Connecting with Difficult Students

Meeting challenges with connections … and bananas! 

By Grace Huang

Oh no. You’ve got those kids on your class roster. You know the type. The distracted kids who need to sit in the front row. The immature kids who have no friends. The needy kids who want more than you can give. In short, the kids whose success is your first priority.

Many students with social, emotional, or learning problems are able to function in a regular classroom, but just barely. These are the kids who need behavior charts, who miss art class because they have to meet with the school counselor, and who get suspended every other month. Some of these kids do not have the support at home to thrive at school; others have underlying learning disabilities or health issues that impede social skills development and limit academic success. And many of these children do not enjoy school and may not be motivated to succeed.

Kids who live in challenging environments or struggle with academic and social skills often feel like they have little control over their lives. No matter what they do or don’t do, they can’t seem to learn math facts or make friends. Acting up in the classroom is what they do to make themselves feel “in charge.” As the teacher, you can’t physically make your student do classroom assignments or care about learning. If these kids don’t want to do worksheets, they will choose not to do worksheets, just because they can make that choice.

But you can make it worth the child’s time to do that worksheet. You can keep him in from recess because the worksheet wasn’t finished, or you could give him five extra minutes of gym if he turns in his work on time. Rewarding positive behaviors and giving consequences for negative behaviors are, of course, time-tested techniques for teaching (and raising!) children, and there’s nothing wrong with doing this. However, you’ll find that many challenging students need additional encouragement to choose to learn. And when kids who have given up almost everywhere else in their lives make the choice to participate in the classroom, they take back some control over their future.

You can empower a reluctant scholar by doing two things. First, you’ll need to connect with the student on a personal level; then you’ll need to fascinate the student by bumping up the wow factor in the material.


Relating to the child who doesn’t seem to want to connect can be a daunting task. She puts her head down on the desk when it’s time to work, throws a crumpled handwriting paper at you because you informed her that she needed to be quiet during Mass, or screams at you when you say hello in the morning. Often these behaviors aren’t about you — they’re about the child’s experiences and frustrations in her own life. And these behaviors, whether consciously or unconsciously, serve as a way for the child to assert some control over her life. If your reaction to a student’s challenging behavior is impulsive rather than intentional, your student will control your behavior.

Rose Behe, a support worker at a residential facility for children with severe behavioral problems, says that challenging kids, just like all of us, want to be accepted for who they are. Above all else, your student needs to know that whatever happens and however he behaves, you’re on his side. Rose recommends a few techniques for effectively connecting with these students.

Spend time with the student one-on-one. It’s very important that you give your undivided attention to your student. Since challenging kids usually do not do well in a group setting, removing the added stressor of interacting in front of peers can make the student more comfortable. The individual time spent with this child doesn’t have to be long — you’re busy enough as it is! — but you must be fully present and focused on building the relationship.

Minimize your reactions to negative behaviors. The primary difference between interacting with typical children and the less-compliant child is how you respond to negative behaviors. If at all possible, Rose advises, ignore minor misbehavior and focus attention on positive actions. For example, if the student only completes one problem before giving up and refuses to continue, tell her you’re happy she tried and you know she’ll do even better next time.

Understand that the more challenging the student is, the more likely it is that he really wants to have a positive relationship with you. Your student probably has not had many positive interactions with adults and authority figures. Children react to difficulties in their lives either externally (by lashing out, for example) or internally (by withdrawing). Paradoxically, these maladaptive strategies give kids some protection from being hurt by adults. If the kids make themselves as unlikeable as possible, no one will want to connect with them and the pain of rejection will no longer be a threat. But when someone like you can look beyond the behavior and see the child himself, you can help him realize that it is possible to have secure relationships with other people.

Keep at it — even when it seems like nothing is working. So you spent all of last week’s lunch periods sitting with your student at the back table, practically threw a party when she agreed to let someone else be first in line on Wednesday, and kept your cool when she intentionally broke the lead off her pencil … for the 10th time that day. And she’s just as difficult as ever. What gives? Consistency may be the issue, says Rose. Challenging kids need to know that, whatever should happen, you’ll be there for them, no matter how close you come to tearing your hair out. It could take quite a while for your student to come around, but you’ll get there together. Whatever the child throws at you (literally or figuratively), be cool, calm, and collected. Respond with as much kindness as you can muster, every time, and keep in mind that your student is likely expressing a lot of frustration and emotional pain. Consistently demonstrate, by your words and actions, that you will not reject him or her. And if you slip up, just apologize!


We are motivated to learn in different ways. For many children, the promise of a good grade is motivation enough to learn the material. Other kids simply love to learn. And there are always a few who will want to tackle trig because the new cute guy at school is on the Math Olympiad team. Ultimately, however, kids need a solid reason to learn, something that is often lacking in our less-cooperative students. The solution is simple: Make the material as weird and wild as you can, and even the worst kids will have trouble focusing on anything else.

Begin by identifying the boring in the subject matter. Sometimes, let’s face it, the point of the lesson is to reinforce words ending in –ing, and it’s just bor-ing. Look for anything that makes your students’ eyes glaze over. In fact, look for anything that makes your own eyes glaze over. Then give that mind-numbing material a makeover by searching out cool facts that your student will not be able to resist.

For example, here’s some standard information about bananas you might teach as part of a nutrition unit. The banana is a healthy fruit which grows in warm, tropical areas of the world. The banana contains large amounts of potassium, an important nutrient. We should all eat bananas as part of our daily servings of fruit.

And here’s the terrifying untold truth about bananas that isn’t covered in most nutrition units. There are many different varieties of bananas in the world. The variety of banana that your mom puts into your lunch bag is called the Cavendish. Cavendish bananas are dying from a fungal infection, kind of like the athlete’s foot that you get from being sweaty and not taking a bath as often as your mom says you should. The infection is called Panama Disease, and scientists are working day and night to find a cure for it. If the scientists fail in their mission, the Cavendish bananas might all be dead by the time you’re 30 years old, and your kids will never ever get to eat one.

And that makes me want to learn more about bananas!

After you’ve identified the boring, take the time to become an expert on ordinary things. Once you’ve identified the material that needs some extra love, go on Wikipedia and use the site for what it’s best used for — trivial facts (because it’s Wikipedia, you’ll still want to verify that 71.9 inches of rain in 24 hours did, in fact, actually fall). The Guinness Book of World Records ( is a gold mine of information, as are books of statistics. The CIA (yes, that CIA) publishes The World Factbook on their website where you can find information on every country in the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe ( Pepper your teaching with information on what you’ve learned. Be the expert on bananas.

Here’s the best part about strategies that help you connect to your challenging students and fascinate them with bananas: It will also enhance your relationships and teaching with all of your students. As teachers, we all believe that every child can learn and succeed in school — even the tough ones. Make it happen!

Image credit: Shutterstock 141550009

Grace Huang has taught general and special education students of all ages for several years. She is currently working with autistic children in a public elementary school.

Image credit: Shutterstock 141550009

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