How to Deal with Difficult Students

How to Deal with Difficult Students

How to Deal with Difficult Students

These pointers on how to deal with challenging students are taken from Chapter 6,‘How to Run Your Class’, in the book How to Teach Adults: Plan Your Class. Teach Your Students. Change the World, by Dan Spalding. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

- Never attack the student. Model how to deal respectfully with those who act disrespectfully. After all, just because this one student questioned a new activity, or said something homophobic, doesn’t mean that other students didn’t have the same thoughts. By addressing this person courteously, you show that the class is (still) a safe place for everyone to learn. It also demonstrates your confidence.

- Listen and validate. Listen to the student with your whole body. Don?t roll your eyes or cross your arms. Let the person say his or her piece (within reason) and, if possible, validate the concern: ‘It sounds like you’re frustrated with the pace of class. I’m definitely feeling tired after ninety minutes of class tonight. Is anyone else feeling tired?’

- Consider the complaint. This is particularly challenging if it’s not put forth as constructive criticism. I once had a student go off about how a workplace harassment quiz was unfair, even though it covered material we had gone over repeatedly. In his tirade, he mentioned how none of the quiz questions were in the class handouts. That night I made a handout that not only helped students learn the material but helped clarify what turned out to be my own disjointed understanding of the topic.

- Don’t defend the activity. George Lakey (2010, 176) points out how students often resist the activities they need the most. If a student who needs to analyse reading better complains about a reading activity, you can say something like, ‘Students in the past have said they got a lot out of this. If it doesn’t work for you we have different activities coming up after it.’ A good learning activity proves its worth.

- Encourage different forms of participation. Sometimes students resist an activity because they can’t do it your way. An exercise where students must repeatedly stand, write something on the board, and sit back down again may be excruciating for someone with a chronic injury. They may attack the activity rather than make their weakness known. Think of multiple ways students can participate - for example, by having students work in teams and letting a volunteer from each team write up all their answers.

- Allow an opt-out. Give students a graceful opportunity to opt out of high stakes activities. For example, I was once taught that, when doing a check-in, you should give people two possible questions to answer, like ‘Name a bad experience you’ve had in school OR name your favorite comic book villain, and explain why.’

- Create a pressure valve. Students need a chance to vent. In addition to formative assessments, encourage students to give you constructive criticism in private journaling exercises or as an occasional whole-class activity.

- Draw a line. Know what you will never allow in class. You can refer to the code of conduct in the syllabus or just name the problem behaviour in the moment. If you are caught off-guard, it’s fine to address the behaviour at the end of an activity, or at the end of class. Whatever you do, focus on the behaviour, not on the student.


Lakey, G. Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.