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13 min read

Dealing With Difficult Students

In the best of times, disruptive student behaviours are challenging to effectively act on. And now, this is compounded by our current reality: a politically correct age, where a lack of respect for authority reigns, where the focus is based on reaching benchmarks, ever-increasing students presenting with disabilities — during which many of us are just trying to hang on and stay in the profession.  All this has managed to reduce our patience, tax our energy, and increase our reactivity.

Icons (1)Dealing with difficult students is becoming an ever-increasingly significant challenge.  The AITSL standards have two key standards that apply here: “Know students and how they learn” and “Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments”.

I stress that the importance of being proactive and on the front foot is of the essence when it comes to both knowing students and keeping them safe.

Identify Challenging Behaviours

Identify IconThe first step in being proactive might be the easiest: identify challenging behaviours and their effects on the classroom. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Challenging behaviours can manifest academically: lack of or zero output, copying from others manually or digitally. They can manifest socially: side conversations, ignorance of class rules, and defiance.
They can manifest emotionally: apathy, negativity, even hostility. They can manifest quietly or loudly. And more often than not, they manifest repeatedly.

These manifestations are exhausting—for you, for them, and their peers.

Building Rapport with Students

So the first part is about knowing the students. Build a rapport with them! 
I will never forget my first day of teaching (over 40 years ago) as a fresh-faced young 20-year-old, excited and nervous all in one, walking past a tiny scruffy little lad who looked me up and down and said, “Oh God I hope you’re not my teacher this year.”  Imagine my joy when I opened my door on day one to the face of the tiny scruffy little lad!  Time for some rapport building and fast!3-Jul-02-2024-01-04-28-6224-AM

Building rapport is not a teaching and learning strategy in the technical sense. Teachers don’t specifically plan for building rapport and no significant part of any lesson is devoted to it. It is however one of the most effective strategies for motivating students. Rapport can be thought of as a harmonious relationship that enables effective communication, improved work outcomes and the quick resolution of issues. Rapport is based on trust and respect. It involves learning about another person – their interests, likes, dislikes, personality, moods, views, opinions, values, goals, history, and so forth. It is a professional relationship that allows problems and issues to be easily resolved or avoided altogether.

Developing a relationship with students goes a long way to making your job easier.  Early in the piece use a variety of avenues to ‘get to know’ the students - little surveys, activity sheets, create a little visual about me they can talk to 1:1 with you are but a few ideas.  Be available before school to just talk in the early stages - this helps find out what makes the child ‘tick’.

Strategies for Building Rapport

There are some simple ways that teachers can build rapport in a shorter timeframe than would otherwise naturally occur:

  1. Respect and Organization: Students need to first respect you. This comes from being organized, enthusiastic, professional, and from communicating effectively. Show students and your colleagues that you take your work seriously and that you are competent at your chosen profession.
  2. Learn Basic Facts: Learn basic facts about each student, such as their first and last names, and where they come from. Ask students direct questions about their hobbies (Pokemon, sports, etc.), how they are doing in other subjects, about their family and the suburb that they live in, what they had for dinner last night, what they did for their birthday, about their favourite subject, and their life aspirations. Showing interest in this way tells students that you care about them and their lives.
  3. Point Out Commonalities: Parallel with step 3 above, identify and point out intersections and commonalities. For example, if a student lives near the sea, explain that you would love to live near the sea. If a student loves netball and you played once upon a time, tell them, and ask what position they play.
  4. Remember Details: Remember the details from steps 1-3 and bring them up again in the future, such as a week or two later. This shows students that you cared enough to remember details about them and their lives. For example, if a student tells you that they scored twice in a footy game, ask them if they have scored any more about a month later.

4-Jul-02-2024-01-05-39-5865-AMBuilding rapport is not a one-off activity. High-performing teachers build rapport whenever they see the opportunity – in every lesson and every activity.

One technique is to ask a quick question before helping a student with their work, such as ‘How are you today Fred? Did you win your basketball game?’. This type of low-key rapport building is not only polite and professional but easily implemented when circulating around the room. Because it takes 20 seconds, it doesn’t impinge on learning time in any material way.

Additional Tips for Building Rapport

For some teachers, building rapport comes naturally. For others, a concerted, strategic approach is needed. Here are some ways to help you build rapport with learners:

  1. Learn their names quickly by using them regularly. In the early days, write out a rough seating plan to use as a quick reference, look for their names on their stationery and books, and ask all students to write their names on the top of their work.
  2. Be friendly, open, approachable, and professional.
  3. Use their surnames now and then. For example, you could thank a student by saying ‘Thank you, Mr. Brown’. Never embarrass a student—even extroverts. When addressing individuals, whether for behavioural, support, or other reasons, whisper so no one else can hear.
  4. Comment on objects in their possession and ask questions about them, such Rapport & Behaviouras ‘That’s an interesting pair of shoes—where did you get them?’
  5. Greet students professionally and courteously outside of the classroom. For example, if you see students in the playground or outside of school, address them professionally and courteously with something simple such as ‘Hello John, how are you today?’. Do not ignore them as that is disrespectful.
  6. Share about yourself. Tell your students about yourself and show them that you’re human. Use phrases such as ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ (such as ‘I feel tired today’). Share your experiences and thoughts. Ask for their opinions.
  7. Make connections wherever possible. For example, if you live in the same area, say ‘I live in that area too—do you like it there?’
  8. Use humour. Tell light jokes and see the humorous side of things.
  9. Be mindful of non-verbal cues. Look students in the eye when speaking to them. Be wary of your body language, tone, pace, and volume.
  10. Be forgiving. We all have bad days, including students. In turn, apologise if necessary. For example, ‘Sorry I was distracted, how can I help?’ This conveys respect and professionalism.
  11. Level with students. When providing support, sit in a student chair or crouch down to their level.
  12. Ensure safety. Keep learners safe (physically, mentally, psychologically) such as by protecting ‘incorrect responders’.
  13. Master strategies and techniques. Master important strategies and techniques in order to open a pathway for student success—feedback, questioning, formative assessment, scaffolding, metacognitive skills, and so forth.
  14. Build self-esteem. Build students’ self-esteem by helping them set and achieve goals (including micro-goals). It is important to ensure that these goals are achievable.

Rapport and Behaviour Management

Seasoned teachers want to quickly build rapport for another important reason – behaviour management. Students improve their behaviour for teachers that they like and respect; there is less off-task behaviour and directions are followed with less argument.

Icons (2)In other words, there is a direct correlation between the level of rapport and behavioural improvement. This mainly applies to challenging students (as well-behaved students behave for every teacher). Rapport is a key factor in preventing or stopping behavioural issues in their tracks.

As a deputy principal, I used to be a spotter for the PE teacher at the school pool.  I used to love watching him operate.  He was an excellent teacher with incredible skills but also a way of having students ‘eating out of the palm of his hand.’  When the class arrived he would say, “Gee 4R so great to see you!  I’ve been looking forward to working with you today.  Best class in the school!”  The swell in the students was noticeable (even the tricky ones).  He’d refer to each student by name with a personal touch on how they work effectively in class.  As they left after the hour-long lesson, he would tell them how well they worked with some feedback on what he would be looking for in the next lesson.  The next class would come in and he’d greet them exactly the same way.  And the response was exactly the same.


Consider a fight breaks out in the playground between two students. Teacher 1 tries to break up the fight, but their commands are ignored. Teacher 2 arrives a short moment later and calmly says ‘That’s enough’, which is all that’s needed to end the fight. Teacher 1 feels infuriated.  Why did they stop for one teacher but not for the other? It could be a coincidence, but most likely it has to do with the fact that the second teacher has built a high level of rapport with the students in question – the teacher is ‘cashing in’ on rapport ‘credits’ so to speak.

A teacher with ‘street cred’ doesn’t appear to work as hard with issues because they have invested time and energy proactively. 

Understanding Individual Education Plans

Another key aspect is becoming familiar with students' individual education plans.  Often our most challenging students will have plans supporting a specific disability, be it academic, physical or behavioural.  These provide a wealth of information about the student.  There might even be specialist reports that will be mentioned in these which are worth investigating with the parents.6-3

Material documented on a student can help with the management of the behaviours. Take time to read, take notes written and mental and apply these.  Often the school leadership response to a student’s behaviour is ‘What did you do’ probably reflects (either correctly or incorrectly) the expectation that this documented process wasn’t followed.

Creating a Safe and Supportive Learning Environment

Creating a safe and supportive learning environment isn’t merely a box to tick; it’s the foundation for fostering genuine learning and personal growth. We know perceived unsafe situations cause the fight, flight or freeze response.  None of these are conducive to learning behaviours.

Creating such an environment shields students from harm, both physically and mentally, ensuring that they feel protected, respected, and understood. It goes beyond mere physical safety to emotional and psychological safety, where students 7-4feel valued, free to express themselves, and confident in their ability to take on challenges. In essence, a secure environment not only boosts student confidence and involvement but also sets the stage for holistic development, paving the way for students to achieve their fullest potential.

Without this foundation, true learning remains elusive. So, every teacher must prioritise and nurture such spaces, recognizing their profound impact on educational outcomes and student behaviour.

The protective behaviour slogan of ‘we all have the right to be safe and feel safe all the time’ should apply to our classrooms for students and staff alike.  This relates to physical surroundings (where Health & Safety regulations apply), structural surroundings (where supportive prompts can be found) but also emotional supports are considered.

Emotional Supports

Emotional supports are often unseen and unknown within classroom settings. They range from affirmations, structured supports in the classroom (as per individual plans), tone of voice (avoiding things like sarcasm) and the establishment of clear classroom rules and boundaries of behaviour (entered into with the students). 

It is important to always be ‘the adult in the room’ despite how challenging things may become.  This is not always easy as teachers are human and feel stress and strain.  Teachers who feel powerless move from this mantra of being the adult in the room and that’s where most problems fester as they cling to power, in turn causing a student to feel powerless and their response isn’t so measured.

Dealing with Unprepared or Unwilling Students

Not everything always goes to plan and some students need to be treated differently.  Remember that one cannot work if not in the right frame of mind. Some students will become highly disruptive when ‘made to work’ when they are not ready to work.   Others will just withdraw and do nothing but look busy.  Instead of getting confrontational, realise that this student isn’t ready (or willing) to learn at this point.

Pressure looms with expectations of students reaching benchmarks I hear you say. Is an angry child, a hungry child, a child who has been abused at home, a child whose pet has died that day etc ready and able to learn?  Until that matter is attended to, learning will be piecemeal.  Flight, fight or freeze applies to these situations. Your fallback is the rapport you have developed. Genuine care and concern and built-in respect will win far more than it loses.

Handling Violent Behaviour

There will be times when violent behaviour occurs.  In these cases your primary concern is safety. ‘We have the right to be safe and feel safe all the time’ is what you need to remember. You have the right to a safe workplace under the WHS Act. Situations that place this in jeopardy require reports and risk assessments to be made - even in the event of near misses.

8-2If a student becomes confrontational, it is critical not to engage but to seek support and take care of the class. It may be necessary to evacuate a classroom until support personnel can arrive. In this event a follow-up debrief for yourself and the students is important and some form of behavioural support plan put in place for the confrontational student.

Just remember: The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) sets out the requirements for healthy and safe workplaces. It outlines what employers and employees must do to protect the health, safety and welfare of workers and other people who might be affected by the work your business does. All workers are protected by the WHS Act, yourself included. In accepting behaviours that endanger your safety (by not formally reporting) you are in fact in breach of the Act and not doing yourself or the profession any favours.

If you are a member of TPAA and need assistance, please submit a Member Support Form on your dashboard, or contact us at hotline@tpaa.asn.au 


Difficult students come in all ages, shapes and sizes.  Preventions are better than cures so remember that it is the thankless task of building rapport which is the key.  Try to be proactive as opposed to reactive.

With TPAA membership, teachers can rely on the expertise of our experienced case managers who have successfully defended members in cases involving difficult students.

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Rob from TPAA - Teachers' Professional Association of Australia