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Virginia Journal of Education

Dealing With Difficult Behaviors

By Deborah Romig

There are lots of things we want—and need—to accomplish in the classroom. We’d like to try new strategies, put more effective classroom management routines in place, incorporate some exciting technology into our lessons, and generally be open to constantly improving how we teach and how our students learn. However, in the face of a steady stream of obstacles, sometimes we back off those ventures, choosing instead to fall back on what we know is comfortable, even if it seems less effective. One of the most frustrating obstacles to helping students is a particularly unfortunate one: the difficult behaviors of some of them. Disruption, disrespect and other issues can bring learning to a grinding halt.

And it’s not an issue that’s likely to change anytime soon.

There are three goals when dealing with difficult behaviors: one, to eliminate or at least minimize the behavior; two, to do so while maintaining the student’s self-esteem; and three, to maintain the momentum of the lesson. Coping with difficult behaviors randomly, using various techniques, is not an effective, long-term method of achieving those goals. An approach that will be for more useful is to explore a few basic concepts and then develop a management system that will work for your students and your teaching style. Consider these ideas as a framework:

You can only change your own behavior.   
• Behavior management is about managing your responses, your language and your attitude. 
• Move up before you move in. In other words, make sure you are in a good frame of mind to deal with a student before you respond to the situation. 
• If you focus on changing the conditions and causes of poor behavior, and the consequences, then behaviors will change. 

Teaching is a relationship-based business. 
• Seek to build win-win relationships.
• Students need to know that you care about them. 
• Caring about students does not mean that inappropriate behavior is allowed to occur or continue.
• Use boundaries, consequences, language and choices that preserve the dignity of the student without abdicating your adulthood.

Discipline should emphasize teaching appropriate behavior instead of punishing the child.
• Focus on what you want the student to do.
• Language should be phrased in positive terms rather than negative. For example, instead of telling the student what you do not want he or she to do, ask the student what you do want he or she to do. 

Start with the least restrictive intervention first.
Use some of the following techniques;
• Purposeful ignoring: If you feel that certain misbehavior is not contagious and will stop soon, you may decide to simply ignore it.
• Signal interference: You can signal a student through a gesture, a look or a brief signal that the behavior needs to change.
• Proximity: Come closer to the noisy or restless student, or place the student's desk next to yours. 
• Emotional drain-off:  You can offer a transition period of drawing, reading, etc. that releases tension after an exciting or tense experience. Mandalas are great for this. 
• Cut some slack: Sometimes a student may do something impulsively and will not be sure what to expect from you as a consequence. If you react with humor and understanding, he or she will be greatly relieved and assured of being accepted.
• Provide help for hurdles: Sometimes a student cannot proceed with a task in which he or she is experiencing difficulty. The teacher may provide a hint that enables the student to move on.

Here are some ways to prepare yourself to make that framework function smoothly in your classroom:

Take care of yourself. This means looking out for your own physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Be aware of your own sources of stress and stressful behavior Be positive about what you want from your students, from your classes, and from yourself. If you dwell on negative thoughts, negativity is what you’ll see and what you’ll get.
Set up consistent classroom routines. Be intentional and proactive about this. Think about all of those peripheral tasks that can get in the way of instruction, and then create a routine for them so you’re maximizing instructional time. Establish clear and consistent expectations and consequences at the beginning of the year, and then enforce them consistently and on a regular basis. Make yourself dispensable.

Make regular deposits into your students' relationship accounts. In other words, build positive relationships with your students. Look for opportunities to compliment them. Make sure they know that you care about them not just as students who must be taught and evaluated, but as people who have dignity and value as individuals. This is crucial.  
Create win-win situations for both yourself and your students. Set your ego aside. Your relationship with your students is not about power and it’s not about you. Don’t take difficult behaviors personally. Try to use some of the language suggested in the “Watch What You Say” section later in this article.

Seek to de-escalate a volatile situation. Do not try to reason with a highly-emotional person, whether it’s your student, yourself or both of you. Walking, a couple of slow, deep breaths, getting some water, or a quick relaxation exercise can all be helpful. Usually, it’s not helpful to say, “Just calm down.” 
Look for solutions. In this problem-solving process, you ask, not tell students to slow down and explore options and other outcomes, and to assume some responsibility for working the situation out. And, if you don’t model conflict prevention and resolution skills, there’s little chance your students will. 

Watch What You Say
When speaking with your students, the objective shouldn’t be to see who comes out ahead. It’s in everyone’s best interest to create win-win situations. Here is some helpful language that can help both you and your students move forward together in various scenarios:

When offering students feedback on their work:

• Great first draft! Where would you like to go from here?
• What are some other ways of doing this?
• If you did know the answer…
• If you were the teacher, how would you grade this?
• Who would be willing to take a risk on this one?
• That was a stretch you attempted. I appreciate you taking the risk.
• I understand that you may have had some unexpected difficulty. Nevertheless, the assignment is due today.
• Everyone is responsible for completing the assignment.

When making a request:

• First we’ll do the [work or assignment], then we can [use the computers, etc.].
• Give students a choice, but also a time frame: “You can spend some time working on [assignment, project, etc.]—choose one and I’ll be back in one minute to see which one you picked.”
• Would you….
• Would you rather use a pen or pencil for this assignment?
• I would prefer that you do this, but if you have a better choice, I’m willing to listen.
• Use nonverbal techniques too, such as proximity, a gesture or a look.

When a student is doing something inappropriate and/or disrupting class:
• What you’re doing isn’t working, either for you or the rest of us. Please make another choice.
• It’s OK to be angry. It’s not OK to call anyone that name. Let’s talk about appropriate ways to let me know you’re angry.
• Help me understand why this is so important to you.
• Try using words such as choose, pick or decide. “Cursing is not acceptable—choose a different word.”
• Use the “wrong-right-praise” formula: “You are talking too loud. Please lower your voice. Thank you.”
• Use the “I know, but the sooner…” formula: “I know you’re angry, but the sooner you can resolve this issue, the sooner you can get back to your lunch.”
• Know who you’re going to be with a disruptive student before you decide what you’re going to do with him or her.
• Use the “red light-green light” formula: “At [our school] we don’t talk that way to each other, we respect each other.”
• Use the phrase “next time”: “Next time, please use the trash can.”
• Don’t use language that you know will probably just escalate the situation, such as asking questions you already know the answer to.
• Use “Teflon” responses. For example, if a student says, “This class is really boring,” you might respond, “That’s an interesting point. We’ll talk about how to solve that in a few minutes.”
• I’ll be interested to see how that works out for you.

Some Effective Strategies
 "I notice" statements. Phrasing comments this way helps to build relationships and lets students know that you’re aware of him or her without passing judgment. For example, “I notice you got your hair cut yesterday” or “I notice you went to the game last night. Are you a fan?”

Reframing. Often, students will see only one side of a situation. This kind of faulty thinking will only set off a spiral of negative behavior, so try asking some questions to calm them down and reframe the situation for them. Some examples:  How could this go better for you? What are some other ways to look at this? People make mistakes. Now, what can you do? If you had a magic wand, what would you change? What did you want to happen? How do you want the rest of your day to be?

Two-minute interventions. If possible, get an often-disruptive student out of the classroom and walk with him or her for at least two minutes, discussing something other than school or behavior. Really listen. Try to do this for 3-5 consecutive days. For example: "Johnny can you help me for a few minutes? I have an errand to run and I don't want to do it alone." Then start a conversation, maybe using an "I notice" statement.
Redirecting.  There are various methods you can use to redirect a disruptive student back to what he or she is supposed to be doing. You can also use them to redirect non-disruptive, off-task behavior, too, because it will become disruptive eventually. Try humor (not sarcasm), such as “Sally, why don’t you try this pen—yours doesn’t seem to be making great decisions right now.” Allow students to change their environment a little, like working at a standing desk, on top of a bookshelf, or with a clipboard. Provide “brain breaks.”

Student contracts. Getting an agreement in writing, signed by both you and the student, can be hugely helpful. A contract involves the student in identifying specific negative behaviors and the desired positive behaviors, and clearly spells out the consequences of each. Getting a parental signature, if possible, is also extremely helpful.

Take five. This is a cool-down strategy in which the student goes to a separate room to debrief, refresh and reframe the classroom conflict. During this time, you can have him or her complete some kind of a “problem resolution” sheet that includes the situation, the options, disadvantages, advantages and solutions (SODAS) before returning to the classroom. 

One more very crucial point: Do not allow yourself to be drawn into an argument or to engage in the student's protests. Maintain your message. It’s OK to be the broken record and step away, non-emotionally, from the situation, letting the student choose. Repeat as necessary and consistently follow through on the consequences previously agreed upon.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to adapt all these strategies into your teaching routine at once. Pick a couple that you feel comfortable using and that you believe would be effective with your students, and ease into them. As you see progress, you’ll gain the confidence to use more, and difficult behaviors will become far easier to manage. Keep the faith!

Romig, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association, is an assistant principal at Monacan High School. She is also a member of VEA’s “I Can Do It” cadre, made up of educators trained to offer classroom management workshops.


One of America’s Top Models?

Modeling is one of the most important things an educator does, and doing so effectively can go a long way toward preventing difficult behaviors before they even happen. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your effectiveness as a model:

• Do you do your best to consistently treat students in a positive way?
• Do you refrain from interacting in an aggressive way?
• Do you sometimes volunteer to assist in activities that your students particularly enjoy?
• Do you demonstrate areas of special expertise to students?
• Do you consistently show interest in and concern for your students?
• Do you communicate that you’re “with it,” that is, that you know what’s going on in various parts of the classroom?

Source: VEA’s ‘I Can Do It’ training manual



You Can Do It, Too

VEA offers a workshop entitled “I Can Do It,” in which participants learn elements of successful classroom management, including dealing with difficult behaviors, keeping the classroom flowing smoothly, communicating clearly, and building successful relationships with students and families. To schedule an “I Can Do It” session in your community, contact Sonia Lee in VEA’s Office of Teaching and Learning at


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