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Tool: Helping beginning teachers deal with difficult students

Beginning teachers are often assigned the most difficult classes to teach. Regardless of how this occurs, typical classrooms have students who pay attention to lessons, apply themselves to their work and seem responsive to the teacher's instructional and social initiations while other students lack these qualities or for other reasons are difficult, time-consuming or frustrating to work with.

As a building principal, department, chair, or other leader designate, you and the beginning teacher need to determine which problems can be handled in the classroom, which require consultation with a school official and which require involvement of community agencies beyond those available in the school district.

One of the first steps is identifying the problem. While it can be risky to label, sometimes it can be temporarily helpful in order to hone in on specific problems. Once the behaviors are identified, you can find the descriptive information that can help you collaboratively draw up an action plan.

Purpose of this tool: This tool is intended to guide your “looking” and “listening” in order to locate the information you need to collaboratively develop the appropriate action plans.

Observing and dealing with difficult students

Problem type

Observable evidence

Sources of information

Proposed action plan


Failure Syndrome

Easily frustrated

Gives up easily


Unduly anxious about making mistakes

Holds unrealistic standards for self

Holds back from class. Says “I can't do it.”


Does minimum to get by

Indifferent to school

Low achiever

Low potential

Lack of readiness

Difficulties following directions or completing work

Poor retention


Hostile aggressive

Not easily controlled

Intimidates, threatens

Damages property

Easily angered


Passive aggressive

Subtly oppositional

Stubborn, tries to control

Disrupts surreptitiously


Resists verbally and nonverbally

Makes derogatory statements

Carries out a power struggle with the teacher


Excessive, almost constant movement when sitting

Movements are often without purpose

Poorly directed


Short attention span

Easily distracted by sounds, sight or speech

Rarely completes tasks


Poorly developed emotional stability, social skills and/or responsibilities

Often exhibits behavior normal for younger student

Frequently appears helpless, incompetent and/or dependent

Peer Rejected

Forced to work or play alone

Lacks social skills

Often picked on or teased


Avoids personal interactions

Quiet, unobtrusive

Does not initiate or volunteer




Drawn heavily from Brophy, J. (1996). Teaching Problem Students, pp. 52-53. New York : Guilford Press.