Improve Your Toughest Student’s Behavior by Analyzing Your Own

Posted rules don’t work for every student!

You don’t have to be too far into your teaching career to have a long list of students that were “difficult” on bad days, perhaps “spirited” or “interesting” on good ones. The challenge—how to engage (and support, motivate and connect with) your most challenging students—is ever-present and it may take more than posted rules, clear consequences and behavior charts. When you’ve reached the end of your rope, and the end of the behavior-management textbook, consider changing the game itself.

Expectations shape behavior, but we already knew that. What you may not know is just how much our expectations shape the behaviors of everything around us (check out the This American Life podcast for one intriguing example involving rats). Suffice it to say that our expectations of students can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even when we don’t realize it, we’re communicating how we see students and what we expect of them in subtle ways—body language, looks, words, tone of voice. (One note: If a student has a specific behavior or emotional disability, you’ll want to follow the students’ IEP and work with the team to address behavior.)

So, expectations translate into actions and words that shape students’ behavior. To figure out how to change those expectations, you have to know what you’re communicating in the first place. The way to do that is, admittedly, difficult: Request to have someone you trust (mentor, peer, etc.) observe—and I mean really scrutinize—your communication with your students.

What to Look For
Choose the challenging student and another student that has positive behaviors. Then, have the observer record your body language, stance, tone of voice and the words you use with each student, either during a challenging time of day or for a few short snippets of time across a day or week. One caveat: Make sure they record their observations as objectively as possible. For example, “Teacher stood behind student for 30 seconds and tapped foot” rather than “Teacher hovered, annoyed.”

Then What?
When you have all the information in front of you, look for patterns in how you approach each student. Perhaps while you’re providing more proximity to students who are challenging, your posture is more open (arms down and not crossed, for example) when you’re working with pleasant students. Or maybe your tone of voice is more upbeat with students who are pleasant, and you’re using more “I statements.”


Change the Game
Finally, use that information to reshape how you interact with the challenging students so that they get the same treatment as students who are pleasant. (The trick, of course, will be to ignore how the challenging students respond to you at first.) Consider having your observer keep tabs on your interactions, so you’re confident you’ve changed your approach.

Did you try these ideas for improving challenging students’ behavior? Tell us how it went in the comments. Or what is your one trick for dealing with particularly challenging students?