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7 Classroom Management Strategies for Addressing Difficult Behaviors

Defiance, purposeful distraction, shredding work, talking back…these difficult behaviors can be hard to address in the middle or high school classroom, especially if more than one student is exhibiting them at once. I’ve worked with students who have these tendencies in various socioeconomic settings. There isn’t a magic list of approaches that will “fix” the problem, but I’ve learned that some classroom management strategies are more helpful than others.

Let’s consider this hypothetical situation:

Jimmy is supposed to be working with a friend on a crossword puzzle, but, he’s being distracting and unproductive. You’ve circulated and encouraged him to get on task. Instead, he pulls up a music video on his iPad and continues to deflect. When you tell Jimmy to close the iPad, he makes an inappropriate comment. As such, you decide to take the iPad away. Immediately, Jimmy  digs in his heels. He shreds the crossword puzzle into tiny pieces and shouts, “I’m going on strike! I won’t get up from this seat until I get my iPad back!”

In this situation, what would you do?

Here are some classroom management tips that might help to prevent and address issues such as this one.

Dealing with difficult behaviors can be challenging. Here are some classroom management strategies to try. #highschoolela #classroommanagement

Tip 1: Build relationships.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with tweens and teens, it’s that difficult students won’t work for us if we have not taken the time to establish a relationship. Who are students outside of the classroom? What is home like? What are their hobbies, interests, dreams, and fears? What extracurriculars do they participate in? How do they like to learn?

Sometimes, students aren’t able to articulate everything we want to know. Other times, they aren’t willing. That’s why I always send a questionnaire home to parents early in the year. Their feedback is invaluable.

In his book You’ve Gotta Connect, James Sturtevant writes that humans need connections.

The brain needs safety in order to learn, to deepen understandings, and to retain ideas. A positive, comfortable, and secure relationship with the teacher is at the heart of a safe classroom.

When students believe their teacher cares about them, they are happier, more productive, more engaged, more on task, and have higher self efficacy. In turn, the difficult behaviors they may otherwise exhibit are not as evident.

Sometimes we over or underestimate our relationship building skills. Here’s a quick self-reflection sheet you can use to gauge your own strengths and weaknesses in order to set new goals.

Tip 2: Know what regulates students.

Every student is different. When we take time to get to know students, we should make note of what regulates them and what dysregulates them.

For instance, some students may enjoy listening to music quietly during work time. That might help them stay on task. Others might need fidgets or stress balls. Many students need structure and predictability. Simply sitting next to a student who is stressed and helping as needed has the potential to regulate them.

In the scenario above, Jimmy became more and more dysregulated with the teacher’s restrictions. Maybe asking Jimmy to talk privately one on one could have helped.

Another idea to help regulate him might be to offer him options. He could complete the crossword puzzle, or he could go onto Google Classroom and watch a video about the topic. There are so many approaches we could try.

As teachers, we have to get to know our students so that we can better try to prevent and diffuse difficult behaviors.

Tip 3: Avoid power struggles.

Most teachers can think of a scenario similar to Jimmy’s. This type of power struggle is what we need to avoid. What could a teacher do in this situation to de-escalate the problem?

Assuming we have built some sort of a relationship with Jimmy, we can sit down next to him, ask him to close his iPad, and begin walking through the next few questions with him. Often, students who exhibit defiant behavior and refuse to do work are receptive to help from a peer or a teacher who cares.

In order to get Jimmy to stay on task, we can ask him if he would come sit by us so that we can continue to guide him as we also work with other students. If Jimmy knows we believe he can do this and that we are willing to help him, he will be less likely to think that we are trying to separate him from his friends to be restrictive.

Tip 4: Consider your planning.

Truly, one of the biggest struggles of teaching today is that students won’t do the work just because we deem it is important. Many students need to know the relevance. Why does this matter? How will I ever use this? Does this even apply to life outside of school? You’ve heard the questions.

Similarly, are students engaged? Do they have opportunities to move around, to write or talk to an authentic audience? Do you start with an engaging hook to pique interest? Are lessons planned to maximize students’ interest from bell to bell? Does the lesson appeal to their interest whenever possible?

When students exhibit off-task behaviors, it helps to reflect on the current unit. Are they acting out because the material is not relevant? Is it too easy or too hard? Are they are unchallenged or frustrated? In Jimmy’s case, maybe he perceived the crossword puzzle to be busy work.

Many behavior problems have a way of weeding themselves out with careful planning.

Tip 5: Pick your battles.

At the risk of sounding cliche, we can make a mountain out of a molehill at times. Occasionally, students are not going to do what we ask them to no matter what techniques we try to use to motivate them. Students have off days, especially those whose home lives are unstable.

It’s better to allow a student to sit quietly and not do the work than it is to try to win an arm wrestle. When this happens, it usually becomes a distraction for the entire class, and it does nothing to build trust or gain a student’s buy in.

Instead of going head to head during class, allow the student to sit and be present. Afterward, use Tip #6.

Tip 6: Communicate with parents and students.

Call parents. Once in a while, their partnership is sufficient to take care of the problem, at least temporarily.

We shouldn’t forget to talk to the student him or herself before assigning discipline. Have a heart to heart. Situate yourself at their eye level or below, and encourage the student to think about how his or her actions are affecting other students.

Behavior contracts are tangible ways teachers and students can communicate shared expectations and goals for behavior. They also allow us to lay out consequences for continued problems.

These conversations should happen with empathy and love from the teacher but also with firmness and the mutual understanding that behaviors that infringe on others’ learning experiences are not acceptable.

Tip 7: Don’t be afraid to discipline.

The culture we establish in our room based upon how we respond to difficult behaviors determines whether or not it will exacerbate throughout the year. If we have tried building relationships, regulating students, calling home, and having heart-to-hearts but the issues still persist, it’s important to address them with some sort of consequence.

Whether it’s a teacher detention, a referral to the office, or something else, students need to know that the classroom learning environment is important. Behaviors that prevent other students from learning or that create an atmosphere of angst or disrespect can’t be allowed.

However, when assigning discipline, it’s important for us to talk to students about why it’s happening. Equally important, students need to be prepared for the consequences. To be fair to them and to maintain trust, we have to have those one-on-one discussions first.

When in doubt, I’ve found it helpful to view classroom management in the same way I view parenting. It’s important to love students, to be empathetic, to balance criticism with compliments, to ask questions, and to apologize when I’m wrong.

The Jimmies of the classroom can drive us batty at times, but those are also the students who most likely need our kindness the most.


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  1. I love this post, I wish a lot of teachers would pick their battles, they often end up in a power struggle and don’t even realize it. Great tips!

    1. Thank you, Bianca! It’s all in the balance. I think the most important thing is reflecting. We all struggle, but recognizing what we could do differently, talking to students about our mistakes, and getting better at what we do should be the goal.

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