How To Deal With Challenging Students

A few years ago I was teaching a noisy preschool group. 

I turned my back to write something on the white board. When I turned around, I saw a violin go flying across the room! It landed with a crunch, scroll broken in half.

That is the worst thing for a violin teacher to see (aside from a child getting hurt, of course). Clearly I was not managing behavior.

Behavior challenges can be a real pain. Not only do they cause stress and anxiety for teachers, behaviorally challenged kids can damage the learning environment for themselves and other students (not to mention the cost of breaking an instrument!) 

How can we better manage behavior in private lessons, group classes, and other teaching situations? There are ways we can lessen the pain of challenging behavior, by first understanding the psychology of children, and then applying methods that help them behave at their best.

Preschool music.jpg

The topics in the next few posts are gleaned from many years of teaching and reflecting about behavior, as well as learning the hard way from the school of hard knocks. My hope in sharing this material is that it will help you think about how to manage difficult behavior patterns and get the most out of your learning time.

All Children Are “Challenging”

The first thing that we need to do is replace some of our paradigms about kids. It isn’t that some of them are just bad apples, and we merely need to pay attention to the good ones. Nor is it true that kids can behave in some sort of ideal “adult” way. When we hold them to that standard we actually make things worse, because we are setting up a false perfection, rather than addressing the person as he or she is.

The truth is that all children are challenging. Each child in your studio or classroom will bring a different set of behaviors and exhibit them in different circumstances, and sometimes they will test the boundaries in ways that you didn’t expect. Even the “best behaved” students will be difficult under certain conditions.

Three growth areas

If we know that all students are challenging, we can give ourselves permission to grow in three areas:

  1. Patience
  2. Empathy
  3. Teaching Skills

If we expect that students are never going to be challenging, we aren’t going to be very patient. If we approach it more from the standpoint of curious discovery, “Why is this student acting this way? What emotions are under the surface?” we will get into a frame of mind that is gentler and allows students to process.

Asking what emotion is behind the behavior develops our empathy. Which of us has not acted out because of feeling trapped, incompetent, angry, or unloved? When we can better identify with the inner world of the student, we are more likely to reach them with our teaching.

And then there are challenges that come amplified in group teaching settings. Having classroom strategies to deal with group challenges is about developing teaching skill. There is an art and a science to balancing a patient approach in the classroom with the right tactics that produce cooperation on the students’ part.  Specific techniques for dealing with classroom behavior will be the subject of future posts in the series, so stay tuned.

It all starts with a realistic and open perspective from the teacher that all students will bring challenges. Recognize that challenge is part of the landscape, and let go of being frustrated. The conflict we feel often is made up in our own minds, by our own ideals and false pictures of reality. If we can embrace the challenge and see what it means for our discovery, we will not only help students grow but go the next step up in our own journey.


Watch this space for the next topic: "Resistance Is Their Job", on the various ways children resist and how to address resistance.

If you have a story to share about finding patience or empathy with a student, you are invited to share it in the comments below.