The Top 3 Ways to Provide Emotional Support for Your Most Challenging Students

The Top 3 Ways to Provide Emotional Support for Your Most Challenging Students - Are you a teacher who is looking for ways to help your most challenging students succeed? Do you want to understand why students misbehave? Let's provide support for challenging students because they deserve to succeed!

Fists clenched.  Your jaw… well, you actually wonder how your teeth aren’t chipping or shattered yet.  Jamie’s done it again.  You know because you see Hiram’s face tucked in his arm. Based on the heaving movements of his body, you know his tears are flowing strong.  What did she say or do this time?  Deep breaths.

The depth of your frustration with Jamie can only be felt by teachers who have been there.

What can you do to provide support for challenging students like Jamie?

It’s true. The kids that challenge us are thirsty for much more than discipline and limits. Unfortunately, teacher education programs don’t spend a lot of time preparing or training teachers to meet the emotional needs of students. Behavior management is usually covered in teacher prep programs, but that’s only half the puzzle.

Students who misbehave don’t wake up in the morning and decide they are going to piss off their teacher that day. That’s just not how it works.

The kids who need love the most will ask for it in the most unloving ways.

One of the most important things to remember is that students misbehave, not to annoy you, but because there is something unsettled going on inside them.  Possible explanations for misbehavior include:

  • Attention – Any attention is better than no attention, right?
  • Power – Does the child have opportunities to use age appropriate power in his/her life? Does his/her life feel out of control in some way?
  • Inadequacy – Does the child feel confident in their school abilities and interactions with others? If Suzy takes it far enough, will she be able to escape the math lesson that gives her anxiety?
  • Issues at Home – This goes without saying, right? The home life and its inability to meet the emotional, physical, or mental needs of students can have an enormous impact on school behavior.
  • Feeling Misunderstood – Sometimes adults “miss the mark” and send covert messages to students that indicate a lack of caring, understanding, or support. Is the classroom environment culturally responsive? Are the authority figures at school unintentionally biased in their interactions with the child?
  • Medical Issues – These issues can range from medications/dosages being out of whack to other medical problems that may or may not already be identified and/or treated.
  • Other – Of course, there are a plethora of issues that might be impacting any given student’s behavior. Generally, there are no cut and dry answers to any child’s behavior choices. Students are dynamic individuals with complicated histories.

All that said, how can you, the person who spends hours upon hours each day with these students, respond in the most effective way possible? If you’re looking for easy answers and a magic wand, you won’t get them here…. BUT, implementing a few quick ideas will help these students feel more secure and understood.

  1. Search for the WHY because that will help you determine your next steps.

    Kids aren’t robots. They are multifaceted individuals with unique backgrounds, experiences, struggles, abilities, and interests. There will never be two children with the exact same circumstances or experiences, so you will never find two students who come in with the same formula for why they behave the ways they do.

    It is our job to understand each student’s unique perspective and experience. Ask questions and show interest.

    Here’s the DOUBLE BONUS (you didn’t know you’d get one of those, right?): When you show interest in a student’s life, not only do you understand possible origins for maladaptive behavior, but you also convey a very important message to the student. Simply put, you are inadvertently saying, “I care about you”. Surprisingly, THIS AND THIS ALONE may help deter inappropriate or disruptive behaviors.

    Once you are able to learn more about the motivations for behavior, you will also be able to address those needs more effectively. For example, if the child is struggling to understand basic concepts in school, you can make some accommodations to help them him/her be more successful.

  2. Reflect the behaviors and emotions you see in your students.

    Kids have a need to feel understood. Heck, even adults have a need to feel understood. When teachers make a conscious effort to be observant of their students’ feelings and behaviors, we are better able to connect with them.

    Reflecting what you see involves making an educated guess about how or why a student is behaving in a certain way.

    Here are two sentence starters that will help you achieve this goal:

    “I wonder if you are feeling… because…”

    “I noticed that you… and perhaps you did this because…”

    Using these sentence frames conveys a powerful message to your students. It indicates that you really see and understand (or are trying to understand) their perspective. It draws you into their world and allows you to establish a deeper connection.

  3. Challenge yourself to serve up equal parts discipline and positive reinforcement.

    I know what you’re thinking… “how can I serve up positive reinforcement when I rarely see positive behaviors from this child?” I get it. I challenge you to dig deep and I promise you will find them. Look for the small things…. did the student line up quietly? show respect to a classmate? arrive on time? clean up after themselves? open a door for someone? turn in their homework on time? You get the idea.

    For each correction you deliver, find a way to show the student that you also notice his/her positive efforts. It doesn’t mean you always need to use overt verbal praise. A simple smile with eye contact is a form of reinforcement that takes virtually no effort. You can also use other nonverbal tactics like a thumbs up, a wink, or a pat on the back. Another effective strategy is to strategically place positive messages on sticky notes for students (you can read more about that here).

    Another strategy that is underused, but very effective is helping students create positive affirmations. Research supports this approach and it can have a lasting impact on students (you can read more about using affirmations in the classroom here). The bottom line is that you can always find something to love in EVERY STUDENT. I’m not claiming that it’s always easy, but it IS always possible.

Are you looking for affirmations to hang up in your classroom? Are you also teaching your students about growth mindset? These watercolor growth mindset affirmations are perfect for your primary classroom!

Teaching is hard work. The number of things you juggle is astronomical. That said, I do believe that when you invest in your students in these ways, it pays back dividends that will save you frustration and headaches down the road. The most important reason for implementing these ideas, though, is the lifelong impact it will have on your students.

How many times have you heard adults say, “I had a very difficult childhood, BUT there was this one teacher….”

Be THAT teacher!

Be somebody who makes everybody feel like somebody. - Kid President

The last thing I’ll mention is that it’s imperative for us to hold a mirror to ourselves. Children are perceptive and intuitive… and teachers are not perfect. Every single, solitary adult on this planet holds stereotypes and biases and those, in and of themselves, are not evil or horrible. However, the ways that we reflect on them, educate ourselves, and make strides towards growth is VERY IMPORTANT.

No matter the challenges you face in the classroom, seek out support from colleagues and friends. The inevitable frustrations that result from teaching difficult students can be softened and understood by talking with people who understand. It can feel daunting, but it’s always okay to ask for help. We are in this together!

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I am Kirsten Tulsian, an elementary educator with 18 years of experience as a teacher and counselor. My passion lies in empowering students to discover their inherent brilliance through the use of engaging, rigorous, and meaningful activities. I look forward to connecting with you!

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