Handling Challenging Student Behavior: 5 Strategies

While we all wish our classrooms could be full of students on their best behavior, we know that just isn’t possible. Social media has thrust challenging student behavior into the spotlight and sometimes it feels like we’re constantly hearing new stories about terrible student behavior. Handling challenging student behavior isn’t easy but we’ve got you covered!

First, it’s important to remember to stay calm and collected. All hopes of classroom management fly out the door when you lose your cool. But what do you do when you’re calm but your students are not? What do you do when you’ve exercised all your classroom management skills and the classroom still doesn’t seem that manageable?

Here are 5 strategies for handling challenging student behavior in the classroom that aren’t just “remain calm”!

Table of contents:

1) Lay your cards on the table

  • Expectations you can talk about

2) Face the first problem head-on

  • Phrases you can say
  • Other classroom management tips

3) Pick your battles

  • Don’t expect to win the cell phone war
  • Encourage group work
  • Pick and choose your battles

4) Don’t be afraid to remove a challenging student

  • Before removing a student for bad behavior

5) Tell administration

  • Update the teacher

6) Have compassion

7) This challenging behavior is not a reflection of you

1) Lay your cards on the table

Dealing with negative student behaviors

When the teacher is out, students often feel like having a sub means having a free day. Don’t let this mentality affect you!

If you start the day expecting things to go bad because you’re “just the sub”, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Remember that you are here to reach learning goals and supervise a full classroom.

Instead of feeling defeated, think about your expectations and what you consider to be positive behavior. You’ll need to fully explain this to your students before you begin the lesson or activity.

Set expectations to avoid challenging behavior

First, introduce yourself to everyone. Explain that you’re the substitute teacher and that you’re here to help out while the teacher’s gone.

Second, go over your behavioral expectations. What do you consider good or positive behavior?

  • Examples of good behavior is raising a hand to speak, not interrupting someone while they’re talking and not using social media during class.

Next, tell your students that you want this day to go as smoothly as possible and that you hope everyone feels the same. It’s best to be open with your students, they will respect you more for it.

Finally, explain anything else you’d like everyone to know. Use this time to share something personal about yourself so you can form a bond with your students.

Remember that things that may be obvious to you are not always obvious to the students. You’ll need to explain everything to the whole class in order for strategy 2 to work.

Enforce academic outcomes and correct negative behavior

So you’ve explained your classroom expectations, now what? Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the rest of the class will run smoothly. You may still have to handle challenging student behavior.

You need to follow through with the rules you stated at the beginning of class.

For example, if you said that you don’t want students to interrupt you while you’re talking and a student does, gently but firmly remind them of your rules.

Phrases you can say

Here are some phrases you can say when a student doesn’t follow the expectations you’ve set:

  • “Hey [name], please remember to raise your hand before you speak.”
  • “I said before that phones were only to be used for music, [name]. Please close that app.”
  • “Let’s be a little quieter, [name]. We don’t want to disturb the others around you.”

You’ll notice that all of these phrases use the student’s name. This makes it clear that you’re talking to them.

Utilize these phrases and let your students know that you’re serious about your expectations of them!

Other classroom management tips

There are also ways of correcting misbehavior that doesn’t involve calling out a student in front of everyone!

You can walk around the classroom and stand close to the student misbehaving. This is a great classroom management tip that doesn’t require you to say anything.

3) Pick your battles

Strategies to see positive change when dealing with difficult children

Some issues are an uphill battle and since you have limited time, you should pick the issues that matter most to you. Don’t shy away from compromising when you need to!

Below, we’ve listed out some ways to compromise with your students while still getting what you want.

Don’t expect to win the cell phone war

Most, if not all, students have smartphones. And if you’re subbing for older students, then odds are they all have smart phones and will want to use them.

Your first instinct might be to completely ban cell phones from the classroom. However, enforcing this rule and managing a class full of annoyed students, as a result, could prove to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Instead, tell your class that you’ll let them quietly listen to music while they do their work. You’ll encourage students to do their work and you’ll keep them from getting too distracted – it’s a win-win!

If you do catch your students checking their phones for reasons other than music, give them a warning. Then let them know that if it happens again, you’ll be writing names down on a list for the full-time teacher.

Encourage group work in the classroom

If you have a particularly talkative group of students, it might be best to allow them to talk – quietly!

Allow group work in small groups or pairs and allow the students to pick their partners. Even the most challenging students will want to partner up with a friend to get work done.

You can also use a noise monitor to maintain a quiet noise level. We like this one from Calm Counter, which allows you to set your microphone sensitivity and can be used on any computer.

Project the Calm Counter on a screen so everyone can see how quiet or loud they are!

Pick and choose your battles

Part of your job as a substitute teacher is to decide on which issues matter the most. Use open communication and kindness towards your students when handling challenging student behavior. Compromising shows the students that you care about their opinions and what they want.

Above all, you just want to make sure that you’re not giving your students a reason to be disruptive or challenging. Do not match the difficult students’ behavior by shouting or even fighting back.

Screaming or laying your hands on a student is absolutely unacceptable. No matter how difficult someone is being, you should never escalate the situation with verbal or physical violence.

4) Don’t be afraid to remove a challenging student

Be aware of campus security and their phone number

Removing a particularly challenging student is a last resort option. However, if a student’s behavior is disrupting others’ academic success, you may have to remove the student.

Before removing a student for bad behavior

Since this is a last resort option, make sure you’ve done all of the following before having a student removed:

  • Given them several verbal warnings about their behavior.
  • Explained that their disturbance is affecting other students from achieving their learning goals. You should also explain that their behavior is unacceptable and there will be consequences.
  • Asked the student to stand outside the door for several minutes.

If once you complete these 3 steps, the student’s behavior has not changed, you may call campus security to have them escorted out of the room.

If a situation ever escalates to the point where you need campus security to remove a difficult student, you will have to file a form that documents everything. You must also proceed to strategy 5 below.

5) Tell administration about bad behavior

Learning to correct misbehavior

As a sub, you likely have and will run across various types of challenging student behaviors. And you know that consequences are necessary when dealing with more difficult students.

As a result, you must let the school administration know what happened. What they choose to do with the disruptive student is up to them but it is your responsibility to notify the school of this.

Do all the paperwork and make sure to be as detailed as possible. Mention the students involved, what exactly happened, how you tried handling this challenging student behavior and how you eventually had to call campus security to escort the student out.

It would also be best to keep a copy of this document just in case you need it in the future.

Update the teacher on behavioral issues

You should always leave a note for the teacher at the end of the day, even if nothing eventful happened. But it’s even more critical to leave a note after an eventful day.

Your note must include everything you wrote in the paperwork with the school administration.

6) Have compassion

Handling challenging student behavior is difficult for anyone

Many difficult students often act out in school because of something else they’re struggling with. The last thing you should do is pile onto those struggles.

Currently, students are attending school in a constantly changing environment. The pandemic is still going on, teachers are quitting and students still have homework. This is a stressful time for everyone, so remember to treat everyone with kindness – even the students acting out.

7) This challenging behavior is not a reflection of you

Handling challenging student behavior

Handling challenging student behavior isn’t easy but just remember that these difficult students are not a reflection of you and your teaching abilities.

Challenging behaviors are difficult to manage, regardless of your skill and experience. You should feel proud of yourself for having survived a difficult day!

Once your tough day is over, head home, kick your shoes off, and relax. Put this day and its frustrations behind you because you know that you’re an incredible sub doing incredible work!

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