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How Do You Handle Difficult Situations with Students?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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"So do you have a problem with me?" the student asked.

"Yes I do." I testily answered. "You need to be quiet and listen to the teacher!"

"What do you care? Just keep fixing that computer!" replied the student.

Unfortunately, I was only a visitor in the classroom that day (there to fix the computer). The above exchange occurred when I just couldn't stand it any longer and turned and looked for the student who was making all that noise while the teacher was trying to teach high school biology.

I must have had an angry look on my face when I turned to look, and that single look got a nasty reaction. It didn't get any better between that student and me. But it did get me thinking: What would I have done differently to diffuse the situation if I were the teacher?

I'm not going to talk about the sad state of society where students can feel comfortable being rude to adults, nor will I discuss any specifics about the student. I am also not going to address that the teacher seemed oblivious to what was going on between the student and this visitor. (My reason for not tackling any of those topics? If we are to fix education, we have to stop blaming and making excuses. We just need to fix it starting with ourselves!)

As I mentioned above, my facial expression may have cued the response. Perhaps when I looked in a perturbed fashion at this student it was viewed as a challenge. I wonder if it would have been any different if I had kept my face passive. Probably. But, after all, I communicated what I really wanted to communicate. With just my look, I told this student that I was displeased.

Then I thought, what could I have said that would have made things better? I know that humor is the best thing to deflect angry situations, but I was peeved. I wish I had recalled in that moment all the research that shows when you are irritated, your brain basically shuts off.

Maybe I should have said with a wry smile, "I'm sorry, the teacher is speaking so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying." Or perhaps I could have stated, "Nope, I am just sitting here listening to you enjoying the Kreb cycle." If I had had my wits about me I could have -- and probably should have -- stood up and introduced myself to that student: "Oh, I'm sorry, we have not been properly introduced. I am the all powerful and wise adult. And you are?" All of these would have either made the student laugh or at least embarrassed the student enough to keep the student quiet. They would have had a more desirous outcome than what I did say.

Although I'm in classrooms daily, I typically do not have the pressure of getting students to do what they do not want to do. However, something I do know for certain: By allowing negative student behaviors to continue, teachers are not doing anyone a favor. We have to do something.

That is why I felt compelled to do something, so I gave the student "the look," and my authority as an adult was then challenged. Then, wisely or not, I decided to assert that authority. Both of us lost our dignity that day. And I admit I played my part in this.

I am curious to know: What would you have done in this situation? Please also share successful strategies for diffusing unnecessary conflicts. We are all in this together. I look forward to your suggestions and ideas.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I am waving the magic wand and poof--- I am the teacher in this situation now.

I immediately get the student's attention by asking a question that forces them to do something-"If you believe that mitocondria are found in the ribosomes stand in that corner. If you believe that mitocondria are found in the vacuoles, stand in the other corner. When you get there, prepare to defend your answer. Go!" I would continue to demand the student attention by getting their bodies and their brains learning.

Fred Jones and Positive Behavior Systems are great, but nothing beats a well thought-out lesson plan--one in which the teacher anticipates and adjusts for the reactions of the students, before they ever get to dig in their heals. Well designed competition, games, puzzles, and activities will control behavior better than any external system.

I am waving the wand again--now I am simply the guy that was fixing the computer and got frustrated.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Actually, I can visualize a situation like this happening on a daily basis. As a teacher, I know that often the challenging students thrive off of attention, especially when a stranger walks into the classroom! I can't tell you how many instances I've encountered where parents walk in the room, school personel, student teachers, etc... walk into my classroom and the "challenging student" immediately begins demanding their attention. Of course, the "visitor" takes extreme notice to the child because they are practically begging for their attention. What visitors in classrooms need to understand is that the teachers know their students very well. In your encounter, the teacher may have acted like she didn't know that was happening, but she probably did. She knew that student was probably not listening and would thrive off of a visitor being in the room. That student knew exactly what he was doing, and the teacher probably knew exactly what he was doing. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is ignore these behaviors. What good would it have done to stop in the middle of a lesson and call out the student in front of the entire class? Especially in front of a visitor? Teachers must pick their battles, and that probably wasn't one she wanted to fight that day! We also don't know what happened after you left, and she may have handled the situation then which would have been more appropriate. There have been many times that after a visitor has left my room, that I have had to have a "talk" with my class about how we are supposed to act when there is a visitor and what the consequences will be if those types of behaviors happen again. I think the teacher in your situation did the right thing, and don't assume that the student got away with what he did or said.[/quote]

Aaron Schmidt's picture

You could have handled it differently. It is easy for all of us to sit back and examine what we "would" have done. The fact of the matter is that we as educators need to be prepared for such situations before the event occurs. There is no way of knowing exactly what is going to happen, but we can practice any of the ways that everyone has suggested. The best way to know how to handle the situation is to have a resolution in mind before it happens.

Lisa Louissaint's picture

I can see the frustration from your end, and as a teacher I find myself using subtle cues to shush children everywhere I go! However, if this student was being as disruptive as you say, I find it hard to believe that the teacher wasn't aware of it and perhaps as you said, ignoring it. That is indeed a wrong response to a disruptive child because if you were disturbed then certainly other students were as well. A disruptive child changesw the dynamics in a classroom and steals learning time from others. The way I would have handled it as a teacher is definitely NOT ignore the student, I would have called him outside and removed him from the classroom temporarily or just had a talk with him. It's really hard to say without knowing the discipline history on this child and the specifics of the situation.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You couldn't be more correct. A teacher needs to be able to anticipate for student behaviors and PREPARE a response beforehand. This has to be an automatic response, because if it not, then emotions get in the way and the brain shuts off as it did in my case. I had not thought about what I would do if, as a visitor, a student challenged me. That part was my fault, though it does not excuse the student's rude behavior.

Thanks for the idea.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]You could have handled it differently. It is easy for all of us to sit back and examine what we "would" have done. The fact of the matter is that we as educators need to be prepared for such situations before the event occurs. There is no way of knowing exactly what is going to happen, but we can practice any of the ways that everyone has suggested. The best way to know how to handle the situation is to have a resolution in mind before it happens.[/quote]

Jean Sheridan's picture

Ben; Thanks for stating this discussion. I regularly visit classrooms as a support person for the teacher, and have been doing so for 7 years. I have had many successful interactions with students and some where I was challenged to learn and grow. I am an invited professional in the classroom and in the school. There are many classrooms where I would most definitely speak to the teacher first. In some classrooms I just have to give that look and the student knows that I see what they are doing and the student gets back on task.
In classrooms where I see good classroom management my role is easy, I have a relationship with the teacher and I know the teachers expectations. In the classrooms were I see poor classroom management and the teacher does not step up to the plate; my job is much more difficult. I am an adult and if I do not say something (read just ignore) when I see negative behavior am I not condoning it? Silence equals agreement.

Liz Warner's picture

In my eyes, issues of discipline and classroom management can be followed back to the teacher's planning. Well-planned teachers do not have as many discipline problems. The teacher has thought about their lesson: What they want students to learn, how students will learn it, differentiation, materials needed for the lesson, pacing of the lesson and especially, the one or two students who are difficult to engage in the learning.

Students can "smell" it when we are not prepared!

Katisha Bragg's picture

Unfortunately there are many situations like this that happen daily in our school system. I think you were on the right track when you said you could have been more positive. Sometimes as teachers, we are the ones that want to save face and have the last word. You have to humble yourself and remember this is a child and you as the adult or teacher in the classroom have to make moments like these teachable. I would have told him, in a very gentle tone and softly so that only he could hear, no I don't have a problem with you, I think or I am sure that you are a very bright student, but I do not like the way you are disrespecting the teacher, would you please be quiet, pay attention and listen for me. Once he complied I would have thanked him. sometimes as teachers we add fuel to the fire sort of speak, because we are human.

Tracey Reimer's picture


Being a teacher in an urban high school I have found that there are varying levels of respect. What you tapped into was the lowest level. You were an outsider in that classroom and teenage students who tend not to be taught to respect all elders will react the way the student did when you visited. The disrespect is their way to challenge you to care about them. Keep in mind that even when you demonstrate that you care, you may still never earn that respect. Don't ever take it personally. If you know you are going to be in that school or classroom more, you may want to consider teaming up with the teacher (if the teacher is open to it) to show how you can integrate what you are doing with what the students are working on...give them real life applications. You'll be laying the ground work for moving up to the next level of respect.

Megan Wagner's picture
Megan Wagner
Special Education Teacher from Claypool Hill, Virginia

I am a special education teacher and I deal with difficult students almost all day. I have found, as you have said and many people have said, it is best to stay positive with the students. There are always students who will challenge your authority but if we become combative with them, then we are demeaning our own authority and, in a way, proving them correct. Although it is important to relate to students, it is also important for them to remember that you are in charge of the classroom. Humor is a great way to do so, but teaching students to be respectful to everyone in all situations is the key. The particular student in your scenario seems like he doesn't have respect for his fellow humans and that is something worth teaching in schools.

Daniel's picture

I'm a high school science teacher and as an adviser I always try to understand first the child as a unique individual. Sometimes we always picture out students as homogeneous with the same set of characteristics and capabilities. I think it is best to first give them different options on how they can handle the situation properly so you're not just reprimanding them but you are giving them the chance to resolve the situation. I remember when i got to that situation, I just simply point out with my own fingers the rule beside my board which says "If you want to be somebody, If you want to go somewhere, you need to wake up and pay attention" and that's it.

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