Teaching “Tough” Students

Empathy matters when it comes to teaching “tough” students. Often times, these students have built layers of separation between authority figures and themselves as a means of defense against being hurt. We are charged, as teachers, to recognize this and interact with students in a way that shows them we care. No, being in the classroom is not enough to prove that you care about students. Unfortunately, the reality is there are many teachers in classrooms who are not truly invested in every student’s achievement, and often times, guarded students have experienced what it’s like to be in these teachers’ rooms.
My personal and professional successes working with tough students exist for a reason. Unsurprisingly, one of the most common questions I receive from other educators is, “How do you get them to behave in your class?” The answer seems simple enough, but the implementation can be quite exhausting because in all honesty, I don’t “get” them to behave. I don’t control my students. It’s not my job to control human beings, and it would be a disservice to them if we didn’t teach them to control themselves. I can’t be on their shoulder for the rest of their lives whispering the appropriate responses in situations. They have to do that for themselves.

What then? How do I connect with them? Why do they choose to work and respect my classroom environment? What makes them love my class despite always having “hard work” to do?
I thought about it for quite some time, and I came up with four reasons for my success with tough students.
1. I demonstrate emotional intelligence consistently.

When students are experiencing a bad day or negative emotions, they can (and often do) spill over into the classroom. They’re young and still learning how to navigate through what they’re feeling and how to address it. The added pressure of course work, peer influence, home situations, and other factors all contribute to a student’s behavior. We need to see that in our students. We need to understand that for our students. Too often, teachers create volatile situations trying to establish dominance and power in the classroom, and while that might cause some students to back down, it can escalate a situation with students who already feel picked on and railroaded by authority figures. No dee-1206892_640power struggles. That is how I gain their trust. I don’t need to assert my dominance when students are struggling through problems. Sometimes that means you leave the student to his/her own devices and continue with the lesson. You can circle back after you get the rest of the class settled into their independent activities. You really have to pick your battles, and you should approach the situation in a non confrontational, respectful manner because any other way is asking for unnecessary problems.

2. I incorporate student voice into my classroom curriculum regularly.

I use my tough students’ strengths in the classroom, especially in the curriculum. I regularly ask students for their opinion(s) on lessons, potential activities, and even assessments. I maintain that students are more likely to engage in the course work when they’ve had a hand in creating it. Tough students can feel like they have no control over their own lives, so why not offer them some input and choice in education? Even if everything else around them seems like a struggle, you can make your class an escape and a place for them to learn how to work through the emotional obstacles they encounter.

Read more: Designing Your Student’s Curriculum

3. I commit to learning about my students’ desires & interests genuinely.

This connects to number two. Creating engaging curriculum means knowing and understanding what your students love. Through genuine conversations with my kids, I learned so much about their past experiences, current struggles, and future goals. Knowing that Carl* wanted to work for Sony’s gaming franchise made it easier for me to help him understand why mastering effective rhetorical strategies and communication skills were necessary. Remembering that Michelle’s* strength and interest in graphic design was instrumental in designing a project that required students to use software like Adobe Photoshop to create original advertisements that demonstrated their persuasive skills. There were fewer opportunities to attempt questionable behaviors if the students were meaningfully engaged in my lessons, so why not use the information they’d offered about themselves to draw them in?

4. I connect my personal struggles to what my students might be experiencing explicitly.

One of the things my students recall most frequently about their time in my classroom is my stories. The reflections of my childhood, teen years, college experiences, and even present-day adult trials were teachable moments for individual students or the whole class. But, it wasn’t just me telling random funny and/or sad stories. They each connected to something my students were struggling with, so I used my personal experiences to encourage them – to let them know that they weren’t alone – that someone else had gone through something too and made it out.


Tough StudentsAs I thought about what helps me most with guarded students, I came across Rita Pierson’s TED Talk, “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” She was absolutely correct, and I had resolved years ago that I would be that person-an advocate-for as many students as I could. It’s not enough to assume that kids know you care because you teach. I made a decision in my first year of teaching that I would never attempt to assert my power in the classroom because I felt it was unnecessary. It was understood that I was the authority figure, so I didn’t need to compete with any student for that respect. Instead, I focused my attention on finding something in those guarded kids that would allow me an opportunity to show them that I wasn’t their enemy.

It came in different ways and at different times, and I can think of one student that never allowed it. With him, we sat together and came to an agreement. I had a responsibility to teach every student in the room including him, but if he didn’t want that for himself, he would at least need to respect the learning environment for everyone else. It hurt to know that someone so young had already given up, but I told him that whenever he was ready to make that bridge, I was there. He left the school shortly after that, but for the brief time that he was in my classroom, I did not experience the disruptions and disrespect that some of my coworkers had. I attribute that to my ability to understand and empathize with his position and his ability to recognize that I would not fight him for control because he could make his own decisions.


*Name changed for privacy purposes

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

5 Responses

  1. Have you ever come across a student who was just rotten? I have had quite a few tough students that you speak of but I have also had 1 or 2 that didn’t fit this definition but were very hard to work with. These students were challenging usually because they got their way a lot and never learned rules or boundaries. These students also gave their peers a very hard time. they lacked empathy and often made fun of students with special needs or students who didnt have as much as them. How do you deal with these types of students?

    1. Yes, I have taught students who lacked empathy and boundaries. While there is no step-by-step solution with these students, there are some things we can do as educators to minimize their disruptions. I have always been consistent with students, especially those who believed they were above the rules. On occasion, I might let something slide because it wasn’t a huge thing, but more often than not, I corrected them every time they got out of line. With these students, it seems that they try to push the limits, so I never allowed much rope for them.

      I was also very quick to contact parents when their children mocked other students, as well as corrected them in front of the class. I know that we like to pull students aside, and I do in most cases, but there were times when I had to shut down a disrespectful student in the same space that s/he had antagonized another student – in front of everyone. If the student used a “public” forum to ridicule another, I used that same forum to address why it was inappropriate and wouldn’t be tolerated in my presence. These situations also became teachable moments in which I discussed with the entire class why respect and treating people with dignity were important. I’d ask the class, “If everyone were as rude to you as some of your peers are, what type of environment would that create?” “Why do people feel the need to cut each other down, especially for things that cannot be changed?” It allowed the others to voice their thoughts on what a lack of boundaries and empathy does and created a classroom culture in which other students began to stand up for each other. It made the rudeness unacceptable for everyone.

      But, consistency is the key. Don’t let it go. Don’t allow it to escalate. Students who lack empathy need to be consistently addressed and should never be allowed to disregard people’s or the classroom’s boundaries.

  2. Thank you! this info was really helpful and I will be sure to incorporate it into my own classroom and interactions with youth!

  3. I’ve followed you on twitter for a few months & I enjoy your discussion topics so much b/c of your insight, humor, & relatability. At the end of September I am moving to Lesotho, Africa where I will be teaching secondary math. This article further confirms the classroom environment I want to create. At 23yrs old this will be my first formal teaching position & although I’m ecstatic, I’m also a bit terrified. These guidelines are so helpful I’ll be sure to implement them into my methods, thank you

    1. Congratulations on the new journey, Darian! I’m excited for you. International teaching is one area that I’m so happy I was able to experience. It definitely adds a new dimension to your teaching. I do hope that we’ve connected on Twitter. @ me and let me know that you’ve commented on my blog posts! If there is ever a particular topic you’d like to read about, be sure to let me know.

      Dr. Chae

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *