Handling Difficult Students The First Week Of School

Hoping to head misbehavior off before it starts, most teachers try to be proactive with difficult students.

Even before the bell rings on the first day of school, they peruse their new roster looking for those few whose reputation precedes them.

They chat up previous teachers. They scrutinize student files. They nervously begin conjuring up creative ways of dealing with them—all before they even set foot in the classroom.

And so when Anthony or Karla or whoever shows up for the first day of school, they can feel the bull’s-eye on their back. They can sense the proximity, the attention, and the intensity from their new teacher.

They can feel labeled right out of the gate.

And when students feel labeled, they’re pulled inexorably in its direction—fulfilling the prophecy it foretells.

To ensure this doesn’t happen on your watch, and to get your reputed difficult students headed in the right direction, it’s best to make them feel like just another member of your classroom.

Here’s how:

1. Don’t seat them closest to you.

When a student with a difficult reputation walks in on the first day and is asked to sit closest to the teacher, she knows the score. She knows instantly that she won’t be able to leave the mistakes and failures of the previous year behind her. She thinks, “Here we go again . . . so I might as well give the teacher what he expects.”

2. Don’t spend more time with them.

Kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for. Sure, some may be two grade levels behind in reading, but they’ll pick up on nuances in your behavior like a primatologist. Your extra attention and frequent check-ins communicate loud and clear that you’ve got your eye on them, creating a distrustful relationship right from the get-go.

3. Don’t speak to them any differently.

It’s common for teachers to speak to difficult students differently than others—without even realizing it. They smile and gab with some as if they don’t have a care in the world. But in the next instant their face goes blank and their voice drops three octaves when they turn to speak to Anthony or Karla. It’s like saying, “I don’t want you in my class, I don’t believe in you, and I expect you to misbehave.”

4. Don’t bring up the previous year.

By way of warning, it’s a common tactic to let difficult students know—in no uncertain terms—that you’re aware of their previous behavior problems. But this undermines your ability to build rapport. It puts you at odds and in competition, and makes them want to push your buttons, get under your skin, and misbehave behind your back.

5. Don’t ignore their misbehavior.

Another common strategy, particularly in the beginning of the year, is to ignore less serious, less disruptive behavior from difficult students. But this is yet another obvious sign to them that they’re not like everybody else. Misbehavior, silliness, and distraction then become their identity rather than something they can control.

One Standard

When you treat difficult students differently than their classmates, when you employ strategies, tactics, and teacher behaviors meant only for them, in effect you’re telling them that they’re incapable of behaving like a successful student.

It reinforces the message that misbehaving is who they are, like their eye color or shoe size, boxing them in and weighing them down by the label draped over their shoulders like a wet winter coat.

And when it happens the first week of school, when you make it clear that you’ve got your eye on them, you’re setting them up for failure. You’re setting them up for yet another frustrating, here-we-go-again school year.

They become the clown prince or princess of your classroom, sadly feigning to take nothing seriously and having no care for tomorrow.

Lasting change happens when we show students, when we prove to them, through our actions and our commitment to the same soaring standards as everyone else . . .

That we believe in them.

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21 Responses to Handling Difficult Students The First Week Of School

  1. Kathleen August 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Hi Mr. Linsin, I really enjoy your articles about managing a difficult student. My question is about the apathetic student, the “do nothing” student. I have had a student like this a few times and his/her issue is incomplete assignments, falling further and further behind. Removal from group activities as a consequence sounds like something these students would like! Any advice on having a rule and consequence about completing assignments? Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin August 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

      Hi Kathleen,

      This is a big question that needs a more complete answer than I can give here. I’ll be sure and put it on the list of future topics. Stay tuned!


  2. Barry Mernin August 11, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    Pretty good advice. May I add some more?

    Do listen
    Do encourage
    Do empathize
    Do find connections
    Do ask for their help

  3. Hilary August 13, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Hi Michael! Success story here! The first day of school I had a group of boys in my very first class who I had last year when my classroom management was falling apart. They had apparently shared with some other kids some of the things they had gotten away with, so there were about 8 boys right at the beginning of the day who were chomping at the bit right as they walked in the door. While I did not do it perfectly, I did my best to be as consistent as possible with my discipline plan and impressed myself with how calm I stayed. Today, Monday, was very different. While they weren’t perfect, they were much much better. IMPORTANTLY, I was not lulled by this improvement, and still gave warnings and sent one to timeout. I am very proud of myself! And you know what, I can feel the respect growing BOTH ways. Thank you thank you thank you for this website, your book and your help.

    • Michael Linsin August 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

      That’s wonderful, Hilary! I’m proud of you too. Keep up the great work! 🙂


  4. Stephanie Tyson August 25, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    I started school last week and things were great for the first two days. Day 3 I had two new students and it was a struggle. I googled “classroom management difficult students” and came upon your site. I’m so glad I did. I love how straight-forward and precise your ideas are without being bogged down in “teacher-jargon.” I can easily implement all of these ideas (I was already doing a lot of this but now I know it’s the right thing to do!). I can’t wait until Monday.

    • Michael Linsin August 26, 2012 at 6:58 am #

      Great, Stephanie! I’m glad you found us.


  5. Janee December 29, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Rule 1 says don’t isolate the student by seating them close to the teacher, but them the members only theory says, to separate them from the classroom and when they are ready to be members again they will talk to you. I feel like it is a contradiction. All a lot of public school are doing is just letting kids slip through the cracks so they can get money. Then they can go from the school system to the jail system and see how they like that. Its the parents fault. Even if its genetic cause they got their genes from the parents. They need to put camaras in the classroom they are everywhere else, so they can see how teachers are acting and kids are acting, you can’t dispute whats on film.

    No matter what the best teacher does some still lose no matter what.

    I do like the Members-Only ideal, I guesse membership does have its perks. Thats if they care anything about being part of a group and don’t have issues where they are socially-disconnected. Elementary school is the foundation of life, and I bet some teachers could pinpoint future inmates or doctors based on what they seen in the class if circumstances don’t change.

    • Michael Linsin December 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

      Hi Janee,

      Read number one again. I think you misunderstood.


  6. Deaun January 5, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    Dear Michael,
    I was hired into a district after school started–third teacher in the first month!–and everything that has worked in the past for me has backfired in this particular classroom. We’ve been using CHAMPS without a great deal of success; the old saying that rules keep an honest person honest, but don’t do much for the others is accurate. There are 5 students who are making our class a living hell and taking everyone’s learning opportunities straight down the drain. I have been implimenting changes since joining your website and have a copy of your book due to arrive on Tuesday. Monday, I will be introducing time out concequences to my students–thank you for your valuable suggestions and for sharing proven results. I love my class and want to see the positive environment that is possible once the Big 5 are students instead of outlaws.

    Your fan,


    • Michael Linsin January 5, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

      You’ll do great, Deaun! Good luck!


  7. Courtenay February 10, 2013 at 3:22 am #

    Hi Micahel,
    It’s my first teaching assignment (part-time) and we’ve just finished week 2 (I’ve had them 5 days out of the 10) and I feel like I’ve already ‘lost’ one student in particular. He is the poster child for disrespectful behaviour and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting anywhere when I felt that I was following the Classroom Behaviour Management plan. I realise now that I was wrong!!! Yes we have rules and consequences in place, but I haven’t been consistent. I thought I’d tried everything: being nice, having serious one-on-one talks, lecturing the whole class, and being tough. I literally cringed when I read “4. Don’t bring up the previous year”. I couldn’t believe I’d stooped so low! How stupid of me! Reading many of your articles has made me see the mistakes I’ve made with him. Is it too late to change my tune and get him onside? I feel like I am a nice teacher and I try really hard to make the lessons interesting and interactive, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy doing anything at school other than sport. I’ve noticed he gets more ‘showy’ when he doesn’t understand something. However, the last two days I couldn’t do anything without him making comment or making a big fuss. I was so highly-strung Friday night I knew I had to try something else because what I was doing clearly wasn’t working. I will endeavour to follow all your tips and classroom management plan tips this coming week! Feeling positive again.

    Thank you from a very eager first-year teacher!

    • Michael Linsin February 10, 2013 at 9:05 am #

      You’re welcome, Courtenay! It’s never too late for any student.


  8. Sarah September 2, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    I am completely new here and new to teaching too. Most articles here describe how to handle school going kids. How differently would you describe classroom management for University students? I understand they are allowed slightly more liberty on a number of things, but i have seen lecturers with a relatively strict way of dealing with things to be more effective. How to get students to actually work towards assigned assignments and presentations? and How exactly to handle rude students who spoil the learning process and m and challenge your position in class as a lecturer?

    • Michael Linsin September 2, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

      Hi Sarah,

      Those are great questions, but too big for the time and space we have here. In fact, they are generally beyond what we cover on this website. I do, however, invite you to spend some time in our archive to learn more about our philosophies, which in principle can, I believe, be adapted to college-age students.


  9. Jorge September 15, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    I love your web and books (I have two of them)
    Whay would you do with a five grade student that doesn,t want to do anything in class? This one is a gipsy and he has a poor english level (lower than the rest of the class) and I am a spanish teacher who teaches english subject in Spain.
    Thanks in advanced.

    • Michael Linsin September 15, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

      Hi Jorge,

      I’ve written about motivation in the past, but will be sure and cover the topic again in the near future. Stay tuned!


  10. Cyndi Vinovskis September 24, 2016 at 8:32 am #

    Hi, Michael,
    Love this approach- it is working well for me this year in my music classes. Question:. Is there a time when it would be appropriate to change student seating, due to children not keeping their hands off each other, or personality conflicts? I am already giving warnings for “hands and feet to self” and “be kind in words and actions”, but I have a few, mostly first graders, who don’t really like the person they are sitting next to, and try not to work with them when we are working partners, etc. Would changing their seats be admitting defeat?

    • Michael Linsin September 24, 2016 at 10:06 am #

      Hi Cyndi,

      I wrote about this topic in the book Dream Class. I don’t recommend keeping students separated from each other because of behavior (unless there is a special (dangerous) circumstance).