Responding to Challenging Student Behavior

Elementary school students arguing over a pencil case

When kids are struggling, they often show us with their behavior. While challenging behavior may be making the day-to-day more difficult, it’s important not to punish your students for natural reactions to stress. Even if it seems like they’re trying to frustrate you, they’re really just showing you that they’re having a hard time. You can help your students by responding in positive ways.

Just like with kids, when we are struggling, it often comes out in our behavior and interactions with others. The only way to truly deal with feelings is to recognize them, name them and work through them. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Whatever you feel is real and valid. Sometimes just acknowledging what we feel can provide a sense of control and reduce our stress.

Unless safety is an issue, it’s better to take a moment to collect yourself before reacting to a difficult situation. Resetting allows you to respond with reason rather than emotion, and it also shows your students how to manage emotions in healthy ways.

If at any point you feel angry or out of control, it’s OK to take a minute to decide what you want to say and how you want to handle the situation. If you need to, reach out to a trusted coworker for help or support.

Whatever strategy you use, do your best to be consistent with it. If the rules and limits keep changing, it’s hard for kids to know what the expectations are. At the same time, kids are smart. If they think they can get their way, they are more likely to keep testing you and pushing back.

Sometimes kids misbehave when they don’t know what else to do. When you start to notice your students’ signs (Do they get fidgety or rowdy? Do they start to intentionally bother their classmates?), try redirecting them or distracting them with something else. For younger kids, this may be as simple as offering them something safe to play with for a few minutes or asking them to count all the round objects in the room. For older students, try giving them a task to do or enlist their help with a classroom job.

Setting limits is not about punishing or controlling a child. Limits help children learn boundaries and expectations for behavior.

  • Be specific about what the limit is instead of saying “stop” or “don’t.” 
  • Be realistic and developmentally appropriate. 
  • Keep your explanation as straightforward and simple as possible.

After setting a limit for what your students cannot do, let them know what they can do from two acceptable choices. For example, with younger kids you could say, “You can either color on paper or write in your notebook.” You’re giving them a sense of independence while you still maintain control.

Because natural and logical consequences are directly tied to an action, they emphasize that the child made a bad (or good) choice, but that doesn’t define their identity. Distancing the behavior from the child protects their sense of self-worth.

  • Natural consequences teach basic cause and effect, based on the child’s actions. For example, if a student does not study, they will not do as well on their test. 
  • Logical consequences occur when you need to enforce a consequence as a result of a behavior. For example, if a student misuses technology, you take away their privilege.

A positive approach to classroom discipline does not mean perfection. No one is perfect (kids or adults). If you’ve made a mistake, try to forgive yourself. You do not have all the answers. If you regret how you handled yourself with a student, don’t be afraid to right your wrong by apologizing. It’s a valuable lesson for kids to see that adults are human, too. By showing them how to own a mistake, you are helping build their ability to take responsibility for their actions and develop healthy relationships in the future.