George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Strategies for Managing Challenging Student Behaviors

Student misbehavior has been particularly agonizing for teachers this year, but there are proactive steps educators can take to remedy it.

April 1, 2022
High school students whispering in class
fotostorm / iStock

In the best of times, disruptive student behaviors are challenging to effectively act on. And now, this is compounded by our current reality: a traumatic time—during which many of us are just trying to hang on and stay in the profession—that has reduced our patience, taxed our energy, and increased our reactivity.

So maybe we can think differently about these behaviors. Maybe we can be proactive.

The first step in being proactive might be the easiest: identify challenging behaviors and their effects on the classroom. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Challenging behaviors can manifest academically: missing deadlines, plagiarism. They can manifest socially: side conversations, defiance. They can manifest emotionally: apathy, negativity. They can manifest quietly or loudly. And more often than not, they can manifest repeatedly.

These manifestations are exhausting—for you, for them, and for their peers.

Taking a Closer Look

While it can be easy to remain stuck in the first step of identification, to be proactive we must move to the second step of reflection. We must treat each behavior as both adaptive and communicative. This reflection is twofold: examining the student and ourselves.

Students act the way they do because it serves them in some capacity. How is their behavior serving them? What is driving their behavior? At times, this can be simple. Much more complicated is the task of examining ourselves as a responsible party in these exchanges. More often than not, I realize: Behaviors that challenge me mirror me.

Again, behaviors are both adaptive and communicative. How is my innate response to this student serving me? What is it about the behavior that grates on me so? What does my response communicate about me? Addressing student behaviors without this important step of reflection—of both parties—is short-sighted at best and ineffective at worst.

Displaying Curiosity and Humility

Once we have hypothesized underlying motives for the behaviors, as well as our own contributions, to be proactive we must approach the student about the behavior. The most important consideration in this regard is our intention. I use restorative practices as a frame, reminding myself that my ultimate goal is relationship. This means I approach students with curiosity and humility.

Curiosity allows for me to ask questions and listen rather than fix or criticize. Humility allows several benefits: One, I can let go of “proving the record” and instead build the relationship; two, I can speak with “I” language that demonstrates I also am taking responsibility; and three, it ensures that I am conversing with the student rather than coming at them.

As in any situation where a human feels threatened, a student backed into a corner with accusations rather than invited into a relationship through curiosity and humility will close up or act out.

Building Connections

After I have reflected and approached the student, the real work begins. This is where my integrity and trustworthiness as a teacher is tested—and rightfully so—by students demonstrating challenging behaviors. Did I really mean what I said about wanting to take responsibility, understand the student, and build a meaningful relationship with them? To walk the talk, the next step in being proactive, here are some practices to connect with students.

Survey students with academic and nonacademic questions: Use the surveys for one-on-one conversations, fun class trivia games, grouping and seating arrangements, sport and club attendance, etc. But most important, use the survey data! Students who are surveyed without ever having that data shared with them and acted upon are just guinea pigs.

Observe more, and talk less: Notice where students demonstrate different behaviors than they do in your class. Watch students interact in peer groups. The biggest mistake we can make when dealing with challenging behaviors is seeing the student who demonstrates them in a vacuum.

Partner with students: The majority of my most successful connections with students have begun with an opening like this: “X, I gotta say, I am really just not feeling like we are vibing lately. I feel like I’m letting you down and that you’re always upset with me. Did I do something to offend you? I really would like to make this right.” Few students, yes even those who display the most challenging behaviors, can resist being truly heard and respected. Explicitly partnering with students to do the repair work, the relationship work, is where the magic happens.

Compliment students: Sometimes a light comment about cool new shoes is the only positive message that a student receives in a day. Compliments communicate to students that they are seen.

Support students: While sometimes the root cause of challenging behaviors lies beyond an educator’s purview, often it is related to some personal struggle with the content. Clear and consistent expectations, easy-to-follow directions, chunked instruction, continued check-ins, just-right scaffolding and differentiation… best pedagogical practices such as these mitigate the worst behaviors.

Elevate students: Often, students act out in order to earn attention. Offering students who display challenging behaviors leadership opportunities in class is a way to reframe their peer influence from class clown to class champion.

Collaborate for students on their behalf: Ask other teachers about how the students are doing in their classes, what effective strategies they’re using, how they’ve connected with the students. Frame these conversations always as proactive and solution-forward—not gripe sessions.

Celebrating Successes

The final step in being proactive when dealing with difficult behaviors is the most important: monitor, adapt, and celebrate. Making progress with students who are displaying challenging behaviors is never one and done. Rather, just as relationship implies, it’s an ongoing dialogue. Pay attention to what’s working and what’s not working. Check in with the student about their perceptions. Celebrate the tiniest of victories. Be willing to admit when something is ineffective and make necessary changes. Commit to the long haul and trust the process.

Some of my favorite memories are when students who struggled during their first year in high school come up to me a few years later to joke about, “Remember when…?” Being proactive, even when we’re tired, allows for these moments of connection and joy. And that makes it all worthwhile.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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