How do you deal with a difficult student?

Never mind how full the glass is:  Picture a student who is unpunctual, unresponsive, undisciplined and generally uncooperative; he is also antisocial …. (and it is usually a ‘he’!) Every teacher’s nightmare! What do you do? How do you deal with him? Admonitions do not work and threats might backfire… It is said that the difference between optimists and pessimists is that the latter see the glass as half-empty, while the former as half-full. But maybe what we see when looking at the glass is irrelevant; perhaps what we should be doing is ask ourselves something else: never mind how much water is in there, the question is ‘How did it get there?’ Before you carry on reading here is Dan Heath arguing in favour of a different approach.

Case Study – Bobby’s story:  When Bobby appeared in front of the school counselor John Murphy, the latter knew he had a difficult case to deal with… Bobby was as problematic a 9th grader as they come… He hated school, he almost always showed up late, he was disruptive both inside and outside the classroom and naturally he was a regular visitor at the Principal’s office… His home life was a mess too… He had been in a number of foster families and he had been sent to a number of special facilities for children with behavioural problems.

Murphy had no power over Bobby; he could use neither carrots nor sticks – and he would only be able to see him for a few hours over a period of three months. Things looked desperate… Incredibly however, three months later, Bobby had changed beyond recognition! He was still not a model student, but he was far from being the ‘menace’ he used to be. What had happened?

Murphy knew that the one thing he did not have was the time for a full-scale investigation into the (probably multi-faceted) root causes of Bobby’s problems. So he started by asking him ‘Is there any teacher you don’t have a problem with?’ Bobby’s answer was he seemed to be getting along well with Ms Smith. When Murphy asked him why he replied vaguely that she was ‘nicer’. Yet this was not what Murphy wanted – he probed further…

After a while it transpired that there were a number of things about Ms Smith’s approach which seemed to work with Bobby: a) she greeted him when he entered the class, b) she gave him easier work to do (Bobby had some learning disability) and c) whenever she asked the class to do something, she checked to make sure that Bobby had understood what he was supposed to do.

CS Bobby - free 2So Murphy at last had something he could work with. He issued clear instructions to the other teachers: ‘Remember to a) greet Bobby, b) assign him easier work and c) check to see that he knows what he has to do!’ But that was not all – how would Murphy know that his approach had succeeded? He specified three criteria in advance: a) whether Bobby turned up on time, b) whether he completed work in class and c) whether he had to be disciplined.

Three months later, the figures spoke for themselves: he was much more punctual, his performance in class was rated as acceptable in 4 or 5 out of the 6 class periods per day (previously the figure had been 1 or 2) and the Principal must have missed him, since Bobby’s visits to his office dropped by a staggering 80%!! (Heath & Heath 2011)

Applications in the field of ELT:  So what can we learn from this case study? Are there any principles which may have wider applicability? I think there are – 5 of them:

Solution-Focused Therapy: Sometimes there is no point in looking at the ‘why’ of things because we do not have the time or because we would not be able to change things anyway. It might make more sense to see what works and try to clone success! (for more on SFBT see de Shazer et al 2007) I once knew of a student who played up because he craved attention, yet one of his teachers did not have a problem – in group work he always gave him the role of ‘leader’ or ‘coordinator’ of the team!

Clear Instructions: Getting people to change is often not easy, especially when they have lots on their plate or they follow long-established habits. To get them to move in a different direction, it helps if you give them clear, behavioural instructions (Baumeister & Tierney 2012). Something like ‘pay particular attention to Bobby’ would not have done – it is too vague. ‘Move Bobby to the front of the class’ on the other hand is specific.

Acceptance: Little things make a lot of difference. One thing is for certain – where we want people to cooperate (as in a classroom situation) coercive measures hardly ever work – they trigger ‘psychological reactance’ (Cialdini 2001). It helps enormously if students feel we are on their side. Acceptance is a key element (cf Rogers 2013). Greeting people signals acceptance, as does friendly eye-contact and an open body language. The other teachers’ attitude was negative because they saw Bobby as a source of trouble; unsurprisingly, he picked up on that and this triggered a vicious circle.

Individual attention: Our job is to try to create the right conditions for ss to learn. If we ignore a particular s because s/he needs special attention they may learn little (which is bad) or they may disrupt the class (which is worse) (see Dornyei & Murphey 2003). This means that a) we need to spot such cases early; b) it is a good idea to seek expert help for guidance/tips; c) it is vital that we know at least some things about, say, Dyslexia or ADHD and that we have some basic techniques up our sleeve; we may not be able to perform an operation, but we should be able to provide first aid!

061026-N-5271J-014Measurable criteria:  How do we know that a particular course of action has been successful? The human brain is vain and we may manage to persuade ourselves that we have solved a problem when in fact we have swept it under the carpet. For instance, a teacher might have found a way to keep Bobby quiet but without his learning anything. Murphy however did specify his ‘success criteria’ in advance so he could justly claim that his intervention had been a success.

The importance of being pro-active:  One last thing: very often we avoid dealing with a particular situation because we lack the time to form ‘a clear picture’ or ‘the perfect plan’. Yet all too often this time is a luxury we can ill afford. Instead, taking action creates its own dynamic (Murphey 2012). Doing things not only provides us with useful feedback about what is effective and what is not, but more importantly it creates hope – hope for the students who can see that we have not given up on them, and hope for the teachers who feel that this new approach might just work! The amazing thing is – it often does! 🙂


Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. “Willpower” Allen Lane 2012

Cialdini, R. “Influence – Science and Practice”, Allyn & Bacon 2001

De Shazer, S. Dolan, Y., Korman, H. Trepper, T., McCollum, E. & Kim Berg I. (2007) “More than Miracles: The State of the Art of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy” NY Haworth Press.

Dornyei, Z. & Murphey, T. “Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom”  Cambridge 2003

Heath, C. & Heath, D. “Switch” Random House 2011

Murphey, T. “Teaching in Pursuit of WoW!” Abax 2012

Rogers, C. “Significant Aspects of Client-centred Therapy” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2013