The Whiteboard

Putting Out Fires

How can educators connect with their behaviorally-challenged students?

Struggling with disruptive, disengaged, and disrespectful students? Feel like you spend your days putting out fires instead of lighting fires in the hearts and minds of your students? Does your classroom feel like a battleground at times instead of a place of learning and growth? 

If so, be not dismayed. I’ve been in your shoes, and there is hope. 

Research and experience show that one of the best ways to reduce student behavior challenges is to form positive student-teacher relationships. However, developing positive connections is not always easy, especially when your challenging students are regularly disrupting the flow of your class and often trying your patience. 

Over the years, while serving as an educator, administrator, and educational consultant specializing in student behavior, I have found the following tips to be effective when connecting with behaviorally-challenged students

1 Change your mindset.

Connecting with students who pose a consistent challenge requires you to view the students and their behavior differently. First, you can replace the belief that their behavior is an annoying obstacle in your classroom with the belief that student misbehavior is an opportunity to learn more about your students. This change in mindset does not excuse the behavior or exempt students from a natural or intentional consequence. It does, however, help you focus on their actions without placing judgment or labels on the students. 

2 Catch them being good. 

If the interactions with your challenging students occur mainly when there is a behavior issue, then developing positive connections is almost impossible. You can search for times when students are on-task or doing something positive to give them encouragement and attention. Since attention comes in different forms (verbal, visual, and gestural), you can mix it up or deliver it in a manner the student appreciates.  

3 Make an agreement.

Based on your students’ past experiences, family backgrounds, and struggles, you will need more than your title to gain student compliance, respect, and trust. I have learned that students will work for you and with you if they believe you care and are fair. You can meet individually with your difficult students to discuss what you both can do to keep the troublesome behavior at bay. For you, the teacher, that could mean allowing students to take a break or reminding them to use their coping skills. For the students, that could mean asking for help when stressed or frustrated or choosing a different agreed-upon behavior. 

4 Sow into their strengths.

No matter how difficult your challenging students are, something good and strong dwells within them. Your job is to find it and encourage it. You can encourage your students’ strengths through words, written comments, activities in the classroom, and opportunities to shine. When you invest in growing the greatness within your students, you will see fruit. 

5 Use your commonalities to communicate.

Connections occur when we realize we are more alike than different. Look for what you have in common with your challenging students. You can always find something. Then, you can use your commonalities as topics for one-on-one conversations or in analogies to help explain subject-related concepts. Focus on what you have in common until a stronger relationship develops. 

6 Make time to play.

Students who tend to struggle with controlling their behavior during class time will often be more likely to engage in fun activities. By playing games in your class, you can give your students an opportunity to see you in a different way—not just as a disciplinarian, correcting and redirecting their negative behaviors, but also as a fun person who can joke and laugh with them. You may just find that your challenging students will be more open to your direction during instructional time once you’ve connected with them through play.

7 Feed their needs.

Most negative student misbehaviors usually signify unmet needs. When these needs are ignored, the negative behavior continues and may even increase. You can study the recent patterns demonstrated by your challenging students, looking for patterns before the behaviors begin or after they occur. These patterns can help you uncover your students’ unmet needs. Once you understand their needs, you can begin to implement strategies to meet them.

Bonus Tip: Use our powerful advantage

As Christian educators, we have a powerful advantage in our classroom because we have access to the Spirit of God. We can invite Him into every aspect of our classroom, including our connections with our challenging students. Whatever behavior challenges we are struggling with in our classrooms, we can ask God to come in and give us wisdom and strength. When we connect with God and ask to partner with Him in ministering to our students, God promises to provide the grace that we need (Hebrews 4:16)!

Michele Holiday served in public schools for 16 years in a variety of roles, including teacher, behavior specialist, ESE specialist, and district behavioral program specialist. She currently works as a behavior strategist for Feed Their Needs, LLC (, a professional development company she founded that provides classroom and behavior management consultations and workshops for educators.


Like what you’re reading? Then don’t miss an issue. Subscribe to be notified when the next issue is published.

Next Story

The Whiteboard

Student of Character Award

Shaping and changing hearts