Askangela At Ask Angela this week, there were several inquiries about strategies and techniques to deal with difficult students. My friend and colleague, Dr. Delaney Kirk is also getting similar questions about college students, which assures me of the need to ignite this conversation at all levels.

Here are a few of the concerns our readers have shared:

We are struggling with several students who continually show disrespect—sometimes to an extreme degree—to staff members, particularly their teachers, particularly when they are asked to do anything they do not want to do. We have tried talking to them, having the social worker and/or school psychologist counsel them, and even suspending them with no positive results. We appreciate any suggestions you can give us.

I have several students that are extremely disrespectful. I am getting no parent support and consequence I have tried do not seem to be helping. I have tried
detention, letters home, using the dean, I really am at my wits end. I believe that if there was discipline in the home that I would not have to be dealing with these issues in school.

We find ourselves wondering if it is the culture in which these students live that is exacerbating the problem. Some of us were discussing how things have changed over our lifetimes. For instance, many of us recall the first time we saw a commercial on television advertising a feminine hygiene product and how
mortified we were. Now, it is perfectly normal, along with many other sexually oriented advertisements. Students are exposed to so much disrespect in the
lyrics to their songs, the movies, television programs and video games they play. How can we counteract these to teach students respect?

I would love any suggestions you have for students who seem like they do not care. I am finding that many of my students have really poor attitudes about school, even towards me. I feel frustrated, and I know that I should care about every students equally, but I have to say that with some of my students it is hard. HELP PLEASE!

Does this sound familiar to any of you? I wish that I could say that I had a magic bullet, a super-wonderful strategy, a book, anything that would fix things! Unfortunately, we all know that this is not the case. What we can do, is address the theme running throughout these voices (students included) – RESPECT.

As teachers, we are given the keys to our classrooms and told…TEACH! There is very little time studying the art and science behind the conditions that exist within the walls of a highly engaged, respectful classroom. If we can explore the principles of making learning happen; respect becomes inherent. When we tackle the elements that foster engagement and respect, we lessen the time we spend dealing with the consequences and repercussions of disengagement.

Fostering Respect: The 5 R’s

: "Don’t Smile Until Christmas!" This was the advice that I was given as a first year teacher. It was hailed as the strategy that would allow us gain control of our classroom and show our students "who’s the boss". Thankfully, we have evolved as educators recognizing how important feeling welcome, comfortable, and validated are to our learning success.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that the rapport we feel in the first few seconds (two to be exact) of an experience or interaction, dramatically influences how we will respond to the person or event. I challenge us to walk into our classrooms and think about the first two seconds from a student’s perspective. How can we find ways to set the tone for the experience, invite students in, and let them know they are welcome and valued? Taking only seconds out of our day, imagine how a smile, a pat on the back, a look that communicates " were gonna have a great day" would mean to our students.

Routine: Being consistent in what you do and what you expect, sounds easy, but we all know that schools (life?) are places with constant interruption and inconsistency. In saying that, we must realize that learners do best when they know exactly what is expected of them. Consistency in routine, behaviors and policies are the key ingredients for success; especially for students who interact with many different teachers throughout the day or come to us from homes with little predictability and routine.

Rigor: The brain needs challenge to thrive. When students say they are bored, we need to listen.Mundane, skill, drill, fill-in the blank tasks are an invitation for boredom and disengagement.When students are not challenged, they find ways to challenge themselves. On the other had, rigor is not something that can be demanded or assigned. If we want students to engage in critical dialogue, solve problems, take risks, and attempt difficult tasks, then we need to show them how that is done. So, the next time we assign homework, ask students to complete a project, or engage in an activity, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Would this be something real readers/writers/thinkers would do?
  • Does this build students ability to think critically, ask powerful questions, extend the conversation into real life application?
  • Did I teach this or assign it?
  • Have I explicitly demonstrated how the task will be done-modeling, providing guided practice with feedback, and giving them acknowledgment of jobs well done?

When students do not see authenticity and purpose in what they are doing, the residual effect will be off task behavior, distraction, disrespect.

Relationship: More often than not, when a student is disrespectful, it is because they student feels disrespected by the teacher. Perception, whether accurate or not, is still reality. Even the most well intentioned teachers are disrespectful in subtle and not-so-subtle ways:

  • facial expressions
  • body language
  • forgetting students’ names
  • terse comments on papers
  • ignoring some students while playing favorites with others
  • not recognizing their "life" skills as learning strengths

But, most of all, we disrespect them by underestimating our students’ intelligence and ability, by assuming that we not only know more about our subjects, but that we are superior to our students as learning beings. Teachers that set the tone of – we are ALL learners, sometimes I will lead and other times I will learn from you and follow your lead, are more likely to get the respect they seek.

is no question that I desire and expect students to take responsibility for their behavior and actions. There is a responsibility on our part as well. We are solely in charge of creating the conditions for learning to exist. From the arrangements of desks to the posters on the walls, everything in our classroom speaks to students. It is our responsibility to reflect on what students are "hearing".

Do not be fooled by the simplicity of these conditions. Real progress depends on our willingness to address these issues in our classroom, without blame or finger pointing.
SIMPLE IS HARD! This dialogue is the first step. So, let the conversations begin!

Resources for Challenging Students

Taking Back the Classroom

Handling Difficult Students

Handling Difficult Situations

What Great Teachers Do Differently