How to Connect with Challenging Students
"Glance at problems; gaze at strengths."—Dr. J.C. Chambers
Posted August 19, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- The more challenging the child, the more finely attuned he or she is to perceived rejection and dislike by adults.
- The power inherent in changing the way we think about kids to more effectively connect with them is as close to magic as it gets.
- It’s a professional imperative to re-focus our thoughts away from a student’s deficits and onto a young person's strengths.
Not long ago, a teacher came to my office to vent. As the School Counselor, I aim to be a sounding board and safe place for students and faculty alike, both of whom benefit from support as they navigate the school day. On this particular day, however, the teacher unloaded with a litany of complaints about a particular student:
- He never stops moving.
- He constantly interrupts and blurts out answers.
- He won’t pay attention or focus for longer than 30 seconds.
- He is lazy and completely unmotivated.
- He hasn’t even started his long-term project yet.
- He has forgotten more homework assignments than he has turned in.
- If he taps his pencil on the desk once more, I swear I’m going to scream.
The teacher was frustrated and frazzled, exhausted, and out of empathy. I found myself simultaneously desperate to plead the case for this young student whose classic ADHD symptoms posed more of a daily struggle for him than they would ever pose to her and to give the teacher an affirming hug, knowing how draining it can be to consistently manage the challenges of this student while still attending to the needs of other young learners.
Being a teacher is hard. So is being a student.
As Rita Pierson pointed out in her TED Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion, kids don't learn from people they don't like (Pierson, 2013). To take her wisdom a step further, I contend that kids don't like teachers who don’t like them. In my years as a therapist and school counselor, I have noticed that the more challenging the child, the more finely attuned he or she is to perceived rejection and dislike by adults.
And so, at the intersection of my urges to vigorously defend the student and empathically support his teacher, I decided to try to be a helper. I started with a simple affirmation of the teacher’s feelings (something along the lines of, “It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by what’s happening in your classroom. This student is really having a hard time right now and you are in the thick of it.”) Then, I posed a simple request:
Tell me some of the things that you like about this student.
She looked at me like I was crazy for a solid five seconds, but I held her gaze and I actually saw her stiff posture soften. Without further hesitation, she said:
- He is so loving.
- He has the kindest heart of anyone in the class.
- He is so creative; his mind is just incredible.
- He is also really generous. He’s the first person to share his snack or lunch if anyone forgets or is still hungry.
And with those statements made, her entire demeanor completely changed. From all-out venting to near-gushing in under 30 seconds, a simple change of focus from the student’s deficits to his strengths created a dramatic shift in his teacher’s mindset. Just like that, the groundwork was set for her and me to move on to discuss practical strategies to support the young person in her classroom. In a career spanning more than 20 years, I’m way past magic-wand-type fixes for challenging behavior problems, but the power inherent in changing the way we think about kids to more effectively connect with them is as close to magic as it gets.
It’s hard to teach students who we don’t like. It’s easy to take their challenging behaviors personally. To change the inevitably negative outcomes that result from these emotional traps, it’s a professional imperative to be aware of our thoughts and consistently re-focus them away from a student’s deficits and onto a young person’s strengths.