Forming positive relationships with difficult children

Guest Bio

Jane is an experienced primary and secondary teacher with qualifications in child and adolescent psychology. She has held Wellbeing positions across both sectors. Currently she is developing and running social skills programs for pre and primary aged children.


We have all had ‘those children’ in our class that we would happily swap for ANY. OTHER.  CHILD! The ones that don’t listen, constantly interrupt, are always hurting the other children and never EVER sit still! To add to the frustration, they’re often the ones that will throw out the “you’re not my boss – I don’t have to listen to you”. Oh but you ARE the boss and there ARE things you can do to make sure they will listen to you – well more than they do now!

The first one of ‘those children’ that I had played out as a constant battle. “Go sit down”, “stop hurting her”, “time to listen” and “stop talking” etc. etc. etc. etc.! As time went on and I undertook more study in the area of student wellbeing I learned a lot about these children and their behaviour patterns.

All children, and all adults (!) want to feel loved, noticed and appreciated. When I work hard I appreciate a quiet acknowledgment of my efforts. When a parent thanks me for making a positive impact on their child I’m rapt! Children are the same. When a little quietly spoken girl comes up and shows you her writing with a little proud smirk on her face, she wants to be told she’s awesome! When a child wins a race and gets a ribbon his week is made! Playing a game with friends at lunch time makes children feel a part of something and a sense of belonging – this is internally rewarding.

Children who try to get attention in negative ways are just wanting to be heard and noticed but haven’t connected the notion that there are positive ways to do this. Chances are they aren’t proud of their writing as it’s too tricky and they won’t get noticed for special talents as they might not feel they are talented at anything. Likewise, this child may have scared away all of his friends (literally!) so he does not feel this sense of belonging. The only way he knows to get attention is negatively and in his mind it’s probably not worth trying to impress the teacher (or anyone for that matter) due to fear of rejection.

So … some tips to help build a positive relationship between yourself and this child. And note: until this happens they will continue to drive you crazy!

  • Don’t discipline them in front of their peers.
    This provides them with attention and can also be humiliating. A good idea is to outline your expectations and speak to them firmly but gently eg. “You are not listening as I’ve asked and you’re distracting others. Come and sit up the front or we’ll need to have a serious chat at lunch time”. This is clear, respectful and takes away the battle ie if they don’t move you’ll be chatting at lunch time, with no one around, and no attention to be had in front of others.
  • Always speak gently to this child. You are the teacher and you would never shout a literacy lesson to a child who didn’t understand, no matter how long it took them to understand.
  • When you are speaking with them one on one show a genuine desire to work alongside them. You might say something like “I think you have the potential to be such a great writer/reader etc but I find it tricky to help you when you don’t listen. What could we do to work better together?”. Get them to be a part of solving the problem.
  • Keep them in once a week at lunch time for 10 minutes or so as a reward (for even the smallest thing they’ve done well!). This shows them that it is possible to gain positive attention and may give them the feeling of worth and confidence that they need to continue in a positive direction.
  • Try not to say “stop being silly”. No matter how silly some words/actions can sound to you, if the child seems genuinely upset then chances are that they’re genuinely upset. If for instance they get angry because another person is sitting in their spot then recognise and quietly acknowledge how they feel eg “I can see you’re feeling angry. I know it makes you angry when another person sits in the spot you usually sit in. I am asking you to sit in a different spot today or to ask the person politely to move”. If you feel comfortable it can be helpful to make sure they are forming eye contact with you so you’re facial expressions are adding to your understanding. If you say “stop being silly, sit somewhere else” then you’re trivialising their genuine feelings. And remember they’re ALREADY angry – don’t add to this! Acknowledging their feelings and showing you understand makes a big difference.

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