Empathy matters when it comes to teaching “tough” students. Often times, these students have built layers of separation between authority figures and themselves as a means of defense against being hurt. We are charged, as teachers, to recognize this and interact with students in a way that shows them we care. No, being in the classroom is not enough to prove that you care about students. Unfortunately, the reality is there are many teachers in classrooms who are not truly invested in every student’s achievement, and often times, guarded students have experienced what it’s like to be in these teachers’ rooms.
My personal and professional successes working with tough students exist for a reason. Unsurprisingly, one of the most common questions I receive from other educators is, “How do you get them to behave in your class?” The answer seems simple enough, but the implementation can be quite exhausting because in all honesty, I don’t “get” them to behave. I don’t control my students. It’s not my job to control human beings, and it would be a disservice to them if we didn’t teach them to control themselves. I can’t be on their shoulder for the rest of their lives whispering the appropriate responses in situations. They have to do that for themselves.

What then? How do I connect with them? Why do they choose to work and respect my classroom environment? What makes them love my class despite always having “hard work” to do?
I thought about it for quite some time, and I came up with four reasons for my success with tough students.
1. I demonstrate emotional intelligence consistently.

When students are experiencing a bad day or negative emotions, they can (and often do) spill over into the classroom. They’re young and still learning how to navigate through what they’re feeling and how to address it. The added pressure of course work, peer influence, home situations, and other factors all contribute to a student’s behavior. We need to see that in our students. We need to understand that for our students. Too often, teachers create volatile situations trying to establish dominance and power in the classroom, and while that might cause some students to back down, it can escalate a situation with students who already feel picked on and railroaded by authority figures. No dee-1206892_640power struggles. That is how I gain their trust. I don’t need to assert my dominance when students are struggling through problems. Sometimes that means you leave the student to his/her own devices and continue with the lesson. You can circle back after you get the rest of the class settled into their independent activities. You really have to pick your battles, and you should approach the situation in a non confrontational, respectful manner because any other way is asking for unnecessary problems.

2. I incorporate student voice into my classroom curriculum regularly.

I use my tough students’ strengths in the classroom, especially in the curriculum. I regularly ask students for their opinion(s) on lessons, potential activities, and even assessments. I maintain that students are more likely to engage in the course work when they’ve had a hand in creating it. Tough students can feel like they have no control over their own lives, so why not offer them some input and choice in education? Even if everything else around them seems like a struggle, you can make your class an escape and a place for them to learn how to work through the emotional obstacles they encounter.

Read more: Designing Your Student’s Curriculum

3. I commit to learning about my students’ desires & interests genuinely.

This connects to number two. Creating engaging curriculum means knowing and understanding what your students love. Through genuine conversations with my kids, I learned so much about their past experiences, current struggles, and future goals. Knowing that Carl* wanted to work for Sony’s gaming franchise made it easier for me to help him understand why mastering effective rhetorical strategies and communication skills were necessary. Remembering that Michelle’s* strength and interest in graphic design was instrumental in designing a project that required students to use software like Adobe Photoshop to create original advertisements that demonstrated their persuasive skills. There were fewer opportunities to attempt questionable behaviors if the students were meaningfully engaged in my lessons, so why not use the information they’d offered about themselves to draw them in?

4. I connect my personal struggles to what my students might be experiencing explicitly.

One of the things my students recall most frequently about their time in my classroom is my stories. The reflections of my childhood, teen years, college experiences, and even present-day adult trials were teachable moments for individual students or the whole class. But, it wasn’t just me telling random funny and/or sad stories. They each connected to something my students were struggling with, so I used my personal experiences to encourage them – to let them know that they weren’t alone – that someone else had gone through something too and made it out.


Tough StudentsAs I thought about what helps me most with guarded students, I came across Rita Pierson’s TED Talk, “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” She was absolutely correct, and I had resolved years ago that I would be that person-an advocate-for as many students as I could. It’s not enough to assume that kids know you care because you teach. I made a decision in my first year of teaching that I would never attempt to assert my power in the classroom because I felt it was unnecessary. It was understood that I was the authority figure, so I didn’t need to compete with any student for that respect. Instead, I focused my attention on finding something in those guarded kids that would allow me an opportunity to show them that I wasn’t their enemy.

It came in different ways and at different times, and I can think of one student that never allowed it. With him, we sat together and came to an agreement. I had a responsibility to teach every student in the room including him, but if he didn’t want that for himself, he would at least need to respect the learning environment for everyone else. It hurt to know that someone so young had already given up, but I told him that whenever he was ready to make that bridge, I was there. He left the school shortly after that, but for the brief time that he was in my classroom, I did not experience the disruptions and disrespect that some of my coworkers had. I attribute that to my ability to understand and empathize with his position and his ability to recognize that I would not fight him for control because he could make his own decisions.


*Name changed for privacy purposes