We Need to Talk: 6 Conversations to Have with “Difficult” Students
Most of us hate those dreaded “We need to talk” conversations, having been on both the talking and listening sides.
They are, however, sometimes necessary when dealing with unacceptable difficulties generated by one individual. This is true for the classroom as in other walks of life: there are the students who seem to have and cause more than their share of difficulties whether it be academic, interpersonal, commitment, etc. Ignoring the problem does not work, nor does sending the student subtle messages through body language that you are displeased with her behavior. What does work is a quiet and calm conversation. What I find helpful is having a set conversation for specific problems. This works because there are a limited set of student difficulties that take up most of our time, and if I have a set conversation in mind, a routine, I’m less likely to get derailed by an emotional response from the student or taken off on a tangent on an issue of less importance.
6 Conversations for Difficult Students
The General “Are You All Right?” Conversation (Odd Behavior)
Sometimes students display such bizarre behavior—sitting by themselves and glowering, openly hostile responses to peers and the instructor--that it warrants investigation. This is especially true if it’s a sudden change from the student’s past behavior in class. A nonconfrontational inquiry about the student’s well-being after class might be in order and even appreciated. You might find he has been under extreme stress, for example, due to personal or academic difficulties. Listening to the student and suggesting some constructive ways to address his problems can help him get through the difficult period without further damaging his relationships.
The “What’s Been Going On?” Conversation (Attendance)
Occasionally there is the student who is habitually late and/or truant. As with the difficult student, this may be a continuation of past behavior or a radical departure from it. Again, a calm discussion with the student about what is going on in his or her life can offer clear things up: sometimes it’s as simple as loss of transportation to more complex sleep disorder issues that keep the student from waking on time. Usually these students are very apologetic, aware of the problem, and commit to improving in this area.
The “I Need Your Cooperation” Conversation (Poor Peer Relations)
Sometimes a student will exhibit such poor peer relations—belligerent hostile attitude, confrontational, poor participation and help within groups—that a conversation with the student seems warranted. This is often best addressed as a team effort, as in “I need your cooperation.” Put this way, the student may see his efforts to better getting along with peers as part of a larger goal of a pleasant class atmosphere—which it is, of course—and is more likely to work with the student than if he sees his behavior as only about him, which he may very well might, of course. But in gently reminding him, in a call for cooperation, that his behavior affects others, which places him within the context of the human race as a whole, he might very well begin to make more of an effort in class.
The “Would You Like Extra Help?” Conversation (Grades)
Sometimes a student is doing so poorly in class, on nearly every paper and quiz, that it might warrant a private conversation on getting extra academic help in the form of tutoring. Often students are relieved at such an offer and may have been unaware that help was available, one of the reasons for their academic failure, of course. I can’t think of a time when a student rebuffed this suggestion, in fact. They probably wanted extra help all along, but were afraid to ask or did not know it was available.
The “Well, Let’s Look at the Gradebook” Conversation (Denial)
In contrast to the student experiencing academic failure, realizing it, and wanting help but afraid to ask, is the student experiencing failure and in denial about it, despite the poor grades that come back on papers and tests. When the teacher takes aside the student at midterm and tries to approach the issue, the student may become defensive: there’s no problem, her grades are no worse than her best friend’s, etc. Here the teacher should present the cold evidence, in the form of the gradebook: let’s look at your grades so far and then discuss them. Usually here the student admits there is a problem, and then, as in above, the teacher can suggest extra help.
Other times, however, the student continues to demonstrate denial and perhaps some paranoia: the teacher doesn’t like her, the quizzes are stacked against her, etc. Continued assurances that this is simply not true and the student should seek extra help may work but again, the student may have to experience more failure before approaching the teacher herself.
The “What are Your Goals?” Conversation (Looking Beyond the Immediate Dysfunction and Avoiding Future Failure)
There is that occasional student—mercifully rare—who makes you wonder why he is in the class: he spends the time in class goofing off, joking with his friends, not participating in the work, and never turns in work. This may warrant a “What are your goals?” conversation, to find from the student what he wants out of life, what his plans are, how the class may help him. Often he can’t say—he registered for no better reason than his best friend did. Occasionally, though, he’ll mention a goal, usually so lofty that he can’t really think of a direct means of achieving it, probably leading to the slacker behavior—a too vague or too unrealistic goal is not much better than none at all. Helping the student clarify the goal with some specific questions : “You say you want to be an actor. What kind? Where do you want to work? Do you want to go to acting school? How does this class help you toward that goal?” may begin to clarify with the student what he wants and how to get there.
Addressing difficult student behavior is not an easy task as students are often in denial and these may be ingrained sets of behavior.
But by remaining open to being approached and having a set of suggestions for addressing core difficulties, a lot of difficult behavior can be alleviated. Not all “difficult” students are bad people, of course: in fact, most aren’t even difficult people in general. However, they are having, for whatever reason, difficulties in class. With some discussion and intervention, these difficult students can get back on track.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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