smoothing those rough edges
November 3, 2011 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Teachers : How do you deal with difficult kids in your class ?

Each and every year, I have to teach for a few hours in a class with difficult kids. They are kids with special needs, but actually they're just put together because they're facing hard times. Their problems are totally different : social, behavioral, cultural, mental. Some of them can't follow me, others could do it but don't want to, those who want to cannot because of the other ones who are too noisy and rude. Some of my teaching hours have been very much like a cross between The Raft of the Medusa and a tex avery cartoon.

It's been three years now since I've first met that kind of context and I really can't come up with something to improve my teaching or my communication. It seems that I become stiffer with every misstep they make - being rude, noisy, disrespectful - and from this point on, it gets worse and worse. I try to increase my control over them, I threaten them, punish them, but they only become more and more transgressive.

All right, I guess you get the picture. I'd like to break that pattern.
posted by nicolin to Education (24 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The most important things (IMHO) in regard to student discipline are consistency & follow-through. Very rarely do students not understand the rules or expectations of a class. Being consistent with expectations 100% of the time is critical to them exhibiting the behaviors you want to see. If you let it slip even once or twice, they will begin to see that they can get things by you. Kids are like raptors in Jurassic Park - smart, wily, and always testing boundaries. You have to be firm from the beginning; you can always get a little more lax if you feel things are too tough but it is much, much harder to become more strict during the year.

A side note about getting stricter with each misstep: when teachers crack down or use threats (e.g. Next person to talk out gets sent to the office), it is almost an invitation for that boundary checking behavior to occur. Any threat you make has to be carried out or you will lose all credibility - make sure you mean what you say.

Also, positive reinforcement goes a lot further than negative. Name & notice the behaviors you want to see repeated; a general guideline at our school is at least 5 positives for every 1 correction. This is a number for a whole class, not per student, but it does help to keep encouraging a student that you have to get back on track.
posted by _DB_ at 11:58 AM on November 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

Do you have a social work team at your school? Check with them for some ideas. A teacher and I used to do social skills/homework group work twice a week with kids like these where I was a social worker. We had mixed results, but the kids were getting some amount of emotional support for two hours a week. Even if the child's listening skills didn't improve, their social skills did. A lot of the group work we did involved completing assignments, asking the children to help each other with problems they were having with assignments and at home, and tons and tons of positive reinforcement.

It went a lot like this: "Khari, you just threw a chair at Larry. We all need to sit and have a time out. Close your eyes. Picture something relaxing. Let's go around the room and tell each other what we're picturing. Great. Now, Khari, explain what you were feeling when you did that. Is there a word you can use that matches your feeling? Let's all try to think of words just like that. Okay, let's all think of a time when we felt the same way Khari did. How did you deal with it? Let's hear about them. It's okay if the stories are funny or sad. Hm, now we've all heard some solutions. Do you think any of those could have worked for you, Khari? Let's brainstorm. Oh, wow, that's terrific. Khari, that was a great job. You're a very good listener and so awesome at talking about your feelings." The move on to Larry to see how he's doing.

It all seems kind of obvious and manipulative (and time-consuming), but a lot of the special needs kids in my group had never had an authority figure listen to them or speak understandingly to them before.

It took so much time, but after several weeks, we saw a dramatic increase in the children's respectfulness toward us. It was still difficult to get them to sit still and complete tasks, but there was rarely any arguing or rudeness. We had much happier children, which made it more fun to be with them and therefore increased our coping capacity and patience. So while you may not be able to fully fix your classroom behavior, you can probably nudge it in the right direction while improving your immediate reaction to it with lots and lots and lots of positive, verbal reinforcement.
posted by pineappleheart at 12:10 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

RECIPROCAL TEACHING!!!!!!! You can use it for any subject... very researched, easy and you don't have to buy anything, although I could recommend a good book of graphic organizers that is based on the strategy.... I used to teach seriously rough classes (of the type you mention and I wasn't very good at it) and changed all of our lives, really- I became a better teacher and they started learning.
posted by misspony at 12:23 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

The consistency is the thing. When I subbed I liked going to the same schools a lot because the kids saw me and knew that I wasn't going to put up with their shit. When I said I was going to send someone out I was always prepared to do it. Sometimes I felt like I sent kids to the office too much, but I never heard from principals or the subbing company.

Also, find the line between mean/angry and strict/making them follow the rules. I can't believe I'm opening this can of worms, but taking cell phones is the best example I can think of to illustrate this. I started off telling them that they had to hand it over and obviously that just was a total disaster. Then I switched to telling them they could either hand it over or get a referral. Things went so much more smoothly after that.

At the same time, you have to know when to be more lenient. I had a kid who told me that he went to another teacher whenever he felt like he needed to because of some mental issues. It said nothing about that in the plans, but I let him go anyway after telling him that I was going to write it in the note for the teacher and if he was lying he'd probably get in trouble for it later. He was grateful that I let him go, helped me out when I had issues with kids later at that school, and was telling the truth about getting to leave anyway.

Another thing that really worked for me is talking to the kids individually about what happened, why, and why they shouldn't do that. Sometimes I just didn't understand what was going on and that was a chance for the kid to let me know that I was wrong. And I wasn't afraid of seeing or admitting that. Most of the time I just got them thinking about what happened and I didn't have any more problems with them.

Finally, pick your battles. Chewing gum in class isn't something that you need to interrupt things for. Just carry the trash can over there and they'll know they got caught. Most of the time they spit it out. The ones that didn't were already being a problem in other ways or I knew from past experience that they most likely would be a problem. On the other end of things I've interrupted lessons to talk to the class as a whole about behavior and how I know they can do better than what I'd seen.

For the overall approach it doesn't matter what age we're talking about. My wife teaches kindergarten and a lot of her stuff is in the vein of "[kid], please sit in your chair correctly." And that's why I like older kids better.

All students want a consistent set of rules and consequences. They shouldn't have to guess what will happen if they break a rule.

Especially with this group though, you need to be ready to treat kids individually. Making a student sit by themselves could be your go to punishment because it works so well, but for this one student that might set off a psychological breakdown.
posted by theichibun at 12:28 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, with one class that would never let me speak- one day I just went in, sat down, and didn't speak to them.... they got really confused and were quiet within 7 minutes (whoa!) I then spoke very quietly and had them reflect...

Other things that have helped me are:

1) my screensaver face- they never know when I'm feeling upset
2.) saying "excuse me" with an incredulous look
3.) saying nothing and pointing at rules
4.) telling them I "expect them to... blah blah"- they can't say no to that
5.) offer clear choices
6.) a sense of humour
7.) sometimes pretending i didn't hear something
8.) VERY short activities- between 10-12 minutes each...
9.) constant clarification
10.) topics that interest them

you can memail me if you want.
posted by misspony at 12:33 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

My first teaching assignment was a class like this. When the other teachers in the lounge looked at my class role, they burst out laughing! Luckily, I had a wise and experienced teacher as a mentor, and he helped me out.

To get your class under control:

a) try to talk as little as possible, because it's difficult for kids to process information this way
b) make things concrete - use worksheets - so kids know what to do
c) have more worksheets to do when they finish

Also, always focus on what they should be doing, rather than their behaviour.

As long as the kids know what they should be doing (eg, doing a worksheet) you'll be fine. You can then *tell* them what to do (be quiet... let's get working!).

If you think this neglects some of the more creative, higher-level stuff the kids ought to be doing, just remember that when your class descends into a Tex Avery cartoon, absolutely no learning is taking place. Better a worksheet than chaos.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:54 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

My first teaching assignment was a class like this. When the other teachers in the lounge looked at my class role,

Ah, that should be "class roll" or class list.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:55 PM on November 3, 2011

I work with middle school emotional/behavioral kids, and one thing I'd add to the great advice you've gotten above is this: once the rules are established (and you focus on consistent rules and positive feedback), the kids need to know that you mean business. So instead of, "If you do ____ one more time there will be a consequence," you need to send them to whatever admins or discipline officers deal with these issues. In other words, it's really okay to send them out of your room for being disruptive.

In some schools, there are admins who will believe you lack decent management skills because you send kids out of the room for gross misbehavior and that's not fair.

Fact is, some kids aren't there to learn, you're a teacher, not a counselor, and if some kids get so out of hand that they're sucking all the energy from the room for acting up, then you have every right to send them out of the room.
posted by kinetic at 1:57 PM on November 3, 2011

"Screensaver face"--I love that phrase! I am not up on any of the relevant research (and I'm sure there's a lot out there), but just thinking back over my own experience as a high-school student, the teachers who could immediately impose order on a class were always the ones with that slight air of quiet reserve about them. The ones whose classes descended into chaos were the ones who were either emotionally needy ("I just want to be your friend!"), emotionally vulnerable, or who could be provoked to open displays of anger. I'm sure there are all kinds of useful specific strategies you can glean for dealing with this situation, but I suspect that you'll also do yourself a lot of favors by just carrying yourself as the professional grown-up who has seen it all before and knows what s/he is doing. Quiet authority is the watchword, I think.
posted by yoink at 1:59 PM on November 3, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks... I can see pretty interesting ideas, and your help is really appreciated. I need to go to sleep right now, but tomorrow morning, I'll print all the answers and read everything again, a highlighter in both hands. Don't be afraid to set me on new paths, I'd be delighted to have a variety of angles to come to term with the hardships of the classroom.
posted by nicolin at 3:18 PM on November 3, 2011

Best answer: Okay, so you have some really great advice here. I'll reiterate some of it to add emphasis to their recommendations:

1. Watch the messages you're sending. What behaviour gets your attention? Whatever you give attention to SHOULD be behaviour you want to perpetuate. If you want them to start working, reward behaviour that shows a start towards working. Something I do is to use the routine of a DOL (sentence correction) to get the class settled. It's always on the board when they walk in, and I do either (or sometimes both) of the following:

--Walk around the room and count loudly the number of students who have their notebook and agenda calendar out and thank them for doing what they're supposed to be doing. After 80% are there (it takes more time when you establish the routine, but once it's established, this takes about 10 seconds), I then switch to counting people who "aren't with us" (I ALWAYS use the phrasing of them not being "with us" to subtly make them "outside" of the group). But I never tell them directly to get out their notebook once it's clear that they know the expectation.

--Do the same thing, only give reward tickets. I use tiny cards that say "This." on them. They can redeem them for bathroom passes, choosing their own seat, getting a free pass on a homework assignment, or to get their name on my "College Baby" wall (of people who are *just* about ready enough for college). They love it. I also do things like, "Wow! Tim has his notebook out! Good job TIM YOU GET A THIS. CARD!!!" and then say it again every. single. time. someone does it. It totally works. The power of suggestion is powerful, and if you're always telling kids NOT to do something, that's all they can think about. I tested it with an activity recently. I told them that, whatever they did, they COULD NOT TURN THE PAPER OVER. I repeated it several times. When I polled them later, most said that they couldn't help turning it over once I put that suggestion in their mind.

2. What's the tone in class? Get someone to watch you and see if they can help you get an objective sense of what emotion you communicate to your students. If you're feeling frustrated or irritated, they will also feel that. You may be communicating to them that you're surprised when they're doing the right thing, which only further reinforces that idea in their mind. Classroom community is something that you can't fake - in fact, I go overboard cheesy and say things like "I really like you a lot!" when they get an answer right. I also make sure that I communicate to them that I expect them to do the work because they ARE good enough, smart enough, etc. to do it. Sometimes low expectations is the same thing as telling them they're NOT smart enough to handle the material.

3. Something I'm working on with my student teacher right now is how to give instructions and use wait time. Most new teachers use the "wall of sound" approach - they talk and talk and talk and talk and then are surprised when students don't jump to follow instructions. The students probably can't figure out what you're asking if your tone never changes. Less is more.

To practice, we're writing scripts of instructional sequences right now. It looks like this:
1. "Get out a piece of paper" (wait)
2. "Put your name on the paper" (wait)
3. "Title the paper 'Super Awesome Zombie Attack.' What should you title it?" (they answer - if not enough people respond, ask again. Then wait)
4. "You have a choice of two topics. How many topics?"

You get the picture. It works, and even though it's a lot of work, it will help improve your practice IMMEDIATELY.

4. Give them a choice whenever possible. Make it as authentic as you can, but any choice is better than no choices.

5. Have consequences that are A) enforceable, B) reasonable and appropriate to the infraction, C) consistent for everyone, and D) explained clearly with an increasing order of severity. I use the following:
--Tardies cost them 15 minutes after school and they have to wait outside until I let them in. If they miss an activity because they were outside, that's the price they pay for being late. After the first two weeks, I had no tardies. At all.
--Disruptions to class time get a warning with a clearly stated consequence, and then students are asked to step outside. If they can be reflective about it and show an intention to change, they come back in. If they don't...then repeat the process.
--Disrespect or blatant defiance (honestly, I only write about 2 of these a year) are immediate referrals, so long as I've made it clear what that line is.

If you can't (or won't) enforce it, don't make it a rule. That weakens your position immeasurably.

6. Use a neural attention grabber. I use "Please show me you're ready to listen/learn" and I repeat it until they have shown me. It's giving the message that there is a behaviour associated with listening and learning, and that I will wait until they have demonstrated that behaviour. It pretty much quiets them down instantly. Plus, the tone is positive and that helps keep class light.

7. Don't be too hard on yourself when things go wrong. Tell yourself (and your kids) that every day is a new start, and everyone gets another chance to do it right each day. Everyone has bad days. Even the most veteran teacher will have a day where NOTHING GOES RIGHT. That's okay. But every single day, when your students walk in, greet them at the door with a smile. Say hello. If someone had a bad day the previous day, check in with them on the way in. Ask how they're feeling today. Tell them it's a chance to start over. And mean it. That's really powerful.

I have the following two quotes on my mind a lot lately, because I think they describe perfectly the practice of teaching:

What defines us is not the habits of our past, but the choices we make RIGHT NOW in the present. --Derren Brown

The same sun that hardens the clay also melts the snow. --Amish proverb

The best you can do is commit yourself to making every day a new day, and believing that if you can even melt the snow for one kid, you've done your job.

Memail me if you want clarification or to just continue the conversation. I can send you documents and resources that I've used or help you work through this. I want to give you an internet hug for caring and being reflective enough in your practice to seek out solutions.

Good luck - the teachers of Metafilter are all rooting for you.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:34 PM on November 3, 2011 [10 favorites]

I work in a school, and am thrilled to see some of these techniques, especially guster4lovers'.

This is what I do that works:

Pattern interrupts to get attention - clapping, fingers on noses, call and response, etc. Fun ones.

Deal in their individual currency - some kids need space and time away from the group; some kids will use that time to goof off more (so they are required to stick by my side for a period of time).

Anticipation - if I know standing in line is hard for someone, that's the perfect time to give them a job.

Responsibility - the busiest, testingest, loudest kids are the best ones to do lots of little jobs and errands.

Seating plans - some kids are like, as Fonzie says, "Ketchup and a banana split. Separate? Aaaaay. Together? Whoah."

Visual cues and organizational help for those that need it - they get frustrated too.

And, as far as keeping your thumb on them, well, that's pretty much the definition of my job - but, I find that with some, the more you squish, the more they wiggle.

We have ASD kids in our care at times, and I speak to their EAs to find out what works. With one, I learned that he wears his hat because of sensory issues, so I don't push the school rule about hats with him. He also likes to side with adults, so when I ask him to "Work with me on this - how can I ask them to do X, when you are doing X?", he's more likely to curb his own behaviour rather than my having to do so. But I also learned to always have another adult witness my interactions with him too.

Also, ask them. "Hmmm...what would it take for you to get through....?" Sometimes it's as simple as wanting a seat with nobody behind them.

And, avoid power struggles. It's not "Please hand me that (ball, Bey Blade, mini finger skateboard, sharpened Popsicle stick..." it's "The ball stays in your backpack until recess." (Or be fast enough to grab it out of the air, and they can pick it up from the principal at afternoon recess.)

One more thing, that I learned from that silly book "The Nanny Diaries": Be calm and nice, calm and nice, calm and nice, and only DEADLY SERIOUS WHEN YOU REALLY NEED IT. If you hit the roof over someone who runs to trash to slam-dunk something, what are you going to do when someone pulls a fire alarm? You need to establish a baseline, so they know when they've raised the roof.

Last thing - require everyone to go to the bathroom on the way to class. Dear me, the dance even fourth-graders do rather than just go pee makes ME nuts. I can't imagine how they can function when their teeth are floating.
posted by peagood at 3:54 PM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think people have covered the whole consequences/discipline/consistency issue really well, and I just wanted to add some general thoughts about working with students who are "facing hard times". This is particularly telling that the problem goes beyond discipline:
I try to increase my control over them, I threaten them, punish them, but they only become more and more transgressive.

I don't know what the issues are that these students are going through, but I do have plenty of experience working with students living in poverty, students with serious emotional issues, and students who have huge issues with authority. A lot of students I've worked with have had some awful experiences with adults, including family members and/or authority figures. Here are some things I've noticed about working with students in these situations:

-Students will act out to test limits, and to see whether you're like the other adults they know. Will you flip out? Will you yell or scream? Will you hit someone? Will you give up on them? If that's the case, then yes, consequences are still important, but equally important is showing forgiveness, care, and love. So, if someone acts out and says or does something extremely disrespectful, you can and should enforce appropriate consequences, but be ready to welcome them to class the next day with a big smile. This shows students that, yes you have boundaries, but just because someone has crossed a boundary doesn't mean they can't start fresh the next day, or that you'll stop liking them.

-Students will not disappoint you if you let them into the discussion about how the class is going. You could try having a conversation with them at the start of class one day, where you say, "Ok, I've noticed that for the past few days, we've really struggled to stay focused. What's going on?" and let the students talk. Yes, there will be some silliness, and some "We just don't want to do work!" There will also be, though, some great feedback, like, "Yesterday we were bored because you were just lecturing us the whole time," or "We were upset yesterday because we just got back our social studies tests." And then you can try new things, and ask them to participate and let you know what works and what won't work. "Yesterday you guys said lectures get too boring, so today I made you a packet that walks you through the steps, and you can work on it with your assigned group. Let's work on this for the first 30 minutes of class, and then you can let me know if that was more interesting for you."

-As one of my former principals told me: You will never win a power struggle with an adolescent. Never. So do everything you can to avoid them. Students get, understandably, embarrassed when their poor behavior is called out publicly, and that can turn into a power struggle. Whenever possible, correct behavior quietly, one-on-one. Small infractions can be corrected by tapping a student's desk while you pass by, talking quietly to a student while others are working, or asking a student to chat with you outside the classroom door.

-Let things be personal. If someone is being disrespectful or rude towards you, I think it's fine to make it about you - you're a teacher, but teachers are people, and students sometimes need reminders of that. "When you (describe behavior), I feel very disrespected." Remind the students of times they felt disrespected, and that that's not a great feeling.
posted by violetish at 4:38 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Discipline" is a waste of time. Why would you punish students who have taken the trouble to show up?

Classroom management and focusing on learning will show more results.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:58 PM on November 3, 2011

I just thought of two more things that make a difference, things that happened, or made a difference, just today:

Knowing, and using, their names. They always ask "How do you know my name?" and while I'll joke, "It's hard, but I worked to learn it - and after all, there is only one of me and over 200 of you..." I'll also say, "Because I care about you" or "My job is to make sure you're safe and to help you" or "It's important because you're you." (Thanks, Mr. Rogers.) It gets their attention, and it's an advantage.

Sincere individual recognition. Today, when one sharp-eyed little girl noted that I looked tired (It appears I must always wear mascara. Sigh.) I told her that I didn't sleep well, then joked that I dream about them all night long. Immediately I had their attention, and each wanted to know about my vision of them. "H, I dreamed that you gave me a hug every day until you graduated, because some days, you're the only one in my life that hugs me." (And vice-versa.) And then everyone wanted a dream for themselves, so I quickly tailored them, in a way that showed I notice things: "W, I dreamed that your mother packed you another delicious lunch that I wish I had for myself, because it shows she loves you." (W. is sometimes ashamed of his ethnic lunches, and loves trying new food in our breakfast program. I have also never heard him eat a food that goes "crunch", but his lunches are delicious-looking and he finishes every bit.) "C, I dreamed that you remembered not just one fact about the healthy food of the week from the morning announcements like you always do, but that you helped others to listen so they could win a place in the draw, too, like you did on Tuesday." Sometimes I'll compliment something that's physical, but I always try to make it about something in their own power "You know, the fact that I never have to remind you to tie your shoes is a treat for me - how do you do it?!" If I can catch some kids on their way in, it "resets" something inside them, and they think of themselves differently for the time they're there. It helps, having my own kid, that I realized that last year her teacher saw her as a problem to solve, and this year, her teacher sees her as an interesting, quirky puzzle piece. If you can see each of the people in your classroom as a personal test of the measure of person you want to be, then you raise and lower yourself as needed to meet them part way, instead of expecting them all to meet your standard.

And last, I don't always move "the problem" away - I move everyone else away, one at a time, until only "the problem" remains. Then I can point this out gently and privately to "the problem"; and then the next time, when I'll likely have to remove "the problem" if he/she doesn't exercise more personal responsibility after the warning, there's less of an argument about who is at fault really. Because it's, of course, never all anyone's own fault, and they will argue it for ten minutes in an attempt to avoid a five minute time out - but sometimes it is just one little kid, and though you know it, you have to prove it first so it's inarguable.
posted by peagood at 5:52 PM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not a teacher, but I'm an IT technician who works in school classrooms and I get to see a lot of teachers work, and I'm also parenting a six-year-old.

Lots of good suggestions above and I have only one thing to add: do not discount techniques that look so simple or so blatantly obvious that they "could not possibly work". Try them all.

It's true that kids have excellent fear and bullshit detectors; you can't assume a leadership role from a position of being intimidated by them, nor by lying to them (and remember that an empty threat is in fact a lie).

However, compared to you, they have completely underdeveloped theories of mind, and although their awareness of tribal loyalty and pecking order is keen, they have virtually no ability to analyze or articulate these. Gross manipulation that strikes you as completely obvious (e.g. use of ingroup vs. outgroup language or other forms of divide-and-rule, beads and blankets in payment for Manhattan cheesy collectibles in payment for good behavior) will in fact work just beautifully.

Advertisers know this. Think about the degree to which your problem kids desire to adorn themselves with assorted tribally approved logos.

You have years more social experience than any of the kids you teach, and your analytical abilities are streets ahead of theirs. These are massive advantages. Use them without compunction.
posted by flabdablet at 8:27 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Peagood is right on with the idea of resetting kids on the way in and using the information they share and you observe to build classroom community. That's powerful on its own.

I always think that it's harder to be an asshole to someone you know well. That goes both ways (not that I think you're an asshhole to them!) and the more they see you as a person with feelings the harder it'll be mean and disrespectful to you.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:33 PM on November 3, 2011

A dead-simple trick I've seen get consistently good results in the school I'm at right now, for seizing the attention of a class that's been left to its own devices for long enough that the ruckus has reached the customary ear-splitting peak, is The Clap.

Part of the culture here is kids who have been trained to respond the sound of a teacher going Clap - Clap - ClapClapClap by joining in for three rounds and then stopping. This is an easy pattern to establish, because it leverages the kids' natural inclinations: kids love making a huge noise and they love bossing other kids around, so they jump at the chance to be Of Those In Charge even briefly.

Once a few pick up the rhythm, two things happen very quickly: you and they suddenly weld into a single tribe of Clappers, and the Clap is louder than anything else in the room so everybody else hears it and joins in too.

Everybody knows that (a) the teacher is the only one allowed to start a Clap and (b) the Clap goes for three rounds and stops; that's just the way it works. And the end result is about six seconds of thunderous noise followed by dead silence and a bunch of little minds who are yours for as long as you can then keep hold of their attention. It's brilliant.
posted by flabdablet at 1:11 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been teaching EFL for over twelve years now, and I don't think I've ever taught at a school without having classes with kids who have difficulties in the classroom. I'm not willing to say yet that I'm good at dealing with these students, but I think I have gotten a hell of a lot better at it than I was.

One thing I've always tried to do was to make sure that, as much as I can, I give all of my students as much attention as I can, and as much as they need. Constant eye-contact throughout the lesson helps some things, because when the student sees you seeing them, it's very rare that the student doesn't give a slight boost of attention.

Aside from simple everyday things, another huge thing is to keep the class moving along, keep giving them new tasks, new ways of expressing themselves as often as possible. Activities in groups, or moving around the classroom are crucial for wandering attentions. Pairing students can help, but only if you're lucky to have students willing and able to help each other. Stronger students with weaker students, rambunctious kids with students that a) are more committed to the class, and b) are someone the weaker student looks up to a bit (this part is crucial, if they don't look up to/respect the mentoring student, the stronger student will likely just be made miserable).

As often as possible, offer praise for the student when they do something, anything which is a positive for themselves or the class. When they detract from the class, or don't do their tasks, don't criticize or act harshly towards them. Ask them why they chose not to do the work, and encourage them to develop strategies to prevent a similar result in the future.

Students with difficulties are a lot of work, and can take up a lot of your time. It is worth it, if you can manage it. Patience, watching yourself and how you interact with them, will go a long way to helping them, and in te long run, helping your class.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:18 AM on November 4, 2011

There was a general management thread from a few weeks ago that may have some useful ideas for you, in addition to the good advice above.

I'll reiterate what I said there, which is that I really believe that management is all about developing relationships with students so that they a) know that you care about them so that they b) care about you enough that they don't choose to make your life miserable. In my work as a mentor, the best teachers I help figure that out quickly...the ones who don't see management as a power struggle, and keep losing that power struggle because no one, no one, can be as invested in a power struggle as a 13 year-old.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:16 AM on November 4, 2011

"Table points" is another method I've seen used effectively. This is another divide-and-rule manipulation that any adult would see through in about five seconds; kids usually don't.

Arrange your tables in clusters, and spread your troublemakers across those clusters so that they're locally outnumbered by reasonable kids in any given cluster. Now allocate your cheesy collectibles per table on the basis of behavior from any member of the table: good behavior gains table points, obnoxious behavior loses them. Inter-table competition for table points emerges pretty quickly, as does peer pressure against obnoxiousness.

Of course it's unfair to use collective punishment to turn your good kids against their disruptive peers in this way. Works well.
posted by flabdablet at 9:38 AM on November 4, 2011

And charmedimsure is perfectly right - it should never be a power struggle. It's a power game, and you get to cheat.
posted by flabdablet at 9:40 AM on November 4, 2011

Of course, the instant your focus shifts from helping kids achieve to winning the game, you lose. Don't do that.
posted by flabdablet at 9:42 AM on November 4, 2011

I am not a teacher, but I was intrigued by some stuff in the thread on classroom management that charmedimsure linked to - specifically, a set of techniques that Doug Lemov assembled, described in a NY Times article called Building a Better Teacher and spelled out fully in a book called Teach Like a Champion.
posted by kristi at 12:02 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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