A Radical Way To Transform Difficult Students

Smart Classroom Management: A Radical Way To Transform Difficult StudentsSo you have this student who disrupts your class every day.

They’re a constant annoyance.

You spend more time dealing with them than any ten students put together.

You think about them in your off hours. You talk about them with your spouse.

They get under your skin like nothing else.

You hold them accountable and cycle them through your consequences day after day, but to little avail.

They improve for a couple of hours, maybe a day, and then it’s right back where they started.

It’s wearing on you, stressing you out, and affecting your enjoyment of the job.

You’ve tried everything, so it seems, and now you’re at your wit’s end.

Today, I’m going to offer you a radical solution.

It’s a solution that at first glance seems almost too simple, but it sets in motion a series of changes within the student that can have a profound effect on their behavior.

It takes a bit of willpower, along with a mental hurdle you’ll have to cross. But the results can be startling.

The way it works is that you’re going to change how you think about the student.

You see, as the year goes on and you get more and more frustrated, negative thoughts about them are bound to seep in. Perhaps they’ve been there from the get-go.

It’s normal, and understandable, to feel this way. Resentment can even grow outside of your conscious awareness.

Before you know it, this one student, and how much they get on your nerves, is consuming your thoughts.

Well, the big secret is that they know how you feel about them, even if you’ve done your Meryl-Streep best pretending otherwise.

Because it’s something you can’t hide.

Although you may have never raised your voice, scolded, or lectured this student, the subtle ways in which you talk to them and behave around them let’s them know your true feelings.

They can see it in your eyes, your tight smile, and your closed body language. This isn’t something they’re necessarily consciously aware of.

But they know.

Children are astute, even psychic, judges of how adults perceive them. Far more than we give them credit for. Think of a time when you’ve met a baby or toddler for the first time, but weren’t in the mood to coo and ah.

Despite your best acting efforts, and biggest, goofiest smile, they could feel your disingenuousness. You can see it in their eyes.

This is true no matter the grade level you teach.

When there is an absence of mutual likability between you and your most challenging students, you lose nearly all of your leverage to influence their behavior.

Because you don’t matter to them. What you say, want, request, and advise doesn’t matter to them. It’s just an annoyance.

So what’s the solution? How do you get them to listen to you and start behaving like just any other student in your class?

You choose to like them.

You make a conscious decision that, no matter what they do or how they behave or how many times they disrupt your class, you’re going to see only the best in them.

You’re going to change your thinking—which really is a choice, nothing more.

In fact, once you set aside your negative feelings about them, once you shrug off your resentment and decide to like them, you’ll find that it isn’t so difficult after all.

And here’s the good news: Improvement will happen fast.

Students are quick to forgive and eager for someone to look up to. They’re eager for a leader they can trust and follow and believe in.

So when you choose to see the best in them, when your smile is genuine and your interest in them is real, it changes everything. And they’ll like you right back.

It triggers the Law of Reciprocity and causes in them a desire to please you and behave for you. Your words of praise, encouragement, and honest disappointment will mean something to them, deep down, where change happens.

This is leadership.

Few teachers have a genuinely good relationship with their most difficult students. But those who do are able to inspire lasting improvement. They’re able to make an impact on those who’ve been written off, labeled, and merely tolerated.

They’re able to do something no other teacher has been able to do.

And so are you.

By making one radical, beautiful choice.

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39 Responses to A Radical Way To Transform Difficult Students

  1. Mrs. Anna Nichols April 29, 2017 at 7:47 am #

    YES! This is so true – our attitude as teachers sets the tone! I have a class full of difficult 6th grade students this year; after months of consistent, fair accountability, one by one these boys are being won over BECAUSE I have fought to maintain a good attitude toward them no matter what they do. It has been a struggle, but the light is coming on! They are enjoying the class and responding positively to me, the previously hated teacher! I am determined to enjoy that class, and each kid in it, regardless. Thank you, Michael, for continuing to inspire us with tried and true ways to reach even the toughest kids!

    • Michael Linsin April 29, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

      You’re welcome, Anna.


    • AmyJo Vazquez April 29, 2017 at 6:16 pm #

      This is unadulterated truth. When we make the choice to find strength and good qualities in our tough kids, and then communicate those strengths with them and others, changing our speech about them, we speak life. I teach Special Education in a tough urban school district. I’ve had kids cuss me out as I walked into their classroom to service them. I’ve come to a place where I recognize that those are potential moments of change. Not for every kid, not every time. But if I’m provoking a response, and I can match a negative with words of life, a tiny change can begin. I’ve watched my busters become sterling students. It doesn’t get any better than that. Thanks for sharing!

  2. jann April 29, 2017 at 8:06 am #

    You are my hero! Thanks for reminding me that it just takes this one simple step to improve classroom dynamics. I will go in Monday with a new approach.

  3. Jo Hawke April 29, 2017 at 9:35 am #

    This is powerful!

  4. Karen Sonntag April 29, 2017 at 10:25 am #

    It can be very dufficult to do after you’ve already dealt with this student. That’s why I always try to connect with each student on the first day with looking in each student’s eyes as I shake their hand and welcome them into the classroom. Thanks Michael, for the reminder to keep up the upbeat attitude throughout the school year.

    • Michael Linsin April 29, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

      It’s my pleasure, Karen.

  5. Lavinia Pirlog April 29, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    Actually, this choice is a MUST.

  6. Emily April 29, 2017 at 10:36 am #

    I actually learned this years ago. It works. Those kiddos may not necessarily become Golden Examples, but in my experience the improvement is significant.

  7. Emily April 29, 2017 at 10:38 am #

    And to add, it’s not you against the child, it’s you and the child against the misbehavior.

  8. Christine April 29, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

    I know how powerful and true this is from experience, as several others have said here, but reminders are essential. It can be so easy to forget not realize a subconscious dislike for a difficult student, even when we believe in being the kind of teacher who loves all students.

    Our ability to positively influence this way is the most rewarding aspect of our work. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, but I also needed to hear it again.

    Thank you so much for articulating it so well, Michael; this is life-changing advice! It’s exciting to think that what you do here for teachers each week has a potentially exponential impact on students!

    • Michael Linsin April 29, 2017 at 3:15 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Christine!


  9. Sarah Wooldridge April 29, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

    I have also seen this work very well with difficult students. After I change MY attitude, I see their appreciation. Sometimes it takes a few days for them to see the change but this strategy is extremely helpful.

  10. Brenda @Brenda Loves Sharing April 29, 2017 at 2:44 pm #

    Wow, what a great idea! I have a couple of kids like this in classes where I sub regularly, and I am definitely going to try this next time. I never thought about them realizing I’m irritated by them. Thank you for your advice.

    • Michael Linsin April 29, 2017 at 3:15 pm #

      You’re welcome, Brenda. I’m glad you like the article.


  11. Chuck April 29, 2017 at 6:20 pm #

    Thank you. I definitely need this reminder. I feel a lot of negativity around this time of the year.

    • Michael Linsin April 30, 2017 at 10:28 am #

      Good to hear from you, Chuck. You’re welcome.


  12. Aruna April 29, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

    I really did experience this in my years of teaching. The neglected children crave for love n attention. The bondage between the teacher n the taught is possible only if the teachers assure the kids that they trust n love them. I’m really elated to read this beautiful article as the words reinforce n rejuvenate we teachers with hope n trust. Keep enlightening the teaching fraternity.

    • Michael Linsin April 30, 2017 at 10:27 am #

      Will do, Aruna! Thank you.


  13. Chantal Swanepoel April 29, 2017 at 8:04 pm #

    Great advice, thank-you.

    • Michael Linsin April 30, 2017 at 10:27 am #

      You’re welcome, Chantal.


  14. Nicole April 29, 2017 at 9:34 pm #

    So true and I do forget this. My fear and frustration is very obvious! I’m printing this and keeping it inside my desk for easy reference! Thank you!!!

    • Michael Linsin April 30, 2017 at 10:26 am #

      You’re welcome, Nicole!


  15. Linda April 29, 2017 at 10:30 pm #

    I have had the perfect class this year…until a month ago. He goes through my discipline plan the first hour. He’s mean to other students. Oh my! I will really work on liking him. There is a lot to like about him. I hope this works! I’m not sure what to do after he goes through my plan.

  16. Alison April 30, 2017 at 10:23 am #

    I would ask that you give a few examples of what this looks like the next time this student talks back or proceeds to undermine the progress of the lesson.

    • Michael Linsin April 30, 2017 at 10:26 am #

      Hi Alison,

      I’ve written extensively on this topic. Please check out the Difficult Student category of the archive.


  17. Carolyn Hlava April 30, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

    I agree with Alison. Please give us concrete examples of how this is done

  18. Chad J. April 30, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

    Great idea and always worth a try, but this doesn’t work with all students. I use this method and some students do NOT want to participate for reasons that probably lie outside of school. Some of these students don’t even dislike me as a teacher or a person. I will joke with them and we are friendly toward each other, but they still disrupt class to no end and no consequence will sway them. I like the idea and it will work, just not always. There will always be some students who have deeper issues that we are not qualified to help.

    • Michael Linsin April 30, 2017 at 3:41 pm #

      Hi Chad,

      If you have a poor relationship with a challenging student, their behavior will improve when the relationship improves. As for motivation, participation, disrupting class, etc., these are separate issues, which have been covered extensively on this website.

      Here at SCM, we believe (and know from both our personal experience and the thousands of teachers we hear from every year who’ve transformed their classrooms using our methods) that you can have the well-behaved class you want, no matter who is on your roster or where you teach.

      We show you exactly how to do that through our books, guides, and free articles. I encourage you to spend time in our archive or pick up one or more of our books.


      • Chad L May 3, 2017 at 9:38 am #

        Thank you for responding. I love this website and use it and cite it often. My point is that, for example, I have two students who are trying very hard to get suspended. That is their goal. I have no issue otherwise with them. They actually ADMIT that is their plan. I have had other students who have serious mental issues, such as blacking out when they are angry and that has been diagnosed and since addressed with a new setting. Your strategies are awesome and work very well in my experience. I just wanted to ensure some teachers out there that they are not failures if they are having some serious behavioral issues.

        • Michael Linsin May 3, 2017 at 12:50 pm #

          Thanks for clarifying, Chad! I appreciate your thoughts.


  19. Raquel May 3, 2017 at 3:14 am #

    I’m sorry but there are different nuances and shades to this ‘liking’ colouring. I have had students whom I genuinely liked as people but were always very difficult, students I never liked but for some reason took on board the things I said and responded well to me, and students who even took advantage of the fact they sensed I liked them.

    I think it has a lot more to do with peer pressure and group dynamics. Once you find the key to the group and/or its leaders, they all start behaving a lot better and engaging more in the lesson. Liking the student on its own does not help at all. Seeing the best in them only works if THEY agree with you. Find out what THEY think it’s the best in them- real or not- and work along these areas. Reminding yourself to like them and see the best in them may not always work. They can smell a farce anyway, as we all know it and as you have said. It’s not about like. It’s not even about love. It’s about self-love. And that goes for pupils and teachers! You’ll always have problems but work on your own insecurities and/or stress levels as a teacher first and they will respect you, maybe even like you.

  20. Sarah May 3, 2017 at 8:08 pm #

    Thank you so much for this. I learned this over time as a teacher, and now I see it as a principal, when students confide in me and ask for advice when relating to their teachers. It is a very simple (but difficult) lesson to learn as a teacher, but it has powerful, life-changing effects on a student’s learning. Worth the effort.

    • Michael Linsin May 4, 2017 at 8:05 am #

      You’re welcome, Sarah.


  21. Sue May 9, 2017 at 7:12 pm #

    I have worked very, very hard to build good rapport with my 2nd graders. I have one child that constantly shouts negative comments, is mean to the other children, and is generally unhappy. I have been working to build a good relationship with her all year. I give her morning pep talks, I tell her the nice things I notice about her. I know she “likes” me because she turns to me for a hug when she is sad. This hasn’t changed her negative behavior though. It’s exhausting! Could there be more to it? Would this be a situation where she may have a disorder? Thanks!

    • Michael Linsin May 10, 2017 at 8:06 am #

      Hi Sue,

      I wouldn’t be able to offer a reliable opinion without observing the student in your classroom. However, you may want to check out the Rapport & Influence category of the archive or the book Dream Class to get a different perspective on how best to build rapport.


  22. Courtney May 10, 2017 at 7:32 am #

    Thank you for this article, Michael. I remember the magical class I had during my second year of teaching. I had many students that had driven teachers up the wall in past, some saying they could not even stand the child, While some of their behaviours were difficult, I liked them SO much. And they knew it. And it changed them. Best teaching year ever.

    • Michael Linsin May 10, 2017 at 8:07 am #

      Awesome, Courtney! Thanks for sharing. So, so important.


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