How To Hold Difficult Students Accountable

Smart Classroom Management: How To Hold Difficult Students AccountableLast week, a reader asked a question I’ve gotten a lot over the years.

How should I hold difficult students accountable?”

It’s a topic I haven’t covered specifically because the answer is so simple and direct:

Just like everyone else.

You calmly approach the student. You deliver the news.

You have a warning for breaking rule number two.”

Then you walk away.

It’s a way of enforcing consequences with all students without causing friction or resentment.

The result is that as long as you’ve taught your classroom management plan thoroughly, and you’re consistent, your students will look inward rather than pointing the finger elsewhere.

They may not be happy about the consequence, but they’ll reflect on their misbehavior. They’ll take ownership and responsibility and resolve not to make the same mistake again.

But the reader added an interesting twist to his question.

You see, over time he had established a good relationship with his more challenging students and was concerned about disrupting their “growing identity as well-behaved students.”

So much so that he was walking on eggshells around them. He was nervous about holding them accountable and damaging the relationship.

It’s a valid concern.

Because, when a difficult student is in the midst of transitioning into the well-behaved student you envision them to be, it’s a tenuous time.

One stern lecture or burst of anger from you could send them in the opposite direction.

So, even though you can’t go wrong with holding them accountable in the manner described above, there is one thing you can do to ensure that you aren’t misunderstood.

There is one thing you can do to safeguard your all-important relationship and send the message that receiving a consequence from you isn’t personal.

All it takes is a simple change in phrasing.

As you approach the student, it’s important to remember to be especially calm—even pleasant and easygoing. Take a few deep breaths if you have to. There is no hurry.

When you get their attention, make eye contact and say:

Hey Anthony, I really appreciate how well you’ve been doing, but I have to give you a warning for breaking rule number two.”

You’re still delivering your consequence. You’re still being clear and consistent. But you’re doing it in a way that acknowledges their improvement.

It’s a subtle but effective way of communicating that you’re just doing your job and that it in no way affects how you feel about them.

The key phrase here is I have to.

It reinforces their image of you as a leader to be trusted, as a person of integrity they can count on to do what they say they’re going to do.

I’ve used this strategy hundreds of times and the reaction is almost always the same:

The student will look down, nod their head, and say, “I understand.” You may also receive an apology, although it usually comes at the end of the day.

Both are proof that your relationship remains strong and influential. They show that the student is indeed on the right track and that their improvement is sure to continue.

It’s a simple little change, hard to believe it could make much difference. But for those few students on the cusp of great and enduring change . . .

It can mean the world to them.

PS This article touched on several important SCM principles and strategies. If you’re new to our website, or have questions about our approach, please visit the archive or pick up one of our books.

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12 Responses to How To Hold Difficult Students Accountable

  1. Day by day December 10, 2016 at 9:35 am #

    What student would simply say”I understand”????My students throw their hands in the air with that “WHAT!@?” Then continue on with “I wasn’t even doing anything!” Or “That wasn’t me.” I love this blog but I wish you could come in and see the disrespect when I say you have a warning.

    • Michael Linsin December 10, 2016 at 10:21 am #

      Hi Day by Day,

      I’ve covered what to do when a student is disrespectful in a number of articles. When you get a chance, please check out the archive (bottom sidebar) or use the Search function along the menu bar. Also, the above advice is for students you have rapport and influence with and who are showing evidence of improved behavior. As for how to get to that point, we have dozens of articles on the topic. I encourage you to spend time in our archive or pick up one or more of our books.


  2. Cathy m. December 10, 2016 at 9:54 am #

    Great advice! I have struggled with this issue myself. In fact, I used this same approach twice this past week. And it worked. The student appreciated the fact that I recognized her progress before saying “but you’re shouting across the room, and since that’s disruptive, I have to give you a warning.” It felt like we were both on the same page, something that never happened the first few months of this year.

    • Michael Linsin December 10, 2016 at 1:49 pm #

      Thanks Cathy! Way to go.


  3. Mary Kanaley December 10, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    Do you have any advice for the special education students. If you’ve written here or in your books I’ve missed it. I’m a middle school art teacher, so with the increase in STEM mine is the least restrictive classroom, so I have 50% or greater developmentally disabled (IQ 50 or lower) life skills level (IQ 50-80) and Special Education (varied) and BD ( behavior) Sometimes I have an aid. Any ideas what I can have the aid do to help as well. Behavior has really started to ramp up, as they introduce more of these students in the class.

    • Michael Linsin December 10, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

      Hi Mary,

      This is one of a series of big topics that have a lot of moving parts—which includes substitute teaching and students with attention difficulties—that I hope to cover in future e-guides.


      • ker December 12, 2016 at 6:22 pm #

        I too often wonder if the advice is applicable to our special needs students?

      • Mary Kanaley December 17, 2016 at 3:48 pm #

        I look forward to it. Thanks

  4. Aktreasure December 10, 2016 at 3:48 pm #

    And on the flip side is having to hold your normally good kids to the same standard. I had to give out a yellow light to both the frequent flier and a kid who had never been in trouble because they both decided to write on my library table. It was harder on my heart with the boy who had never been in trouble as he was almost in tears. But I couldn’t treat one differently from the other since they had both made the same poor choice.

  5. joc December 11, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

    I’m a veteran teacher in my first year with my current district. Our district has an intern program for new teachers and I have 2 students who escalate when I’m being evaluated. Last week during my OTES evaluation I had a student ask repeatedly for the bathroom and eventually left the classroom without permission.

    My Evaluator and Principal bot question if parent contact is a strong enough consequence.

  6. Jeff Sandberg December 12, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

    How do you handle the flippantly delivered “Sorry!”? I assume I know your answer, but I do tend to get irritated with their silent subtext, which is meant to say “Yeah, yeah, yeah… shut up and leave me alone already.” Thanks for your consideration.

    • Michael Linsin December 12, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

      Hi Jeff,

      You don’t respond because it isn’t your concern. By that time you’ve moved on anyway. I’ll try to include more on this in a future article.


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