Dealing with Difficult Students

Dealing with Difficult Students

Chris Speck
by Chris Speck 46,132 views

At times, we all encounter students who we find it difficult to deal with. It's easy to let those students get to you, but we have some tips to help you handle the students before they get the best of you. Next time a student gives you a hard time, try these handy techniques.


Types of Difficult Students


There are always students who talk too much and frequently talk over other learners in the class. This is annoying for those quieter people who don’t get a chance to get a word in. Stopping learners who want to talk too much is difficult because you don’t want to discourage anyone. Do allow domineering students time to speak. They deserve to be heard just like everyone else. However, make sure you have ways to limit how much they speak. For example, you may have a time limit on responses, track each time a student speaks and call on those who haven't spoken first, or even just give them a stern "Thank You" or try to redirect the conversation during a pause. You can also group students into smaller groups, perhaps putting quieter students together so their voices are more likely to be heard.

Homework Skippers

One way to encourage students to their homework is to go over the homework assignment at the beginning of every class. Students who don't do the homework may feel embarrassed or like they are wasting their time during the first 10 minutes of class and that may be enough to prompt them to do it next time. Always check student homework and, if you give grades, make turning in homework a part of the grade. Remind students why you give homework too - to help them learn English faster! 

Late Arrivals

Persistent lateness is a pain. It means you have to explain everything again and takes up student time. There may be a genuine reason students are constantly late, and it’s worth finding out if there is. However, if a student is always late without a good reason, ask your manager what the school policy is on this. As a punishment, you could ask the student to wait outside class until you have finished the activity you are doing.


Doubting your teaching is part of testing whether students know what they are doing. If you are confident that you are right, then students will be too, but if you doubt your abilities too much, students will sense this. Allow students to see that you might get things wrong from time to time, but at the end of the day, you are the expert in the class.

Disruptive Students

This is the hardest group kind of student to control. Often, disruptive students like to sit together and you can clear this up straight away by asking them to sit in different positions. Make sure disruptive students sit close to you so you can see what they are doing and keep them motivated by changing the tasks often. If students are too disruptive, seek advice from your manager or a more senior teacher. There is no shame in asking for help if you need it.


Handling Difficult Students

Prevent Behavior Problems Before They Start

Whatever kind of class you have adult, teenagers or children, set rules at the start of your course. It's no good to decide halfway through the year that it’s not acceptable to answer your phone or chew gum in class. Start the year by laying out the rules you want to enforce. Discuss what students are allowed and not allowed to do. You could even make this a class activity. Explain that by having rules and following them, students will be able to learn English more quickly, which is the reason they are in class to begin with. Make sure your students know what you expect. For example, if you don’t want them to wear baseball caps in class, tell them on the first day.

Read Body Language

You’ll know if students aren’t happy by looking at their faces and paying attention to how they move their bodies. For example, people tend to cross their arms when they are feeling frustrated or tense. These visual clues will often tell you if students are engaged, happy or upset. However, this isn’t always true if you are teaching students who come from a different culture. They may have unexpected body movements and facial expressions. For example, some people smile when they are not happy. You will have to learn to read your individual students.

Avoid Confrontation

Try not to get too involved with a difficult situation. Remove your own feelings if possible and stay calm. Difficult students do not know you personally; they only know you as a teacher and any animosity they feel might come from other experiences rather than what has happened to them in your classroom.

Talk with Students One-on-One

Don’t try to tackle a difficult student in front of the class, with peers around, students might feel stronger and more defensive. If tensions are running high, it might be best to avoid dealing with a situation right at that moment. Ask the student to see you after the class, and then discuss the problem quietly and respectfully, if there are a number of students involved, ask them to see you one by one. When you do talk to students alone, ask them to tell you their problem and genuinely listen to them before you explain your side of the story. If you need support, ask a colleague to sit in the room with you.

Stand Your Ground, But Let Some Things Go

It’s your classroom and although you work with students, ultimately, you decide what happens there and not the learners. Be patient, firm, and fair. Sometimes, especially with teenagers and children, there might be things you decide ‘not to notice,’ such as a hardworking student sending a text message on their phone. If you react to every break in the rules, then you might not get anything done! Choose your battles.

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