How to deal with ‘difficult’ students – their way. Barbara Prashnig suggests tips and strategies for unpleasant situations you can encounter when faced with students who are unwilling to comply with your rules.

It’s a well-known fact that school children today behave differently from the way in which we acted when we were growing up. And no wonder: their world is the world of instant communication and almost-instant gratification. Television programmes and magazine articles are tailored to deliver information in micro-chunks, taking into account their audience’s short attention span. The media officers know that if they fail in their mission, it’s only too easy to change channels, leave the game unfinished, close the website or flick away the magazine. This creates a vicious circle of the media delivering messages that are even shorter, snappier and often disjointed, but much more colourful and fun.

While it is nearly impossible for a teacher to compete with that, learning can still be made more student-friendly. The following tried and proven tips and suggestions are for teachers and parents of ‘difficult’ children.

How to get students’ attentions

The starting point is to get to know your students’ learning styles (LS) and, based on that knowledge, teaching in a multi-sensory way and using learning tools is the next step. Many students are physically unable to learn by listening alone, so a lesson will wash over them without penetrating. Enhancing the lesson with computers or pictures on the electronic white board is a better idea, but combining that with hands-on learning tasks and kinaesthetic projects is really the key to a successful lesson.

When it comes to learning styles, there is no such thing as a typical style. There are 49 elements in the LS Pyramid and together they can form literally millions of learning style combinations. Besides, LS are not about labelling as it is the case with V-A-K (Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic), often described as the norm in ‘Learning Styles’. Labelling is deceptive: it has become so easy to label pupils as auditory, visual or kinaesthetic and then treat them accordingly, but this is dangerously misleading and inappropriate because there is much more to LS than VAK. And what’s more, style features can change dramatically during childhood and adolescence, and human beings can also be very flexible.

Different learning tools exist for different learning preferences: tape recorders for auditory children, electro-boards and wrap-arounds and flip chutes for tactile children, educational videos for visual children; outings and physical games for kinaesthetic children. These specific LS tools are described in my new book, Learning Styles in Action1 .

How to get unmotivated students to learn

If students are not externally motivated, no amount of reward or withholding privileges is going to change their performance, because they simply won’t care. Furthermore, teenagers often regard small rewards as childish and off-putting. Internal motivation is still the most powerful kind of motivation, provided it is properly channelled. You can utilise the fact that they want to learn, even if it’s not in a way you require, or even if they are not interested in the ‘boring’ curriculum content.

You can also get other students to help you. Children aged 8 to 14 are often influenced by peer pressure, so use that. Unless the students don’t like working with their classmates, you can put them into groups of equally matched ability. Turn the desks so students face each other. Set up group tasks that are fun and relate to students’ interests. When they work on a task, make sure that every member contributes – or the whole group loses points. Allocate prizes or rewards that are appropriate to the age group. These rewards may not work at an individual level, but they will usually work on the group. Most importantly, let them learn in their own way, even when this means what often seem like distractions to you (ie moving around, playing music in the background, working on the floor and functioning best in semi-darkness).

How to work with disrespectful, disruptive students

We all know them: the students who are disruptive in class, disrespectful to the teacher, a handful for their parents and whose results are often poor. While there may be many explanations for their behaviour, more often than not these students have been disillusioned by school, probably due to a mismatch between their natural learning styles and the teaching methods that they have been exposed to over a long period of time.

Find out how your students learn best by assessing their learning style, then make sure your teaching methods involve appropriate multi-sensory stimuli depending on the group’s needs.

Check your students’ preferences for structure/guidance and variety and make sure you match those needs as far as possible in class. For example, if your students prefer to self-structure and want variety, allow them to decide for themselves how to approach a task creatively, even if it’s not very exciting.

If the students are still undisciplined, analyse their willingness to follow rules, their level of responsibility, persistence and current motivation for learning. You may find that many of your problem students are not internally motivated, have a preference for non-conformity and show little capacity for resposibility. If such students have fluctuating or low persistence, learning tasks seem too boring, too difficult for them or too overwhelming, and need to be broken down into manageable chunks with small breaks in between.

How to deal with students who are truly difficult

Very difficult pupils may be angry, hostile, aggressive and known for bullying. These would typically be teenage students, bewildered by the cocktail of hormones raging through their bodies and trying to succeed in the grown-up world. Research around the world shows us that it’s also most likely that such students’ home conditions are very stressful. It is a sad fact that aggression is usually a behaviour learnt in one’s dysfunctional family and that the majority come from broken homes.

Despite teachers’ incredible workload, the first thing we have to do is to assess these students’ learning styles. This will signal to the students that their teachers are truly willing to help.We also need to be there as a shoulder to cry on, or an arbitrator when necessary. Never hesitate to report any suspicions of abuse or incidents of violence or bullying.

Teaching to the test… or teaching to think?

Some teachers teach to the test, others teach to think and learn. Unless your school has a set policy on that matter, the choice will be yours. What motivates you as a teacher: external recognition, that is, for your students to receive the best grades? Or the internal knowledge that your students actually understand and know the material and perform well academically?

Don’t forget there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ learning styles, just the best way for each student (or groups of students) and that test conditions are stressful for most children.Try to remove as much of the stress as possible by letting them learn their way, and prepare them for tests in fun and playful ways.

Some students, usually the holistic ones, will need to know the reason why there have to be tests at all. Tell them that tests are important to monitor progress, to show them how well the teacher is doing his or her job (an idea that may appeal to them). This should relax some of the students as well. Although it’s a generalisation, we found that holistic children tend to get more stressed by test conditions than analytic ones. Removing the time factor, and not letting holistic students feel that there is a strict deadline for finishing the test where possible, may make them perform better.

But more importantly than anything else, teach according to your students’ preferred learning style, because information stored in your students’ brains ‘their way’ is always much easier accessed under the stressful conditions of a test and the danger of them ‘blanking out’ is greatly reduced.

How to prevent homework horrors

Children, especially those with holistic preferences who are right-brain dominant, need to know why they have to do homework: what’s the benefit of doing something at home that they’ve just done in class and how does homework fit into the general scheme of their education? They need to know that homework is important as it can often reinforce skills that have been taught at school and may give teachers a chance to monitor students’ progress. If children are positive about homework, it can also be a great way to learn about working independently (see Patrick Hazlewood’s article).

Analytic children, on the other hand, probably aren’t as interested in the ‘big picture’. If they refuse to do homework, it’s probably because the task at hand seems too big, too unstructured and they have trouble breaking it into manageable details. As they often won’t know where to start, help them prioritise and organise their work into step-by-step portions and sub-tasks. Create a list of all the things that have to be done that day and let the child tick them off as they go along, building a ‘homework portfolio’.

Another important factor that often prevents children from doing homework, is the environment in which they work. Many parents provide a desk, a quiet spot and a source of bright light coming from the left if the child is right-handed so as not to cast a shadow from the pen he or she is writing with (if the child is a left-hander, the light source should be on the right).

However, the brightness of that light should vary according to the needs of the child. It really is a myth that brighter light is better. Another myth is that homework has to be done at a desk or table. Some students prefer a more informal setting with soft cushions, to lie on the floor or to stretch out on their bed. Finally, some children like studying in a quiet area, but others need background music for better concentration – but not from a loud rock station on the radio. Parents, as well as teachers, need to learn more about the use of music in learning and can read more about that in The Power of Diversity2.


If you learn only one thing from this article, let it be this: accept that children differ in their learning needs to you and that they learn in vastly different ways. When their preferences are met and learning becomes enjoyable, they have little need to rebel. TEX


  1. B. Prashnig, Learning Styles in Action, Stafford: NetworkContinuum Press, 2006,
  2. B. Prashnig, The Power of Diversity, Stafford: NetworkPress 1998

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