Loving the Hard-to-Love: 5 Strategies for Building Rapport with Your Most Challenging Students

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Loving the Hard-to-Love: 5 Strategies for Building Rapport with Your Most Challenging Students

Loving the unlovable, hard-to-love, and just plain difficult kids in your class can be a challenge.  These are the students who really need us the most and often are the ones who push ALL of your buttons making it extremely difficult to teach not only them but the rest of your class.

So what can you do to build rapport with the hard-to-love students in your class?  The following are some of the strategies and ideas I have found extremely successful with challenging students in my class.

 5 Strategies for Building Rapport with the Hard-to-Love Students in Your Class

1. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

In a Million Words or Less Assignment: This assignment is a great way to build rapport with parents and students and learn a lot of valuable information about your families.

So much of being an effective teacher is having the soft skills, the people skills, to know how to read student behavior and mannerisms and then act accordingly.  One of the best things I do from the very beginning of the school year is an activity called "In a Million Words Or Less..."  Basically, I send home a letter with an attached envelope on the first day of school that says, "In a million words or less, tell me about your child."  Likewise, I do the same thing for students, just a different letter that says, "In a million words or less, tell me anything you want me to know about you or your family."  This is generally the first night's homework and I give a week for completion so that parents and students have time to complete it.  I also give parents and students my email so if they would rather email me, they can.

The responses I have gotten range in length from a single sentence to a five page narrative explaining everything from the family is experiencing divorce, a parent death, grandparents raising children, to their child being a rainbow child.  I have read about strengths and areas they would like to see improved.  I learn about students' desires to make new friends, how they worry about the gunshots they heard the night before near their house, to a new family pet, and that they are really good at reading.  

Why is this the most important thing I do all year?  The information I learn from these letters let's me know what kind of home life a child is coming from and the day-to-day struggles that each of my students face before they even walk through the door in my class every morning.  Grab this FREEBIE here!

*Note:  This can be done at any time in the year, but I always do it at the beginning of the year.

2. Classroom Culture and Expectations

Taking the information you get from those letters helps inform my teaching practice.  It helps me to know what family structures my students come from so that I make sure all my students feel welcome in my classroom.  When I decide what our morning meeting content will be, I often bring in struggles that I know my students are facing and we discuss them head on.  I don't mention students names or anything that would imply I was pointing the finger at one student in particular, but I want students to know that I heard them and I am here to help in any way that I can.

I also have incredibly high, but attainable, expectations for ALL of my students.  By 5th grade, several of my students come feeling defeated, hating school, and generally that is because they haven't experienced success or enough success to make them want to continue learning.  This is the most heart-breaking to me.  I can't imagine at age 10 not wanting to be in school, but that reality is the case for several students.  I tell my students and I mean it, "I will never kick you out of this class unless you are harming yourself or another."  Some of my most challenging students were sent to a detention type class every.single.day and to me that is UNACCEPTABLE!  My students will not have access to the curriculum if they are sitting in a detention room.  Often these students have severe gaps in their education and need more than anything to be in my class!  Often they like getting kicked out of class because they don't have to do the work and it is easier.  It is tempting on days, but please don't continue this practice.  Expect more of all your students.

3. Narrate the Behaviors You Want to See

One of the most effective strategies for building rapport with challenging students is to catch them doing what you want them to do!  You may think that they don't ever do anything right, but that is not the case.  Narrate means that you say what you see the student doing.  For example, you asked everyone in the class to clean up their workstation and come to the carpet.  You see student 1 doing exactly what you asked and you might say to the class, "I see student 1 putting all the writing materials back in the tub."  This alleviates the need to call out negative behaviors because the other students get a reminder of what they are supposed to be doing without getting embarrassed and the person who followed directions gets a shout out.   9 times out of 10, this helps student 2 (who is a hard-to-love student) get back on track.  Then when they do get back on track, narrate that too!!!   Soon, they will see that you are on their side, that you aren't always trying to catch them doing the wrong thing, but rather that you are trying to find them being successful.  Those little successes translate into bigger ones as time goes on and it becomes less of a power struggle between you and the student.

4. Use Daily or Weekly Behavior Charts

When behavior problems are severe, use a DAILY behavior chart to set goals and track behavior changes.
Depending on the child or children that fall into this category, you may find it helpful to set up an independent behavior chart specific to them.  I have found that if you choose no more than 5 specific behaviors to focus on, your student will have more success.  For example, you might want your student to focus on putting their name and date on the paper as soon as they get it.  So this might be one of the goals for the week (with one reminder to start and then gradually no reminder).  If you break up the day into manageable periods of time, then they will likely be more successful, more often.

To determine the goals to focus on, brainstorm all the concrete things you would like the child to do that he/she is not doing at the moment.  Then, prioritize them by importance.  Choose the top 3-5 and write them as "I can statements."  So in the example above, you might have the goal: "I can write my name and date on every paper I use with no more than one reminder."  

Once you have the goals, then comes the tracking.  Using a tracking sheet like this, helps the child see exactly how they are doing (and parents, admins, you, etc.) at quick glance and provides great documentation for RTI and parent conferences.
Use a weekly behavior chart to set goals and track student behavior when behavior is less severe.

I find it extremely helpful to have students working towards a goal and prize for when they reach that goal.  For example, I might have a daily prize if I am tracking daily progress or a weekly prize if they are on a weekly behavior chart.  The first thing the next morning after winning the prize is when they get to do their special activity.  I like to do things that cost me no money, like 10 minutes on computer (educational) games with a friend.  I like to add with a friend, because this helps the other students motivate the child on the behavior plan to meet their goals because they benefit too!  (***In more ways than just the reward!)

5. Morning Check-In

A simple one-on-one conversation can do wonders with challenging students!  I try to do this with all my students throughout the day, but if I focus on my challenging students first thing in the morning.  This often sets the tone for the day.  It allows me to ask them open-ended questions, discuss things that are not related to school but I know they are interested in, etc.  It is often hard to find the time to do this, but having a bell-ringer/morning work is a great time to do this.  I also try to delegate, where possible, tedious tasks to student helpers so that I can do these check-ins.  If you are really having a hard time doing this, I suggest reaching out to a counselor or another teacher that doesn't have a class to do a check-in with this student.  It has to be consistent for it to really have an impact so consider that when delegating!

You can grab these editable behavior charts here.
Editable Daily and Weekly Behavior Charts help you get unruly behavior under control!

How do you build rapport with your challenging students?  I'd love to hear your thoughts and great ideas, so add your two cents below!

by Lisa Prins

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