Six Simple, Proven Ways to Reach Your Most Difficult Student

Looking for behavior management techniques that will reach even the most difficult students?

Here are six classroom management strategies that will bring positive results with upper elementary students.

Also included are a few free teaching resources to support you along the way. 

Over the years, I've had my share of difficult students. (Haven't we all?) And each time, I try new ways to be proactive in avoiding meltdowns before they happen, work harder at creating a positive and supportive environment for her, as well as finding support for us both. 

Today I'm sharing six classroom management strategies that have been consistently effective in reaching difficult students. My hope is that these will bring some help to you as well. 


1. Be patient

This seems obvious, but no matter your patience level, understand that it will be tested. When you think you’ve reached your limit, dig deep and find some more. Step away from the student and take a breath. Ask a peer to look in on your class while you walk the hall. Whatever you need to do - just don’t reach your limit.

Passing the line puts you in a zone that isn’t good for you or the child. You’ll say things and make decisions you’ll later regret and encourage negative behavior from the child.


2. Establish routines and schedules

Research clearly shows that kids thrive when they have well-established routines. Routines create boundaries and allow children to find comfort in the familiar. This is especially true for students with behavior issues who crave stability, even predictability, to avoid feeling out of control.

For more on the benefits of setting routines and tips on how to keep them, see this post.


3. Be consistent

This is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of managing dozens of children at once but by far the most important.

Kids have to know that you mean what you say and that you are trustworthy. It’s easy to want to give in to circumstances or let behaviors slide every once in a while, especially when you’re pressed for time and simply need to move on.

However, students need to see that they can rely on you in the small things so that they feel comfortable trusting you with the big things.

When you establish a schedule, stick to it!

When you assign consequences for breaking rules, follow through – even when it’s tough.


4. Develop personal connections

This is huge! As teachers, we do our best to get to know our students – their academic strengths and weaknesses, how they learn best, what interests them, etc. But, in order to reach your most difficult kids, you have to go a step further. Find big and small ways to interact with that child one on one.

Here are a few that worked for me:

  • At the end of the day, leave a personal note in the student’s desk for him to find when he comes to school the next day. This sets a positive tone at the beginning of the day and, when done consistently, gives him something to look forward to.

  • Create an open, running dialogue. Have a two-way journal where your student can write when she’s most frustrated. Then create a place where she can turn it in to you discreetly and set a time when you will respond. For more on using writing to improve student relationships, see this post.

  • Have a regular lunch date. Invite your student back to the classroom to eat lunch and discuss his progress every so often. Or, take your lunch to the cafeteria and eat with your entire class, but sit next to your student so that he feels special. For tips on how to create a successful Lunch Bunch, see this post.

  • Find another staff person the student admires and allow time for mentoring. For my boys, I tried to find a male teacher the student liked who was willing to check in on them regularly. It could be as simple as allowing the student to visit the other teacher’s class during the last five minutes of each day to ask how his day went and provide positive feedback on good choices. Guidance counselors are also wonderful resources for possible mentors.

  • Attend an after school activity. This one can be difficult with your busy schedule, I know. However, it’s a surefire way to gain respect and show that you truly care. In an especially difficult class, I had several boys who played together on the school’s football team. So I found out when they were next playing at home and showed up at a game. To be honest, I can think of 100 things I’d rather do than watch football. But, attending that game was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The boys were impressed that I took the time to show up and treated me differently every day after. Trust me – find the time and work a game, recital, or match into your schedule. You won’t regret it.


5. Provide the student with tools that work

Sometimes we’re so focused on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic that we forget that students also need to be taught basic life skills. It’s easy to assume that children are being taught at home how to manage feelings, respond to disappointment, and treat others with respect.

Sadly, this isn’t always the case.

Rather than assuming students who act out are doing so because they enjoy it, understand that oftentimes disruptions occur because students simply don’t know the right way to express what they are feeling. 

Providing students with tools for managing frustration as it occurs will help diffuse little sparks before they become raging fires.

In my classroom, I taught students how to use this form when they could feel a problem brewing. It’s short and to the point allowing students to identify the issue, possible causes, and ways they might manage it. It’s meant to teach students to reflect and be proactive about managing feelings rather than allowing problems to fester and consume them.

It takes just a few minutes to complete and allows students with time away from peers or situations that might be difficult. When ready, the student brings the completed form to you so that you can talk about it together during an appropriate time.


6. Create a strong home-school connection.

I’ll be honest, for me this was most difficult to do. I’ve had more than my fair share of difficult parents, and at times, I was hesitant to reach out. And frankly, sometimes time just got the best of me. When juggling the dozens of things to get done every day, it’s easy to let parent phone calls slide. It's never planned that way, but unfortunately it happens.

To help solve this last issue, I created a reflection sheet for students to complete at the end of their day. It asks students to reflect on areas in which they struggled and identify ways they can make better choices the following day. In the beginning, I had only the students who earned a tally complete the sheet. It was stapled into students’ agendas where parents would sign that they had seen it and could leave a comment for me. 

I also wanted to acknowledge positive choices that were being made throughout the day so I created a companion page. Students list one area that went well for them, note how they were able to make positive choices, and identify a way to continue that behavior the next day. This too went home in agendas so that parents could praise students for a job well done.

I found that the sheets usually worked better than phone calls as students had a record of great behavior that they could look back on throughout the year. 


Following these steps won’t solve every behavior problem that arises during the year. However, they will go a long way towards creating a positive environment in which students feel noticed and valued.