Turning Difficult Students into Great Students

By Todd Witters

“Johnny!  I need you to sit down and face forward!”

“Billy!  I should be the only one talking.”

“Marie, I’m moving you.  Sit over there by Mrs. Glumbottom.”

“Susan, I’m not going to ask you again.”

We’ve all been there. We have all been “blessed” by students in our Released Time classes who, for various reasons, make our jobs difficult. We’ve tried everything to bring order from chaos– bribes, threats, pleading, assigned seats and docking points–but nothing seems to work. Why must they be so disruptive?

Some of the strategies I mentioned above may give us short-term relief and, for some students, might even correct the problem. But what about “that one student” who doesn’t seem to respond to all our efforts? Is there any hope? I have discovered, over my years of teaching, a few tricks I have used from time to time that may work for you. None of these are guarantees, but having a few more tools in the toolbox is always helpful.  

Give them a task

I was teaching one class where a boy was fighting constantly with his older brother. It didn’t even seem to matter how I seated the class, there was always some conflict between them. The conflict was often on the bus or even prior to that during the school morning. I sensed this boy was the brunt of a lot of teasing and bullying at school and was frustrated with being picked on.  So, one day during class, I asked Noah if he’d like to sit up front and be my helper for the day. He beamed, bolted from his seat, and sat right in front. I asked him to hand out the take-home papers and help me with a few illustrations, which he did with high enthusiasm. The simple gesture of elevating him before his peers made a world of difference to this boy who desperately needed a little encouragement.

Have them read

I’m a big proponent of reading from the Bible during my lessons. However, I tend to dismiss too quickly the idea of having the students read. It slows things down and interrupts the “flow.” I am learning, however, that it also shows them that we are not teaching our own ideas and opinions and that they too can read it for themselves. Robert is a boy in one of my classes that is a “good kid,” but has unbounded energy that he can’t control. He’s not a very good reader but, when he does read, his attention is focused. Like Noah, he also feels a sense of pride when called upon to participate in this way. One caution with this idea, however, is to not make a child uncomfortable. For those that are shy about reading or prone to being picked on, a few of the other ideas here might be more appropriate.

Rewarding them for good behavior.

I teach one class (the one which Robert attends) where there are a few “spirited” young men who are difficult to control. They are not naughty, but their energy makes it difficult for them to focus and causes disruption. So I decided to try an experiment…

For each student, I set out two pieces of candy and told them that, at the end of the class, the candy was theirs if they could obey two simple rules: (1) raise your hand if you have something to say, and (2) always remain seated. Each time one of these rules is broken, I deduct one piece of candy from their pile. The results were amazing. After the first piece of candy disappeared from the rule-breaker’s pile, the whole class suddenly became very easy to manage. At the end, almost every student still had both pieces of candy. The next week, I reduced the pile to a single piece of candy. The week after that, I told them that I now know what they are capable of and asked them to show me they could follow the rules without the reward at the end. The students responded well with very few problems. I may pull that trick out again in the future but there is a fine line between bribery and reward. When the reward becomes the norm, instead of the exception, it can backfire.

Give them praise

Some behavior problems result from children not receiving the positive attention they so greatly need. My teaching style is very interactive and I ask a lot of questions of the students. I will sometimes even call on someone who doesn’t raise their hand, particularly if I can use their answer as an opportunity to praise them. The times I have done this, I have found that students who don’t normally raise their hands become more attentive and more willing to participate because they have gained some confidence through a simple compliment. Even when kids answer wrongly, there is opportunity to praise them for thinking things through. I will often steer them closer to a right answer through a follow-up question and heap on the praise if they land on the right answer.

Give them something to focus their energy

We homeschool our children, and have one child who was very “busy”–always moving and unable to sit still. When we tried to get her to sit still, her mind became so focused on staying still, she couldn’t focus on the lesson we were trying to teach her. We learned that we needed to give her an “outlet” for her energy. Even just giving her something to hold (like a squeeze-ball) allowed her to vent some energy. We found that when she had an outlet for her energy, she was listening to the lesson–even when it looked to us like she was checked out.

In the context of Released Time, some other outlets might be doing an intro game that gets them moving, giving them a pencil and paper to take notes or “fill in the blanks,” doing an activity that compliments the lesson, distributing a small object lesson to each student to hold during the lesson, or even giving one of them the slide advancer so that they can move to the next slide when I ask them. The goal is not always to suppress their energy but to find an outlet where they can expend it without being a disruption.

Appeal to their leadership

Sometimes, the best solution is positive peer pressure. This trick only works if you have an influential student who is the one causing disruption. I once shut down class a few minutes early and asked a student to come talk with me afterwards. Eric had been causing disruption by talking and joking with his friends during the lesson. I thanked him for being a good friend and praised him for enjoying the company of those other boys. I also told him it was hard for me to teach today because he and his friends were distracting me from the lesson. I told him I saw leadership potential in him and that others looked up to him. I then asked if he could help me with keeping order in the class by being a good example for the other kids to follow. He responded well and, although not perfectly, he made a notable improvement in the following weeks.

Parental Motivation

When all else fails, sometimes the student’s parent(s) are the best motivators for behavioral improvement. This one takes a little discernment and should only be used if the situation is overly disruptive to the class and reasonable attempts at other corrective measures have failed.  Some parents will back you and some others might respond negatively. It would probably be wise to check with the school or any volunteers familiar with the family, regarding the child’s background and family situation. This will prepare you for the conversation.  

When talking with parents, always keep a positive tone and address objectively the actions you are concerned about. Refrain from assigning motive or guessing at underlying causes. Ask them for their advice and “help.” Don’t offer suggestions on how they should deal with their kids and, above all, thank them for making the choice to put their kids in Released Time.

Teaching Released Time is a great joy and a great responsibility. I praise God that His Word does not return void, despite our faults and distractions in the classroom. I trust these ideas might find their way into your toolbox and provide you with some addition ways of dealing with disruptive students. 

Written by Todd Witters who serves as the Released Time Director at Cornerstone Ministry Center. To learn more about Cornerstone Ministry Center and their Released Time Ministry click the link: http://www.cbmswpa.org

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1 Reply to "Turning Difficult Students into Great Students"

  • Teresa Simms
    January 5, 2020 (12:24 am)

    I’ve done a few of these things in my class and I do feel they are helpful. There are however, several that I have not used. I plan to use your suggestions to help my students focus their energy. Thank you for your ideas. God is good all the time. All the time God is good.

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