10 Tips to Manage Difficult Student Behavior

Managing difficult behaviors is no joke, especially these days.  There are power struggles, disruptive behavior, and just a laundry list of behavior challenges you see day after day in your classroom.  Now we know there is no magic wand to dealing with behavior, but there are some tips that you can do to significantly change the challenging behaviors in your classroom.

Now, the best way to tackle behaviors first and foremost will be with proactive strategies. However, we both know that this cannot always stop behaviors on its own. This list will give you behavior tips you can do before, during and after behaviors happen!

1. Stay Calm

Ok ok, so this may sound like a no brainer, but more often than not adults (me included) can become dysregulated themselves when dealing with an inappropriate behavior. Some behaviors may be triggering to us as adults as well. So how do we make sure we stay calm, in our own thinking brain and do not add to the chaos? Here are a few tips:

Find your mantra

What does this mean? Find a phrase you can have on repeat in your own mind. Some examples could be:

  • “This behavior is happening in front of me, not to me.”
  • “The student is having a hard time, not giving me a hard time.”
  • “We have been through this before, we will get through it again.”
  • “I know what to do during these times”
  • “I can stay calm to help them through this”

Basically find one that works for you and stick to it. Repeat it to yourself- whatever it is that will help get you through.

Take deep breaths

We teach kids this strategy, but so often we forget to do it ourselves! Taking deep breaths has a few benefits to us and to our students. 

It can:

  • relax our body language, which students can easily pick up on
  • keep us calm, cool, and collected
  • model appropriate calming strategies for our students
  • help support co-regulation

 This simple yet effective technique helps to reduce our own stress, clear our mind, and regain focus, which in turn will enable us to approach these behavioral challenges with clarity and calmness. This will make sure we respond the most effective way instead of reacting on emotions.

2. Know When to Switch Out

There are going to be instances where you know you are hitting your limit. Everything that you have tried isn’t working, the student is not calming down and you have just had enough. And this is OKAY!

It is okay to need to switch out. Read that sentence again. It is OKAY!  

Here are some things to keep in mind with switching out during a behavior.

  • It is best practice that this strategy is planned and discussed with all adults prior to ever implementing it.  That means you have to trust your co-workers and you need a way to communicate. We know that the less oral language during these times, the better- so is there a nonverbal way you can communicate with another staff member? A hand signal or maybe a visual cue?
  • When you are planning who to switch out with, you want to be sure that the other person also has a good relationship with the student. You do not want to insert someone into the situation that does not know the student and could possibly escalate it.

When to switch out?

It can be hard to identify when you need to switch out, but here are some key times you will want to switch:

  • You become the sole target. If it is becoming increasingly unsafe for you and you are the target of behaviors, sometimes just switching a person can stop the behavior.
  • You can becoming angry or distressed. You should not remain with an escalated child if you yourself are escalated. This will not help either of you.
  • You are unsure what to do. It is okay- get someone who specializes more in this realm!

Switching out can be a great strategy that can support your student as well as bringing your team together to work in a more cohesive manner!  You will quickly see how your teammates are amazing support systems right in your own classroom!

3. Listen Actively 

So listening during these difficult situations can help immensely. However, many of us aren’t good at listening because we are teachers, and we want to immediately fix the problem. But think to yourself, when you are upset- the last thing you typically want when you are venting to a friend or partner is them asking if you tried X, Y and Z. You want them to say, “Ya- that is hard, I hear you” or “Wow, that stinks.” You want them to validate you. This is the key point in listening actively.

The first step in listening actively is to actually listen. Let the students talk (or yell) and even if they perceived the situation incorrectly, or are (what you believe) blowing the situation out of proportion- it is still their experience. So listen to what they are saying without correcting them.

Then validate their concerns! When you valid their reasons and emotions, you are less likely to get another negative reaction. It can start moving the child in the right direction of calming down and regulating themselves. Read more about it here!

Using active listening is a skill set. It takes time and practice. You can practice on others in your life. When talking with your partner or friend, try reflecting what they are saying and feeling. This can be a good start to practice and then transition over to dealing with problematic behaviors.

4. Set Clear Expectations

This step is one you hear often. Now this is one that is a proactive one. So why is it number four and not number one? Because it is used so often I am sure you are tired of hearing it. However, I would not be doing right by you to not mention it when dealing with challenging behaviors.

Many times students’ expectations at home are vastly different from at school. For example, some parents may be very busy and kids have more freedom at home. So when they come to school they do not realize they have to ask for certain things that at home they may be able to just go (like get up and walk around, go to the bathroom etc.) This can cause behavior issues due to power struggles or just being unaware of the rules. 

When you clearly teach, reteach, and model these expectations- it can be an effective classroom management strategy that then will prevent some challenging student behavior. We both know this is not the end all be all of behaviors, but it is a crucial first step that many are built upon after. If you want to truly change the classroom environment to stop most problem behaviors, we have to start bottom up. This is the best approach because it is much easier to stop behaviors before they ever even occur.

5. Implement Consequences

Now let’s talk consequences. This can be a hot topic. It seems as though people fall into one of two categories- they either think there should be no consequences, or that consequences are only punitive. The best approach? A middle ground.

Consequences should be fair and relate to the behavior itself. I highly discourage from ever taking away recess. Why? So many reasons.

  • Recess is a right not a privilege
  • Kids learn just as much on the playground (if not more) than sitting for math
  • Kids that normally lose recess are the ones who need to move the most!
  • Taking away recess can damage positive relationships between students and teacher as well as student and student

So what can you do instead?

  • Have the difficult conversations. Talk about the behavior afterwards, when everyone is calm. Connect the feelings to the behavior and make a plan for the future. This can be tough, so here is a thinking sheet you can use to help with it.
  • Make the punishment fit the crime. They colored on their desk? They need to clean it- during a preferred activity (but not recess)
  • They won’t stop climbing up the slide? It is off limits the rest of recess.
  • They are hitting their friends? They need to talk about how it hurts them and ask them what they would want a friend to do that hurt them.

Notice these all match the behavior that happened, are not overly punitive but just right. Think Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

6. Use Proximity

Sometimes all you need is a little proximity to stop a behavior or prevent it. Think about if you are at a conference and you are giggling with your teacher bestie or texting. Then the presenter walks over to you. Do you keep doing that? I am going to guess not. Same thing for students.  This can prevent a lot of minor negative behaviors.

Now let’s talk using this when students are escalated or upset. Proximity can still be a tool. So if students are upset, sometimes they need a calm presence by them. So just sitting near by, not talking can help students regulate themselves. Sometimes you can even pull out some calming strategies (like these calming cards) and start using them just near the student. This is another example of co-regulating.

Getting down to the student’s level can also help. Most times, we are taller than our students. This can be intimidating and sometimes cause students to react and not back down, even if you are calm yourself. Getting to their level shows them I am right here with you, and I am not looking for a fight. You could be surprised at home this can easily change a student’s behavior. 

7. Lean into Your Relationship

Another strategy that is probably overly recommended with not enough actually how to behind it. Leaning into your relationship is one of the key foundations to any and all behavior plans. This is not an easy quick fix for behavior, it is a long term goal you need to continuously work on and nurture.

​How does this help during outbursts? Think about yourself for a minute. You had a really bad day at work, and you want to just vent. Do you call someone who is just an acquaintance? Probably not. What about if something really bad happened to you? Would you be telling a random co worker? I also am going to guess probably not. 

​If you want to be able to get to the root of the problem, students need to be able to trust you. If they trust you, they may let you in on some unmet need they have. Maybe they didn’t get breakfast that day, maybe their parents had a bad fight, maybe they witnessed something truly traumatic. 

Here are some quick ways to build the relationship with your students

  • Ask open ended questions
  • Play during recess
  • Find similar interests
  • Share about silly stories that happened to you
  • Praise them more than you correct

Over time you will see your relationship flourish, and you will be able to support them during challenging times better than every before.

8. Use Choices

Choices are some of the best strategies, because they are free and ANYONE can do it. However, most people do them incorrectly. I have an entire blog post dedicated to it, so go ahead and read that here

Using choices gives control back to students. Most of their day is told to them- when they can eat, play, talk- everything. If you can give them back some of that control you are giving them a sense of control and working on building healthy relationships. Relationships should be a give and take, which is why providing choices does just that!

9. Be Consistent

Be consistent- not one you may hear often, right? So what does this mean? 

Respond the same way every time (or try to). Some kids may do the same behavior over and over. It is frustrating, but they may have impulse control that prevents them from being able to pause and reflect on their behavior. It is so important that you respond similarly every time. If sometimes you can patient and calm and others you yell- this is going to put a lot of strain on your relationship. 

​Students are not going to know if you are in a good mood or not. It also will make them wary of coming to you when there is a problem because they may be afraid of what version of you they are going to get. 

Also, being consistent helps remind you to give fair punishments. You should not allow one student to call out and then punish another for the same behavior. That may seem silly and you may think it does not happen- but it does, often. Maybe you have a kiddo that just gets under your skin. You may be more reactive as opposed to the one who is just having an off day.

Kids need you to be a constant in their life. If you can show up at mostly the same emotional temperature, they are going to know what to expect and be more calm themselves.

10. Teach Self Regulation Skills

​Teaching self regulation skills or self management skills are SO important. These skills will impact a student’s life for the rest of their life.  These are skills all students need, and many need them explicitly taught.

You can teach these skills during small groups, individual, or my favorite-  whole group.  By teaching them whole group, you are modeling the skills, showing the students you do them too and by default- you become better at them and remain calmer yourself. There are so many different ways to teach these skills. If you are looking for somewhere to start, check out these Self Management Task Boxes. They are a perfect go to for teaching self regulation skills. 

Teaching these skills will help promote positive behavior even for your most difficult students.

Check out 12 more tips here from The Big Ideas Educator!

Managing difficult behavior can make it challenging for the whole class, but with these ten steps you can stop behavior before it occurs AND respond appropriately when it does happen. Disruptive students do not have to derail your entire class- you got this!

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