Why You Need A Good Relationship With Difficult Students

Most teachers have a less-than positive relationship with difficult students—although it isn’t always evident to those around them.

Indeed, the teacher may not yell, scold, or berate them in front of their classmates, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t resentment churning under the surface. It doesn’t mean the teacher doesn’t secretly hope they’d move out of the neighborhood.

Difficult students are accustomed to cold-war relationships with teachers. They’re used to the quiet tension, the heavy sighs, and the obligatory smiles. They know when they’re disliked or merely tolerated. The disconnect is palpable.

But to truly change their behavior, to eliminate disruptions, drama, and disrespect from your classroom, merely refraining from hurtful methods isn’t enough. You must cultivate a harmonious relationship with them, one they’ll come to appreciate and cherish.

Here’s why:

A good relationship provides leverage.

If you don’t have a favorable relationship with difficult students, if they’re unhappy with you and dislike being in your classroom, then your ways and means of accountability aren’t going to mean much to them. They just won’t care.

Time-out means nothing to a student who resents their teacher. It means nothing if there isn’t a clear difference in experience between being a valued member of your classroom and being separated from it.

The leverage you need to compel them to behave comes from your likability and general pleasantness. When they like you and trust you, they’ll want to please you. This is the only surefire way to influence their behavior.

A good relationship softens the heart.

Students don’t listen to people they don’t like. None of us do. If your words are to have any effect, if they’re to matter and penetrate deep enough to make a difference, they must come from someone your students look up to.

Your steadfast refusal to let misbehavior get under your skin opens an initial line of communication. It frees the Gordian knot and makes building a good relationship possible. It makes them receptive to your humor and friendliness.

Difficult students expect you to glare at them. They expect sarcasm. They expect you to be like all the rest. They may even feel they deserve it. So when you roll into the picture offering kindness and forgiveness, it softens their heart and draws them like a magnet into your circle of influence.

A good relationship removes ugly labels.

Your willingness to joke, to say hello, to look at them and smile, to bond over your mutual interests, to choose to like them—with no strings attached—proves to difficult students that they’re wanted and welcome and have all the privileges that come with being a member of your classroom.

This is a powerful message most difficult students have never received. It’s a message that profoundly impacts how they view themselves and their world. You see, difficult students are weighed down by highly impressionable labels like behavior problem, goof-off, and troublemaker.

They have an irresistible inclination to fulfill those labels, to become what is reinforced day after day. But when they’re treated like everyone else, those ugly labels begin to slide off their shoulders. They lift and scatter like a dense fog reveals a sunny day.

And once difficult students begin to feel like everyone else, once their identity shifts from the margins of your classroom to Grade-A stamped and approved member, they begin behaving like everyone else.

It’s Starts With You

Having a good relationship with difficult students is a choice you make that is 100% in your power to control. But it must come from you first. It must be pure altruism, with zero expectation of receiving anything in return.

Which means that you may very well endure hurtful disrespect in the beginning. You may endure silliness, shunning rudeness, and even cruel behavior. You may have to swallow hard and remind yourself of your mission and why you really became a teacher.

You have to make a daily commitment that no matter how egregious the misbehavior, you will not take it personally. After all, it’s coming from a hurt and confused child. It’s coming from a boy or girl who desperately needs you to step forward, grab their hand, and lead them out of the mire.

But once you get through this stage, you’ll have an opportunity few teachers have had before you. You’ll have an opportunity to make a mark that will endure long after they leave your classroom.

You’ll have an opportunity to climb through the rubble, walk unchallenged past their defenses, and speak in both word and example directly into their heart.

You’ll have an opportunity to make a true connection.

And change their life.

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10 Responses to Why You Need A Good Relationship With Difficult Students

  1. Penny April 20, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    As always, an inspiring article! Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin April 20, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

      You’re welcome, Penny!

      Michael

  2. Lessie April 22, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    I really needed to read this. And this is why I appreciate your blog and your books. What you write is true. This approach It works. However, I can’t love my kids — treat them with “kindness and forgiveness” because it works, but just because. Otherwise my behavior has “strings.” Thank you for stating this so eloquently.

    This paragraph meant a lot:
    “Having a good relationship with difficult students is a choice you make that is 100% in your power to control. But it must come from you first. It must be pure altruism, with zero expectation of receiving anything in return. Which means that you may very well endure hurtful disrespect in the beginning. You may endure silliness, shunning rudeness, and even cruel behavior….You have to make a daily commitment that no matter how egregious the misbehavior, you will not take it personally. After all, it’s coming from a hurt and confused child. It’s coming from a boy or girl who desperately needs you to step forward…”

    I have a class now that wounds me. They are together in another class where they hate the teacher, and they sometimes will attack me like they attack her. It really hurts and sometimes makes me REALLY angry. (They do it to make each other laugh — to show off.) However, this approach works in the thick of the hatefulness. If I come back with kindness, it disfuses their attack and quietly the other kids move to my side. The hard part is that it’s the end of the year, and I’ve lost some of my consistency. I’m letting poor behavior slide and so part of my anger is directed at myself. And they are so smart-mouthed! UGH. They are so disrespectful. I appreciate your encouragement to not slide into sarcasm, but rather enforce the rules, enforce a class-wide culture of respect. UGH. Teaching is not easy! But a smile from a difficult kid is amazing.

    Also, an aside. Honestly, I could never respond with “kindness and forgiveness” if it wasn’t grace from the Lord. I have to pray for his love. ‘Cuz it ain’t in me naturally. 🙂

    • Michael Linsin April 22, 2014 at 7:19 am #

      Hi Lessie,

      Thank you so much for sharing. The key is to start early–first day of school–so it doesn’t get to the point where it becomes so difficult, where you’re battling and trying to overcome your instinct to hurt back.

      Michael

  3. Sheya April 25, 2014 at 9:42 am #

    Great advice. Just what I needed. It’s hard balancing quality time with all of the students. I have been spending one on one time with some ESL students who have been put in a lot of effort in all of their classes. I love my jokers and knuckle-heads (as my dad would say), but haven’t spent extra-time with them since they are upper level and wanted to catch up the other hardworking lower level students. However, I will put more effort in connecting with them individually.

  4. Kathy Vahovick January 26, 2016 at 3:18 pm #

    I didn’t really learn how to deal with difficult students when I was teaching, unfortunately. I did learn how to deal with them once I began tutoring one-on-one (which I did for 23 years). Now I am a coach for a virtual academy in Michigan. What I learned was that the truth was the best way to handle difficult students. I acknowledged their desire to be anywhere but tutoring with me. I encouraged them to explain their feelings about being in tutoring. I asked how they felt they were doing in the subjects I was supposed to tutor, and did they feel they needed help. I told them I wanted them to be honest. I explained to them that I would never lie to them, I would not disrespect them, and I would help them whenever they needed it. I asked only that they treat. me with respect. It was ok for them to be angry, but not disruptive and they could not damage anything. Generally it took some time for the student to relax and allow me to teach him/her, but we usually made good progress once they calmed down.

    On the other hand I did have one student that I never could get through to. I wished, every week when his appointed time approached, that he would cancel! He always threatened to tell his mom how mean I was, and she was going to take him out of my class. Oh, how I wished she would take him out of tutoring. That never happened until he went to high school. His behavior, social skills and academics improved through the 3 years I tutored him. And he was successful in high school. I guess it really is true, “All’s well that ends well.”

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