5 Ways to Cope with Challenging Students
Classroom management is probably not the reason you chose a career in teaching … yet it is a significant part of life as an educator. Whether they are overeager, filled with energy, combative, or struggling with special needs like ADHD or a learning disability, your students can be a handful. Keeping everyone engaged and on task is exhausting and you probably leave work feeling drained on particularly difficult days. That’s why self-care is crucial for educators to mitigate the effects of the occupational hazards you face. Keep these simple self-care strategies in mind to help you thrive at work even when your students are taking everything you’ve got.
When your students’ behaviors demand your immediate attention, your body goes into stress mode: Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing becomes faster, and your muscles tense. It’s your body’s way of preparing for its fight, flight, or freeze response. To help combat this stress response so you can stay calm and cool under pressure, try simply practicing body awareness. Feel your feet connecting with the ground; place your hand on your heart to remind yourself to breathe; or making a fist with your hands and then releasing them to help you relax. This will help you manage stress in the moment.
It’s tempting to get frustrated with your students and their sometimes irrational behavior (especially if someone throws a tantrum). But adding frustration to the mix can exacerbate an already tense situation. Instead, responding with empathy can actually help de-escalate the situation. Empathy, in its most simple form, is acknowledging how the other person is feeling and what they are thinking (even when you don’t agree with it). Helping your students name their emotions and verbalize what they are feeling helps them feel understood and acknowledged. Imagine yourself in your student’s shoes. What do you think this student is experiencing emotionally? Express it back to them, saying something like, “I can tell you are feeling frustrated because Sarah won’t share with you and that feels unfair to you.” This helps your student know you are seeking to help, rather scolding and saying something like, “There’s no reason to get upset. Stop yelling.”
Make Time to Reflect
If you’ve had a particularly challenging day (or even when it’s just been a typical day), prioritize time to destress, process, and recharge. With a busy day and so many things to keep track of, it’s easy to move from one experience to the next without taking time to reflect and learn from the experience. Whether it’s taking a 15 minute break to take a walk around the block or journaling when you come home, making time to think about what you felt and experienced during the day is invaluable from a self-care standpoint. You’ll begin to notice when you are stressed the most, what helped you deal with that stress, and what you want to improve upon.
Surround Yourself with Support
You don’t have to struggle alone when it comes to classroom management. Share your struggles with your fellow teachers and build up a network where you can support each other as you deal with the challenges and joys of teaching. Feeling isolated and alone is a recipe for increased stress so don’t be afraid to reach out. Chances are your fellow teachers are experiencing the same things you are and need the support just as much as you do.
When you find yourself struggling to help your students stay focused and engaged despite the challenges they are facing, it’s tempting to blame your frustration on some kind of personal flaw. You might find yourself thinking, “I’m a terrible teacher and my classroom is a mess. If I were a better teacher, my students wouldn’t behave like this. I should be better at this.” Critical thoughts like these are self-defeating. Instead, try to extend the same compassion towards yourself that you share with others. You probably encourage and lift up your fellow educators. Extend that same kindness towards yourself. For example, you could say to yourself, “That was incredibly challenging and I didn’t handle it perfectly but I did my best. I’ll reach out to another teacher to see if they have any advice for the next time that happens.”
It isn’t about being the perfect teacher; it’s about being present for your students in the most authentic way you can in each moment. Self-compassion reinforces this while self-criticism doesn’t. Try it and see if you experience difference!
When stress gets to you – and it gets to all of us sometimes – remember that your school has a team of people available to help provide strategies and coping skills. It’s a great place to start when you feel alone.
Julia Marie Hogan, LCPC
Counselor + Writer
Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago and owner of Vita Optimum Counseling & Consulting, LLC. She also leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book,It's Ok to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. You can find more of her writing online at juliamariehogan.com.
Contact Julia Hogan
The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.