Spread the love

The Situation

It can be frustrating working with a kid who doesn’t understand what you’re teaching.  You start to feel as though you’ve exhausted all possible explanations.  You feel as though you’ve tried to teach the same idea using every conceivable strategy.  And none of those strategies have worked.  At this point  it just feels like the student doesn’t want to learn, or they must be stubborn.

At this point, many well-meaning adults blame the student.  We accuse them for not wanting to learn.  What follows are a series of negative labels that put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the student.  Examples of such labels are “lazy,” “slow,” “stubborn,” “unmotivated,” “slacker,” “rude,” etc.  These words, although they seem like an accurate description of the student, paint a negative picture of the child.

Other adults may give up on the child and move on with their lives.  They tell themselves that the student will learn it later.  Or they just believe the student isn’t capable of learning the content or completing the task at hand.

But giving up helps nobody; not the child, their parents, or teachers.  Giving up on the student only prolongs the student’s challenges and makes the situation worse.  Without proper support, the child will struggle even more in the future.  They will possibly struggle through college and their adult life.  And yet, you feel that you are at a loss.

What you need is to reframe your own thinking of these young delinquents.  An alternative way to think of struggling students is needed.  For, these struggling learners really do need help.  As a general rule of thumb, struggling students have some sort of unmet need(s).  And it’s your job to decode what those needs are.

The Problem

Many well-meaning adults approach teaching with the mindset that their role is to pass knowledge on to the student; they believe the student’s job is to learn from them as the adult.  Furthermore, many people have already formed their own knowledge about different topics (i.e. science, religion, social interactions, psychology, social interactions, etc.).  Within the teaching profession, this preformed knowledge applies to instructional approaches, educational methods, discipline, etc.

Regarding discipline, many people already believe they know how to handle a challenging student’s behavior; through the use of consequences.  Many adults also believe they know the reason behind a student’s behavior problems, whether it’s disrespect or rudeness. And that’s the problem; adults aren’t approaching instruction by becoming learners.  They lack the curiosity to learn about new concepts.

Steps to Change Mindset

In order to shift our mindset about struggling students, the first step is to abandon the notion that the child is responsible for changing.  Struggling students are kids who lack skills.  And it’s hard to change if nobody is investing in the time to teach those skills.  This means adults need to take responsibility for the student’s growth.  (With that being said, kids should hold some responsibility in changing their behavior; just within the management of the adult.)

  • Become a Learner
    • We need to see ourselves as learners, not just of academic content but of other concepts (i.e. learning disabilities, emotional disorders, trauma, abuse, etc.)  We need to be willing to challenge our current view points.  If we are to help struggling students, we need to effectively identify what it is they struggle with.

We then need to evaluate what skills the child is missing.  This is where becoming a learner is crucial.  If the missing skills are to be uncovered, it’s imperative to think outside of what you already know.  These skills may be the product of neurological issues that you have little knowledge about.

  • Use Neutral Terminology
    • It’s also highly important to brainstorm new terminology to use.  This terminology needs to be neutral rather than accusatory.  This step of carefully selecting neutral words is so important.  So much of the terminology we use is actually accusatory.  Words such as “lazy,” “stubborn,” “unmotivated,” “defiant” pin the responsibility on the other person.  They also convey the experience of the person in power.

The words we use have a much bigger impact on the way people think.  Words such as “lost,” “distracted,” “nervous,” “willful,” paint a very different picture of the student in question.  Not only are they non-accusatory, these words convey the experience the student is having rather than that of the adult.

  • Team Up with the Student
    • Putting yourself on the student’s team is crucial.  I like listening to podcasts about kids, parenting, teaching, etc.  Often, I find some nugget of information that I can fit into my own job.  It was in a parenting podcast produced by Ellie and Jared that I heard of a father saying to his son, “It’s you and me against the problem.”  This father had learned that it was more effective to team up with his son and work through any issues.

It’s not uncommon to get caught up in our own frustrations that we forget how the other person in the situation is feeling.  It regards to challenging students, we need to remember that the student is struggling emotionally as well.  They themselves would like to find a sense of peace.  Seeing yourself as a team with the student is one way to remember this.

  • Discover What Works for the Student
    • It’s crucial to remember that what works for one person, doesn’t work for all students.  When dealing with challenging students, you’re not fighting against the student, but rather fighting to discover the right instruction or environment for each child.

Working with kids is so much more than getting kids to listen to you as the adult.  It’s about uncovering what works specifically for each student.  For instance, each student might have a different reaction to class size.  Some students don’t mind the larger environments and class-sizes, and find little difficulty in speaking up.  Other students might have a difficult time in large environments.

  • Use a Strengths-Based Approach
    • Lastly, turning to a strengths-based tends to be effective in helping reframe our view of struggling students.  A strengths-based approach refers to initially identifying the things a student is good at.

After the strengths of the student are taken into account, teachers and parents can move onto tackling the weaknesses that a child has.  For instance, a child who struggles with reading might be incredibly social and a great leader.  This strengths-based approach reminds us of what the child is actually capable of, putting us in a position of leaning into their strengths.

Download the FREE Poster


It’s crucial that we as adults find alternative ways of thinking about our struggling students.  They can feel frustrating at times, but they so desperately need our help.  Passing off students as if they will figure things out later does nobody any good.  For, some of these kids might not figure things out later.  After all, these struggling students are the ones that need the most help.  They need the most patience and attention.

Reframing Our Thinking About Challenging Kids: Rethinking the Struggling Student

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *