Helping the Unlikeable Student

Helping the Unlikeable Student

Dr. Paul Roud is a clinical psychologist and adjustment counselor. This article is part of a larger piece from Teaching Tolerance magazine (Fall 2012 issue), a project / publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center. 


It is difficult to admit—even to ourselves—that there are students we don’t like. It’s embarrassing: Aren’t we supposed to have good feelings for all of our students? Ideally, yes, we would like all of our students. But we are real people, dealing in the real world with some very difficult students.

So how do you generate positive feelings for the student whose behavior distracts the whole class from your carefully planned lesson? Can you really feel compassion for the boy who makes fun of other students?

While our feelings can seem beyond our control, there are steps you can take:

1. Acknowledge your feelings.
The sooner you acknowledge your negative feelings, the sooner you can let them go. If the goal is to nurture the compassion of your students, you can begin by acting compassionately toward yourself. This means accepting yourself— feelings and all.

2. Remember: It’s not about you.
There are reasons the truly difficult student is acting the way he is. A student’s challenging behavior—even when you are the focus—is not personal. For the student abused at home, you might be the symbol of authority that has mistreated him. The child who has become a prickly thorn in your side could be reeling from a family crisis—a raging custody battle can leave a child without any solid ground under his feet. The anger spewing from your pupil might be the result of a parent getting fired and the financial meltdown that follows. Students’ stress is often compounded by directives from parents not to say a word to anyone.

There could be a hidden physiological or psychological explanation: A general anxiety disorder can make it impossible for anyone, even a conscientious student, to stay seated and attentive. The adolescent’s explosive outbursts that wreak havoc in your classroom may be the result of an emerging mental illness.

3. Lean into your aversion.
Try to make meaningful contact with the difficult student. Instead of sending her to the office, ask to speak after class. For these students, going to the office is business as usual, a conversation with a caring teacher is not.

4. Listen.
Students will often share their personal stories if you can listen without judgment. Listening is a gift to difficult students. When they are able to accept this gift, it can make a real difference in your life and theirs.

5. Consider the context of their lives.
As a committed teacher, you want your pupils to learn your subject. But sometimes mastery of a subject must be secondary. When a young person is alienating the most important people in her life, she is struggling with the very meaning of life. Her most basic need, like all of us, is to feel respected and loved. If you can offer this to a student who feels neither, you have fulfilled your responsibility as a teacher—and as a human being.

6. Be vigilant with these students.
No matter how small the improvement, let them know you notice and that you respect their efforts.

7. Appreciate the multiplier effect of your kindness.
You set the tone for your class. Students are much more likely to treat each other with respect and tolerance when the teacher is kind to all students—even those who are the most challenging.



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