and influence, buoy sagging spirits, and provide that metaphorical kick in the pants all of us need once in a while.

Below you’ll find six powerful, soul-searching phrases, none of which require an outward response from students.

In fact, they’re more effective if you don’t wait for one. For these are words you leave with them—to ponder, marinate in, and grapple with—not words that require anything from them.

And like the flash and crack of unexpected lightening, they’re sure to get their attention.

1. “You’re better than that.”

When: After an incident of misbehavior, perhaps while the student is sitting in time-out.

Why: It is both a statement of fact and a challenge. And coming from someone they respect, four little words never said so much. Like flipping a switch, it’s a remark that can instantly change a student’s attitude from feeling sorry for themselves or proudly smug to determined not to make the same mistake again.

2. “This is not who you are.”

When: At the end of a bad day, perhaps while the student is reading the behavior letter you presented him (or her) to take home.

Why: Through their words and actions, most teachers communicate to difficult students that their misbehavior is who they are, all but guaranteeing that poor behavior will not only continue, but get worse. This comment, though, said with calm conviction, assures them that it isn’t true.

3. “That’s not good enough.”

When: After a period of improvement.

Why: Difficult students are used to receiving heavy praise for modest improvement, and so this statement can come as a shock. At first glance it appears to be a criticism, but in effect it’s a powerful morale booster—because it lets them know that you believe in them, and that they’re capable of so much more.

4. “You can do this.”

When: Before trusting them with a delicate task or assignment, one that in the past would have tripped them up and caused unwanted behavior.

Why: As you begin to see improvement, you must give difficult students opportunities to take the next step. And so just before sending them off to work on a class project with their friends, for example, look them in the eye and make this remark with fist-pumping intensity.

5. “Now that is how you do it!”

When: After real success—not just improvement, mind you, and not simply a brief moment in time, but a clear and convincing change in behavior.

Why: From behavior contracts to scoldings to meaningless praise, most difficult students have been told they’re different for so long that failure becomes part of their DNA. This statement tells them otherwise, assuring them that they don’t have to be any better or try any harder—it’s living, breathing proof that they really can do it.

6. “I believe in you.” 

When: After hitting rock bottom.

Why: When a difficult student is feeling down about his misbehavior, it’s best to leave him alone with his thoughts. So many teachers interrupt this essential self-examination by trying to soften the blow—which spoils the lesson. After giving him time and space, however, this passing remark can mean the world to him.

Like An Angel

Because they’ve known so many of them, because they’ve been manipulated, coddled, indulged, and falsely praised ten times over, difficult students can pick a phony a mile away.

And so unless you genuinely believe in what you’re saying, it’s best not to say anything at all.

But sparingly used and in the right moments, with just the right tone and intonation, and with stripped down, unadulterated, eyeball-to-eyeball honesty…

Your words will have power.

So when you appear unexpected, like a guardian angel from on high, and deliver the message they most need to hear…

It will echo in their head long after you’ve turned and walked away.

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20 Responses to 6 Powerful, Soul-Searching Things To Say To Difficult Students

  1. Victoria Miles March 24, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    This is my favorite post yet. Simple statements. Yet profoundly important. Thank you for giving us useful strategies to help us relate to our students. I really love your blog.

    • Michael Linsin March 24, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      Thanks Victoria!


  2. Stephanie March 24, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    Michael your post articulates what I would often like to say to a couple of ‘notorious’ students but wasn’t sure how or when. They are usually the kids capable in their adult lives of higher achievements than most of us, and are also often dealing with issues at home or elsewhere we can’t imagine. They’re worth the effort, and deserving of a well-timed and worded prod. Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin March 24, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

      You’re welcome, Stephanie!

  3. Jones March 27, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    Starting to see a change, and I didn’t think anything would work, and it’s just keeping it this way now.

  4. Mr. Dave Miller December 5, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    I teach in a vocational career center and over the past 6 years , the behavior of these studentsseems to get more out of hand and most of these our not my students, but another teachers students that we share the lab with. These students oour out of control and no matter how many times I correct them they think its a joke. Just because there teacher will not deal with them. I work really hard on my supervision and disipline of my students, but when my students see his students get away with it, its like a disease. I have talked with the other teacher and he backs me but he says they our just a waist of time to keep correcting. What can I do? I feel like I have no control and also the administration does very little to help with these situations and the students know this and see it. I feel helpless and exhausted everyday. Any advise would be helpful. Thank You.

    • Michael Linsin December 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

      Hi Mr. Miller,

      Have you read through the archive of our website? I would start in the Classroom Management Plan category and then go from there. It will lead you to creating your own plan and learning how to effectively manage your students, instead of correcting them


  5. M.L. December 7, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    These words really are powerful and are in line with my core values and beliefs. Very simple yet so profound the power of these words. Thank you.

    • Michael Linsin December 7, 2012 at 7:33 am #

      You’re welcome, ML!


  6. Heidi December 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Thank you for these articles, are they from the book or are they independent? I don’t even remember how I found this site but I am glad for the intervention. Everyday my 4th period class leaves me feeling a bit unwound and so I read these articles to better myself, my thinking, my perhaps acting, and whatever it may be…thanks for the encouragement.

    • Michael Linsin December 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      You’re welcome, Heidi! You can find some of the same themes in the book Dream Class, but they’re relatively independent of each other.


  7. dental el paso December 17, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    When someone writes an paragraph he/she keeps the idea of a user in his/her mind that how a user can know it.
    So that’s why this piece of writing is amazing. Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin December 17, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

      Thanks for the compliment!


  8. S Merrell December 21, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    I agree with the words, I have been teaching for over 25 years and have used many myself. I wish I saw this site (wait i started before the internet lol) so I could have had some cheat notes lol. I do caution younger teachers that Rome wasn’t built in a day- who I was in front of the classroom when i started teaching is a distant relative of who I am now. I try and keep on learning, laughing, and adapting!!

    • Michael Linsin December 21, 2012 at 8:39 am #

      Way to go, S Merrell!


  9. sampath goud bommagani December 31, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    Really these 6 tips are very useful in dealing with difficult students.thanks a lot for providing such excellent tips.

    • Michael Linsin January 1, 2013 at 8:39 am #

      Thank you Sampath!


  10. Kate February 21, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    Michael, I hope you have any advice for me. I have a year 12 (last year high school) class with 26 boys and 1 girl. They are all 17. They are quite unmotivated and therefore easily distracted. I want them to focus and get some work done! They need to improve the work output, some of them produce very little despite my constant attention. They are all so needy of my time. It is a Vocational Education English class. I have moved the key problem students and had the head of English and head of year speak to them.

    • Michael Linsin February 21, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

      Hi Kate,

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. There are many articles on the website regarding motivation and independence. I’d look through the Calm, Focused, And Happy and Classroom Management Tips categories of the archive. You’ll find several articles on those two topics. 🙂


  11. rozie March 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    Went through most of your articles, and this is one of the most excellent tips which I shared with my teachers so they can apply them when they face the difficulties with their students.. Always looking forward for more on your great articles. Thanks

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