Tips For Working With Challenging Students- Increase Teacher Attention and Support

Increase Teacher Support to Help Students with Behavior Challenges


Photo Credit: Wonderlane via 

Yesterday I shared a story from the early days of my teaching career about Kevin, a challenging student. Read the story here: What About Tyke? Managing Challenging Student Behavior.

Today I want to unpack the first suggestion the college professors made after observing my interactions with Kevin over six weeks: Increase Teacher Attention and Support.

While I had already been making attempts to acknowledge Kevin’s positive, on-task behavior, it was so rare that he received very little positive attention from me. I also tried to ignore as much misbehavior as possible (such as shredding paper in his desk, sitting incorrectly in the chair, etc.) but did find myself frequently correcting him for being off-task, failing to complete work, talking out of turn, arguing with peers, etc. As a result, most of my one-on-one interaction with Kevin was 1) negative and 2) reactive.

It was time to alter the tone of our daily interactions and approach my moments with Kevin intentionally. The professors suggested that I:

1- Dramatically increase the amount of attention and support I gave Kevin (at least temporarily.)

2- Find ways to reinforce every move he made in the right direction (even teeny, tiny, baby-step moves.)

3- Be more mindful of his learning challenges (learning disabilities, ADHD, etc.) and reduce the amount of work I expected him to complete in one sitting.

4- Make sure the work was at an appropriate level of academic challenge. Giving Kevin work that was at his “frustration” level was counter-productive and resulted in behavioral outbursts.

5- Reduce the amount of time I expected him to sit and attend (at least temporarily) and help him to build stamina over time.

In other words, Kevin needed “behavioral scaffolding.” Rather than waiting for Kevin to finish all of his work and then dole out the praise, I needed to find ways to encourage him along the way.

I accepted this advice and immediately put it into action. Here is a sample of how it looked:

Classroom Snapshot (written in the present tense)

After teaching a review lesson on 3rd grade place value and regrouping with addition, students are given 15 practice problems to complete in their math notebook. They are given Base 10 Blocks and are invited to use them as needed. I immediately walk over to Kevin (who is playing with the blocks) and bend down to his level.

“Hi Kevin! Do you have any questions about the math assignment?”

Kevin looks up – a little shocked to find me there. He looks down, drops the blocks, and mumbles, “No.”

“OK!” I reply brightly, “I know you are going to do get this done today. You’re a math wiz! In fact, I bet by the time I get back around here you’ll already have your name on your paper.” I pat him on the shoulder and walk on to another student. Kevin remains hunched over his desk.

After 30 seconds has passed, I walk back to Kevin and see that he has, in fact, managed to get his name on his paper. That is a baby step in the right direction, so I reinforce it.  “Look! You did get your name written! I knew you would do it! I bet by the time I come back you’ll already have the first problem done!”

Kevin glances up at me briefly but ignores my comment.

I check on one or two other students and then scoot back over to Kevin. He has written one digit down in the first problem.  Old Susan would have said, “Speed it up or you’re not going to finish!” New Susan leans over and whispers, “You’ve already got that one half-way done and it’s right so far!”

This time Kevin looks up at me with a slightly bewildered expression on his face. He makes no reply but bends back over his work.

I continue to monitor other students around the room. I wait a bit longer- about a minute- before I go back to his desk. When I return he has completed the first two problems and is once again playing with the Base 10 Blocks. The second problem has an error. I bend down and quietly say, “Wow! You are rocking this! Look how much you’ve done!” Kevin looks at me, looks down at his paper, and looks up at me again suspiciously. I continue, “You know what- that second problem is trying to trick you. Check your tens place answer- did you remember to carry over that extra ten from the ones place?” Kevin sits for a moment, thinking, and then erases the error and writes the correct answer. “Yes! That’s it! You’ve got this! I bet by the time I get back over here you’ll have this whole row finished!” I smile my biggest smile and turn to walk away. This time Kevin watches me go. You can see the confusion in his eyes- why is she being so nice to me?

I wait about two minutes. When I get back, Kevin has finished his first row of five problems. If he hadn’t, I would have found a way to continue to encourage him and support his work. One answer is incorrect, but I want to capture the success of the moment and give him a short break. I say, “Wow! You finished the whole row! Hey- you know what? I need a favor. You’re getting this math done so well today that I think you could do it. Will you take a note to Mrs. Smith for me?”

Kevin looks baffled, but mumbles, “Yeah.”

“Great- thanks so much.” I hand him a document I pulled from the recycle bin with a sticky note on top that says, “Mrs. Smith.” I instruct him, “Take this to Mrs. Smith and come right back so you can finish your math.” (Mrs. Smith is expecting these kinds of fake messages from Kevin- I have prepped her in advance.)

When he returns, I meet him near the door and thank him for helping me. Then I say, “Let’s see where you were- come over to your desk and I’ll get you started again.” When we get back to the desk I help him correct the error in his first row and then say, “Kevin, I’m so proud of your work today during math. We have a few minutes left. Since you ran an errand for me, I don’t expect you to finish the whole page, but you’re so smart I bet you can get close!  See how much you can do and I’ll come back and check on you.”

Kevin sits down and immediately gets to work on the math. In the end, he completes 11 of the 15 math problems without incident. It is a very small step toward my ultimate goal for Kevin, but a huge advance from where we were yesterday. I’ll take it.

Frequently Asked Questions:

When I share this approach with teachers, I often get some questions. I have listed them here with my replies. If you have any questions for me, please post them in the comments.

Q: Do you feel it’s fair to give a “problem” student that much attention and neglect your “good” students?

A: “Fair” is a tricky word in teaching. Is the way I spend my time on my students “fair” in the sense that everyone gets the same number of minutes of one-on-one time with me? No. But I’m not sure equal time is actually fair in the truest sense of the word. Does the little girl who sits next to Kevin (“Alice”- identified as “academically gifted” with highly educated, very involved parents and no learning challenges) need me as much as Kevin does in that moment? No. Is it “fair” that Kevin has had such a hard life in his 9 years while other children have had a comparable cake-walk? No. I think we teachers need to be careful with “fair.” What we must strive to do is identify what our students need from us the most to reach their full potential. Alice doesn’t need constant checking in and scaffolding. However, Alice does need challenge. So, I might spend 15 minutes with her in a small group of advanced math students each week teaching a new math strategy at her instructional level and giving her unique assignments to complete during her work time. That is “fair” for her. Kevin needs a lot more support from me- at least for the moment- and that is “fair” for him.

Q: I believe in setting high expectations and holding my students to those standards. Isn’t this just a way to lower your expectations?

A: I also believe in the power of high expectations. My expectations for Kevin didn’t change.  What changed was my strategy for getting him there. Before I implemented this approach, I actually was embracing a lower expectation for him. I had adopted a position that basically said, “This is my expectation. You either meet it or fail.” And I was accepting his failure. Or- to think of it another way- my “high expectations” were actually phantom expectations. In my inner heart, I really didn’t believe that he would meet them. My honest “expectation” for Kevin was that, absent a miracle, he would continue to misbehave and fail. I had no hope for real change in Kevin’s life.

My new approach said, “This is my expectation. I believe you can do it. I will do whatever it takes to help you succeed. Failure is not an option.” And I actually believed it. For the first time, I had real hope for Kevin, or a true “high expectation” for his future.

Q: I like the positive nature of this approach, but it seems so time-consuming! How do you maintain this much interaction with a student?

A: This was my biggest fear. I actually discussed it with the professors. They assured me that though the first few weeks would feel forced and cumbersome, I would gradually be able to increase the time intervals between “check-ins” and Kevin would gradually build stamina for on-task work. They were correct on both counts. Within a few weeks, I was able to dial back my one-on-one attention during independent work time significantly, and within a few months, I only had to check on him once or twice during a 40 minute period.

Q: This sounds great, but I teach small groups of students and have the others work independently without interrupting me. How would I do the “check-ins?”

A: This is a challenge- especially in the first few weeks. Here’s how I handled it. I told Kevin that I could tell he worked best where there were very few distractions, so I fixed a special spot for his independent work. I acted like I had done him a huge favor. In reality, I set up a little desk in the back of the room (near my desk and the small group work table.) I made sure it was far enough away that he wouldn’t be disturbed by my teaching but it was close enough that I could jump up and zip over there quickly. I told him I had set it up just for him, and I set out a few new pencils and erasers, a “squeezie” ball (so he could occupy his hands while thinking/reading- this was important for him), and several books on his level that I thought he would enjoy. He was rather pleased with this set-up. During my small group lessons, I would always give my group something to do independently for 15-30 seconds (read silently, spell words with tiles, take a picture walk, etc.) and I’d zip over and check on Kevin. This approach worked for me and helped Kevin stay on-task during our “Workshop” times. (Such as Reading Workshop.) **Note: Physical proximity is critical to success with this technique. You can’t just sit in one spot and call across the room, “Kevin, how’s it coming?” Sorry- no cigar.

Q: What if most of your class is made up of “Kevins!?”

A: You have your work cut out for you! However, I don’t think the spirit of the approach changes. I do think it takes longer to see progress when you have more students who need lots of attention. Here are some things I would suggest: 1) Seek assistance- is there a local college in your area that can supply you with practicum students? Are there any volunteers in your school or community who would be willing to come in and move around the room with you, offering positive support? It would be a simple technique to teach to a volunteer. More adults in the room = more folks to provide the positive support and reinforcement. 2) Focus on your most challenging student(s) first. Often these are the “weather-makers” in a classroom. If you can settle them down and change their work habits, other students often follow their lead. 3) Invite a respected veteran educator (fellow teacher, administrator, professor, etc.) into your room and ask for constructive criticism. Don’t be afraid to do this! They want to help you and another set of wise eyes can often spot things you can’t see in the heat of the moment.

Any other questions for me about this approach? Do you have any similar experiences to share? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about using the power of planned movement as a key tool for managing student behavior.

Posts in this Series

What About Tyke? Managing Challenging Student Behavior

Working with Challenging Students: Increase Teacher Attention and Support (this post)

Working with Challenging Students: Plan Intentional Movement Breaks

Working with Challenging Students: Active Student Response Strategies

The Arts Save: Kevin Takes the Stage

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  1. Wow! What I would have given to have known about your blog in the fall of this school year when I was doing a leave in a class with several challenging students! I found you through Pinterest and have bookmarked your blog and subscribed to your monthly newsletter! Your ideas on student engagement are WONDERFUL! I definitely will be returning to read your great ideas!

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