To the Teacher of the Difficult Student


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RAD, ODD, FAS are letters that may be attached to students in some of our classrooms…letters that mean extra stress for the teachers and administration in those classrooms and schools…letters attached to children who are precious in God’s sight… letters attached to children who will grow into accountable adults…and you are the teacher of such a child. *

You may be frustrated. You may be angry. You may be discouraged. You may feel helpless. You may feel alone. And, you are weary.

Dear teacher, take heart. You are not alone! Others of us walk in those same shoes. Over the years I’ve known what it is like to spend an hour working with a defiant child and still not feel like we settled the issue. I’ve known what it is like to search for a child who ran off in defiance and hid. I’ve known what it is like to have a six-year-old yell in my face that he hates me and that I’m the meanest teacher ever and that his mom and dad are so mean, and nobody likes him. I also know that he doesn’t mean what he is saying but that he is a master-craftsman (at six) in trying to evade personal responsibility for his actions. But I know he must learn to take responsibility and that his parents are trusting me to partner with them in wrestling for his soul.

A mother of such a child once told me, “We must understand that our children have come to us because they are products of sinful living. This is a not just an earthly battle, it is a spiritual battle.” So, teacher, the first thing to look at is the big picture. It’s not about the current moment…it’s about the whole. Where do we see this child in twenty or thirty years? For some children the first picture that comes to mind is bleak—a repeat of a sinful cycle of brokenness, a jail cell, or worse. Can we envision a redeemed future for this child? Such a vision cannot just be wishful hoping that it will happen. It takes prayers and tears and sweat. It takes fortitude and tough love at times. It is hard work. And in the end, the child still makes the choices, but it is our job to help give them the tools to make the best choices.

One morning, as I was preparing to face the day, I read Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” My mind was saying, “But things aren’t lovely and of good report. It would be dishonest to say they are”—and then my eyes saw again the first part of the verse, things that are true and honest and just. I realized that I must also recognize the truth of the situation—that I had a defiant, disobedient child who needed his teacher to provide a governor for his actions. And, then, I could find and acknowledge the lovely and praiseworthy. To overlook his wrong actions because I just wanted to think on the good things was not being just or honest.

So, what are some ways of working with a difficult child?

  1. Pray for the child. Pray for their parents. (They have a harder job than you do.) Pray for yourself. Pray to see the child as Jesus sees them.
  2. Provide structure with accountability and consistency. This is huge (and hard). One key factor to providing accountability is to be able to administer consequences without rancor. You can even smile and calmly tell the child that they have a consequence because of their action. You don’t need to argue, explain yourself, or back down when the child gets upset. You don’t need to become frustrated or angry with the child. (In fact, doing so, just negates any good that came from giving the consequence.) You can be firm without being stern. Another key is to be consistent. Keep the same rules and procedures for everyone in the class and be consistent at calling out misbehavior. **
  3. Don’t give in to bribes or pleas. Bribing a child might seem the solution for the moment, but it’s never long term and it usually creates a bigger problem down the road. The “give me another chance” plea is usually a stall tactic that doesn’t work either. The children I’ve worked with were usually much happier once I’d given consequences and the matter was taken care of.
  4. Have the child “mend their fences” whenever possible. First administer the consequences and then when the child is in a workable frame of mind they need to right their wrongs. If they destroyed property, they need to fix it. If they scribbled on their desks, they clean it off. If they upset their workspace and throw things across the room, they set it back to rights. If they ran down the hall in defiance, they walk back down the hall correctly. This helps them understand consequences for their actions.
  5. Communicate and work with the parents. I was privileged to work with parents who had set the bar high for their child. They knew what the child was capable of and held them to that standard. They did not ask for special privileges for their child; in fact, they realized that bribing them with rewards or treats beyond what the rest of the class received was counter-productive to their child’s long-term success. I’ve also worked with parents who didn’t have as high a goal for their child and it left me feeling more on my own in dealing with their child. However, daily communication was still a big key in keeping everyone on the same page. Be honest about what is happening in the classroom. Above all, don’t undermine the parents’ concern for their child.
  6. If possible, have a plan in place before the child enters the classroom. Communicate with the parents to be as prepared as possible. Communicate with your administration. Keep them informed of the challenges and how you are meeting them.
  7. This child will not be the only one you are responsible for if you are a classroom teacher. Ask for help if one child is taking up so much of your time and energy that you are neglecting the rest of the class.
  8. Work on building a relationship with the child. Chat with them. Know the name of their dog. Know their favorite pastime. Notice them at church or other places outside of school. Never speak to them with an angry or frustrated tone. Never beat down their self-worth.
  9. Remember, that when they defy you, it’s not personal. They are defying authority and not you as a person. Be realistic. You are not the savior of the child. The job is bigger than just you. But you are called to love and work with the child the best you know. Remember, too, that tomorrow is another day. You can all try again.

At the end of the year, I hope that you will be able to see growth—growth in yourself as a teacher and growth in the student you are working with. I have always been blessed by those times I’m called outside my comfortable box and have been stretched by those who need more tough love and understanding than the rest of the students in my classroom. May God bless all our endeavors and give us the needed wisdom for each day.


*I know there are people who question the validity of these labels. I also know the labels keep changing. People are correct in thinking that good, old-fashioned discipline would dispense with the labels for some of those children. However, children who fit these labels do end up in our classrooms and we must work with them. An excellent resource for understanding what it’s like to work with a difficult child is the book Tanisha by Jewel Carter and published by Christian Light.

**The website: is an excellent resource that demonstrates how to set up and deliver structure and consistency.

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