Why You Should Ignore Difficult Students The First Week Of School

Smart Classroom Management: Why You Should Ignore Difficult Students The First Week Of SchoolNo, you’re not going to ignore their misbehavior.

It’s just that . . . well, let’s back up a little.

When you first receive your roster for the coming year, it’s normal to want to get the lowdown on your new class.

It’s normal to seek out teachers from the grade below to see if you have any especially difficult students.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But by doing so, you can actually trigger their misbehavior. You can cause these challenging students to jump right back into the same bad habits they struggled with the year before.

You see, teachers who know ahead of time which students have a proclivity to misbehave will inevitably try to nip it in the bud. They’ll try to prevent it from growing into a major problem.

So they’ll seat them in the front of the room. They’ll pull them aside for pep-talks, warnings, and reminders.

They’ll try to “catch them doing good” and use their hovering presence as a deterrent.

But what this does is send the message that nothing has changed from the year before—or the year before that. Teacher after teacher has employed the same strategies.

Yet they continue to disrupt learning. They continue to be silly. They continue to argue, play around, and get up and wander the room during lessons.

Because the extra attention, especially during the first week of school, is a form of labeling.

It tells them loud and clear that they’re not like the other students. It tells them that they’re not good enough, that they can’t control themselves, and that they need special attention.

The truth is, labeling has a profound effect on individual behavior, more so than any other classroom variable.

It reinforces the false narrative difficult students already believe about themselves that “behavior problem” is who they are—as much a part of them as their eye color or shoe size.

So, on the first day of school, when they find their assigned seat in the front of the room, when they notice your frequent and proximate attention, when they’re asked to line up behind the most well-behaved student in the class . . .

Their heart sinks.

Because they know that no matter what—new year, new class, new teacher—they can’t escape their destiny.

Resigned to their fate, they shrug their shoulders and give you exactly what you expect. They become a walking, talking, misbehaving self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s sad and tragic. Yet it’s a scenario that is repeated again and again in classrooms all over the world, with the same predictable results.

From the moment the new school year begins, if your behavior is in any way different around those few students with a “reputation,” they’ll recognize it immediately.

After all, they’re looking for it. They’re highly attuned to it. They know it intimately because they’ve been on the receiving end of it their entire lives.

So what should you do instead?

Treat them with the same gentle kindness, humor, and respect you do all of your students.

Don’t go out of your way. Don’t seat them in front of the room. Don’t pull them aside for reminders, if-I-were-yous, false praises, warnings, and the like.

Instead, give them a chance to turn over a new leaf.

Pretend they’re already perfectly well behaved. Act as if they’re already successful. Show them that you believe in them by interacting with them just like you do everyone else.

Give them hope that this year is going to be different, and those backbreaking labels, which are causing so much of their misbehavior, will begin to slide off their shoulders.

Their eyes will rise to meet yours. Their expressions will soften. Their breathing will deepen.

Relief will wash over them like a summer rain.

Again, this doesn’t mean that you’ll ignore their misbehavior. You’ll still follow your classroom management plan to the letter. You’ll still hold them accountable.

Just like everyone else.

Give these school weary and teacher wary students a chance to become the potential you see in them.

Grant them a new prophecy.

Rewrite their story.

And they’ll never be the same.

PSThe Smart Classroom Management Plan for High School Teachers will be available this Monday, July 18th. If you’re a high school teacher, I hope you’ll check it out.

Also, if you haven’t done so already, please join us. It’s free! Click here and begin receiving new-article updates in your email box every week.

48 thoughts on “Why You Should Ignore Difficult Students The First Week Of School

  1. Awesome post! I agree. I do have a question on the same vein– the first week of school, do you recommend following your plan to a tee or letting the students get used to the rules and expectations first?

    I teach first grade, and it takes some time for them to get used to the expectations. If I held them accountable starting the very first day, a lot of the students would be going home with notes.

    Is there a point– maybe 2 or 3 days or a week in– where you start to hold students strictly accountable?

  2. Every year I used to ask other teachers about my upcoming year’s roster… “hey do you know any of these kids?” I’d want to get the dirt on every one of them. But now I only ask for red flags – anything that might concern the safety of my students or myself. Other than that, like you said, I’m afraid it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes just knowing what a student is “supposed” to be like causes a teacher to subconsciously treat them differently (apparently it’s called the Pygmalion effect).

  3. I always appreciated the lowdown on my classes. I would not only know which students should sit together (or NOT sit together) but it gave me the heads up on students with special needs–those with hearing problems, sight problems, those who were autistic and all sorts of other crises that kids are going through these days. Then I pretended NOT to know! I appreciated the feedback of my colleagues and I rarely had any classroom management problems. If I did, I followed procedure–the same for everyone–and they were resolved.

  4. Okay. What if you don’t know anything about the student. It’s the first week, and there is that one student who is just blurting out things while you are talking so they can make the class laugh. Do you ignore that? Will that child continue to disrupt class from that point on to where it becomes a distraction from learning?. I guess long as it’s not extremely major or explicit ignore it. However, in the future it can cause a major distraction from other students especially if they participate in the interruption and see it as acceptable.

    • Hi Regina,

      If you get a chance, please read the article again. They are addressed within. Also, you may want to check out our archive, where your questions have been covered extensively.


  5. Hi Michael,
    Another great article! I have read all of your books and recently got, ” The Happy Teacher Habits” ( which I am saving to read until just before school starts).
    Your writings are applicable to a such a wide range of classrooms. May I ask which grade level that you are teaching currently?

    • Hi Greg,

      I hope you like the new book! After many years in elementary, I currently teach high school, all grades.


  6. What about letting students choose their seat, with the caveat that as long as the follow the rules, listen while the teacher is talking, they may stay there?

    • As long as you include a few important guidelines, letting them choose their seats can work well. I’ll be sure to unpack how, why, and what those guidelines are, however, in a future article.


  7. How do you recommend dealing with comments from passing teachers (especially those from “specials”) who make comments like, “Oooooh, you’ve got Johnny this year! Good luck!” etc.? Not only in front of the challenging student, but in front of the entire class. They should know better, of course . . . and I can’t keep it from happening . . . So I guess I’m asking how to handle it after it happens–please help!

    • I laugh, and lead the class in the idea that it’s a joke (which, after the teachers get to know me, it usually is!) That has served me well in my 31 years at high school level.

  8. Interesting because being a specialist teacher, I will see the same kids year after year so it’s natural to want to “head them off at the pass.” I will have to be purposefully conscious of allowing them a fresh start even while remembering misbehavior from the years past.

    • Me, too. I have the same issue as a specialist, especially when there are personalities that end up in the same class that make for interesting dynamics. On the flip side, I have often been pleasantly surprised at how much students mature from one year to the next and what was an issue before is gone.

  9. We get our class lists before the school year ends. I get the low-down and take notes. Then I tuck that info away and don’t peek at in until October.

  10. This has nothing to do with this article, but I’ve been reading your books and have truly enjoyed them. I have a question though. You stress the importance of not using external rewards in your classroom, which I agree with. What would you tell a teacher who works in a PBIS school? Teachers at my school are required to give “bucks” to students who we see “doing what’s right”. Teachers, principals, custodians, cafeteria workers, office staff, etc… are to give bucks out constantly. I find it exhausting and has made the students think they need a reward for just doing a good deed or something nice.

    Thanks for your blogs. I look forward to them every Saturday.

    • Hi Kelly,

      I get this question a lot and never really know what to say other than to hang in there and hope your school sees the light.


        • Hi Kristie,

          We don’t, but a quick look through the Incentives & Praise category of the archive will give you a good idea about how I feel about it.


  11. My mother-in-law would agree with you! She taught 4th grade for practically all of her teaching career and she told me that she NEVER read what the earlier teachers said about the kids because she wanted them all to have a fresh start without any preconceived ideas on her part. I liked that!

    I’m not a school teacher, but I do teach children at my church. It was in searching for advice on how to deal with them that I found your web-site. Thank you for your columns! I enjoy reading them every week.

  12. This is an awesome article! I am a veteran teacher who tries to give students a fresh start every year, but realize I’ve been guilty occasionally of giving “priority” seating to students I was concerned about. I will change that for this year!

    Thanks for the thoughtful reading.

  13. Thank you for all your good advice. I do go over test scores, prior report cards, and note which teacher they had last year. I then make my seating chart so that any child who has a “history” is seated far away from any other student who has a “history”. Other than that, my “pods” are made up of students with mixed reading levels, mixed genders, and mixed prior teachers. Try very hard not to put students who had the same teacher last year all together. This lets them get to know a new person. Yes, it’s pretty controlling, but it’s worked pretty well so far. Like a PP, my school does PBIS and I wish it wouldn’t.

  14. I wanted to know what to do if you have a student that was left back from last year returning to your classroom this year. I have had this happen several times. It is very difficult when the student feels angry towards you for having failed and being left back. As a teacher I want to start off the year on a positive note, but having a student start off the year angry makes it very difficult.

    • Hi Howard,

      It’s a big question that takes more explanation than the time or space I have here. But I’ll be sure to put it on the list of future articles.


  15. I have a kinder class with mostly boys, 18 to be exact, only 7 girls. The boys are pretty wild, many are new to a school setting. What’s the best way to step up my behavior reinforcement. The first week, last week, was challenging. They’re really trying to challenge me and I don’t want to lose my cool.

    • Hi Daisy,

      I think you came to the right place. This blog endeavors to answer your question. We have nearly 400 articles that outline exactly what to do. I would begin in the Classroom Management Plan category of the archive and go from there.


  16. Hi Michael, I started the year with one high school class and am taking notes from your book to implement my CMP fully next week with my middle schoolers. One new problem that I found is that most of the students had a cellphone! The rules of the school say no cellphones in class. I spoke with some coworkers and everyone has a different approach and some of them let them use their phones just no to argue with the students. How would you work around a situation like this when seems that also other teachers break the school rules?

    • Hi Gabriel,

      I would follow the school rule. As long as you explain exactly what you’ll do if you see a phone out, and do it, I don’t see anything to walk around.


  17. When I was a music student teacher, I did this very thing–I treated students labeled as “difficult” by my cooperating teacher (and with good reason) as though they were ordinary, well-behaved students, and I witnessed utter surprise on their faces, which they tried to hide. They clearly weren’t used to being spoken to like any other student or having their weaknesses overlooked and their strengths focused on. I found this was especially effective in informal moments such as lineups and at the lockers between classes or the end of the day.

    Most students will want to live up to your high opinion of them. Conversely, they’ll be discouraged if you constantly show disapproval and negative expectations. Thanks for getting this important message out there, Michael!

  18. Thank you for your helpful articles! I wish I had read them earlier. I will be “pushing in” to 7th & 8th grade classes this year, for SpEd. I have never worked with this age group and want to be careful not to embarrass them. Do you have any advice?

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