Reaching the Difficult Student

Faith-based ideas for helping the students you find most challenging

By Mary Lou Rosien

Our Faith teaches that EVERY person has dignity and each life is sacred. As Catholic educators, you live this daily, but we are all human and we struggle with other humans! We need to pray for each other and for ourselves to have the grace to deal with challenging students.

He is that one student you feel you can’t reach. He doesn’t want to participate. He thinks no one likes him. You suspect things are difficult in his personal life and he does not seem to realize his own value. His behavior makes it difficult to be around him and the other students are pleased when he is out sick. He is a lost boy. He has burned through most of his second chances and some seem ready to give up on him.

I can’t.

When I was middle school age, I had a teacher who recognized that I was lost. He reached out to me and saw past my sadness. He changed my life. I also had a kind guidance counselor that showed me gentleness and understanding. They didn’t give up on me, so I can’t let go of the hope I have for my student.

It worries me to see someone so young give up on their future, so I am trying to think outside the box. If you are struggling with a student like mine, here are some ideas:

Pray … really pray for that child. Offer small inconveniences for them, make a holy hour or go to an extra Mass for them.

Greet them as if they were the person you most desired to see that day. Often the people who act the least lovable are most in need of love. My very wise pediatrician once told me that she struggled with a particular patient. He was one of those kids that make you cringe inwardly when you know you will see them that day. She made a decision to pretend he was her favorite patient. When she greeted him with a happy expression and with love, the child’s entire demeanor changed. Instead of being abrasive and argumentative, he was pleasant and happy. She shared with me that she had not realized how much her own attitude was projecting onto the child and how much of his behavior was his reaction to it.

See seven ways to cope with a negative child.

Catch the student doing something good and make sure to mention it. Reinforcing positive behavior and ignoring some negative ones can increase the frequency of good behavior. Tina Feigal, Founder of the Center for the Challenging Child, and author of the Pocket Coach for Parents, is a strong believer in this approach.

“In the past 4 years, I have found that training parent coaches and teachers has been enormously rewarding because we now understand the children’s minds and hearts in a way we hadn’t before. It’s a very exciting time, as brain scans can show us where the connections are and are not for children. It’s one more way to take the blame away and replace it with compassion. Nothing is more healing to a child.”

Get more tips for teaching challenging students.

Consider the surroundings; perhaps the student needs to sit closer to the front of the class; are there smells or sounds distracting the student that need to be reduced or eliminated?

Find ways to create a less-distracting environment.

Explore other ways to present the same information. Are there board games or online games that can convey the lessons for that week? Is the student particularly tactile? Would making posters or clay models be an effective way to teach this child? Can movies or songs aid in teaching your student?

When educating students with difficult temperaments or disabilities it is important to recognize that they may not absorb and understand information in the traditional way. With this in mind, there are a few ways to maximize their learning experience.

Ask, Observe and Identify.  People learn in three basic ways, auditorily (through hearing information), visually (seeing information) and tactically (feeling information). Ask the child’s parents if they have noticed which style of learning works best for their child. Please read the child’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) or 504 if they have one. As the parent of special-needs children (as well as the teacher of many), I am always surprised by the number of educators who don’t take the time to fully understand their students’ issues. It is time-consuming, but in the end, it will save an educator a lot of time and energy.

If additional information is needed, consider spending some time observing the child. Do they respond in a question and answer period? Do they enjoy looking at the pictures in their books? Do they want to touch and feel everything on the altar when you take a tour of the church?

My youngest son, who does not happen to be learning disabled, is very visual. His third-grade teacher remarked that he rarely wrote a story without putting pictures in the margins. She observed that the pictures seem to help him process and plan his story out, so she encouraged him rather than asking him to stop doodling.

It can also be helpful to ask the children if they know in which way they learn most effectively. Don’t underestimate how aware they can be of their own learning processes and the processes of those around them.

Five of my own seven children have learning issues, and yet if one of them shouts a question at me from across the room, another one will inevitably shout back, “You have to show it to her. Mom is NOT an auditory learner.” They are correct, in fact; I am a visual learner. What kind of learner are you?

Work a curriculum for the student around their learning style. For example, we used to have rosary flash cards for my kids who are visual learners. Every mystery had a picture they could meditate on while we prayed that decade. If the student is a tactile learner, consider making things out of clay to demonstrate meaning. For auditory learners, don’t have the child read, but have a parent read to them. Use aides or special-needs teachers to read tests aloud, or offer verbal tests. When lesson plans are made, it can be helpful to ask yourself if you are using a multi-sensory approach to the learning process, utilizing all three learning styles.

Be aware that dietary issues (allergies and sensitivities) can also cause behavioral issues. My daughter had a strong behavioral reaction to chocolate. From the time she was tiny, she would announce to people, “Chocolate makes me wacky!” She knew enough to protect herself from getting out of control and into trouble.

With seven kids at home, it can be difficult for me to concentrate on anything for longer than a few moments! Imagine then, what it is like for a child who suffers with attention problems, learning problems or other neurological issues, to pay attention. Our Faith teaches that EVERY person has dignity and each life is sacred. As Catholic educators, you live this daily, but we are all human and we struggle with other humans! We need to pray for each other and for ourselves to have the grace to deal with challenging students.

Tips for Teaching Challenging Students

  • If you have a student who is continually acting up or refusing to do assignments, consider that he or she may be suffering from trauma. To learn more about the effects of trauma, watch this video on how trauma affects health across a lifetime.
  • You already know that giving children attention for what they do well is the best way to bring out the best in them. To that, you may want to add writing regular notes home, so that the child is recognized for his accomplishments at home as well as at school. You may even improve the parent-child relationship by doing this! Parents who are used to hearing all the bad reports about their children suddenly get something good, and they are so relieved. The child’s positive behavior reflects well on them in the world, and they begin to treat the child with more love and respect!
  • Give children with problem behaviors “grown-up tasks.” The greatest human need is to be needed, and authentically needing children is a perfect way to let them know, “You matter here.” Even if parents are not doing this at home, at least it’s happening somewhere in their lives. It will always be remembered by the child.

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Creating a Less-Distracting Environment

  • Do an inventory of your classroom space. Are there bright lights? A lot of pictures on the walls? Does a noisy heater go off periodically?
  • Once the distractions are identified, make a list of which things could be changed. Can you use task lighting instead of overhead fluorescent lighting? Can you keep the door closed to minimize hallway noise?
  • Opt for one main display rather than a lot of little ones. Having one focal point is easier for kids with disabilities to look at. Be sensitive to very bright colors that are scattered all over the room.
  • If possible, limit class size or add additional aids to your class
  • Don’t ask that child’s parents to be your classroom helper unless they offer. Most parents of kids with difficult temperaments or disabilities would welcome a little time to themselves.
  • Have fun. Kids with special needs often see the world in a unique way and may open your eyes to a new view of your Catholic world.

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Seven Steps in Coping with the Negative Child

Elaine Gibson, in her article Seven Steps in Coping with the Negative Child, outlines several ideas to deal with children who have challenging personalities.

  • Step One: Accept the negative child “as is.”
  • Step Two: Don’t try to talk a negative child into feeling good.
  • Step Three: Avoid giving undue attention when the child is being negative.
  • Step Four: Listen to the complaints … up to a point.
  • Step Five: Change the topic.
  • Step Six: Focus on the enjoyable traits.
  • Step Seven: Spend time away from the negative child.

On a special note: Please consider the possibility of long-term, biologically-induced depression, especially if mood disorders run in the family. This is genetic and responds to medication. Have a competent child psychiatrist evaluate this child.
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Mary Lou Rosien is a former English teacher and current substitute teacher, Confirmation teacher, Pre-Cana instructor, and RCIA coordinator/teacher.