How To Deal With Problem Students

For most teachers, whether they teach adults or young learners, there will be a few students they have problems with. Maybe they have a passive attitude to learning, they constantly interrupt, they talk with their fellow learners, or maybe it even rises to the levels of the teacher being undermined and losing authority.

Apart from the obvious problem this presents, the barrier it creates for effective learning, it makes the teacher feel uncomfortable and often creates an unhappy work environment.

Different approaches have to be explored with different problems, to find the one that works, so here are some ideas I have been using and recommend.


Make sure that all students are aware of the rules right from the beginning of classes, or when they join. It might be helpful to have them sign their agreement, so there can be no doubt that they have understood the requirements. Often, they may be unaware of behaviour with a teacher might consider problematic, such as mobile phone use or arriving late to class. Seemingly innocuous things, but I personally find it disruptive and, in some cases, rude.

Catch It Early

It is vitally important not to give any leeway to any kind of bad behaviour, and nip it in the bud, so to speak. Especially with younger learners, as they take your initial reactions as a standard. So if you start with, for example, laughing when they interrupt, they may be encouraged to do it more. So take them to one side and explain how their behaviour is disruptive and how it affects their learning and overall classroom atmosphere. Its important to get them alone initially, as they may feel attacked if you anything in front of the class, adults more than teens or children. If they don’t respond to that initial friendly chat, shut it down immediately during class, and if necessary have one of your fellow teacher sit in during a lesson to give you some extra authority.

Follow Through

Put simply, don’t be making empty threats. If you say to a student that you will punish their behaviour, do so. This can range from sending them out of the class, being spoken to by another teacher, exclusion from classroom activities, contacting parents, or in extremely serious cases, removing the student from your class altogether.  Although I have never found this last one to be necessary. Give students appropriate warnings, and then if they don’t comply, follow through. It can be easier just to let the behaviour slide for an easier life. But this only serves to encourage the actions and show other students that it’s okay to act inappropriately.

Open Doors

Wherever possible, and especially with problem classes, try to have more of an open door policy. Other teachers will feel more comfortable with coming in to help you if they hear problems and it changes the classroom into less of a closed environment, potentially making students feel less comfortable with breaking any of your rules!


A few years ago I had some students that were very problematic together, adult students. One of them would constantly interrupt and undermine the other, leaving the latter shy and unwilling to volunteer opinions or practise his English. As it turned out, the problem worked itself out.

However, it would have been better to reorganise the classroom so that they were occupied with other partners. This works for all ages, and it’s been successful for me on quite a few occasions. Rearrange the seating so that more responsible students are put with those who might disrupt the class.

Be Fair 

Lastly, don’t forget that other students will constantly be watching how you react to troublemakers. Using raised voices, sarcasm, unfair comments or anything like that would undermine the teacher and make them seem unprofessional and authoritative.

Quick and Easy Tricks 

For young learners –

  1. Tell a trouble maker that they have a small corner of the classroom, in which they can do whatever they like. Perhaps even put a ball or a book there, in that small corner. Outside of the space, they must adhere to your rules, but inside they have more freedom. If they stay inside the space, they are at least still listening to your class, but in most cases they get bored and want to be involved in what their friends are doing. So they come back, and behave, try it!
  2. Be calm, don’t let the bad behaviour get to you. At the end of the day, it’s just a job. Losing your temper or making hasty decisions out of anger will lose the respect of the student and hurt you in the long run. Just stay calm and have a clear plan of action in mind for when these things do happen.
  3. In most cases, younger students act up because of outside factors. Consider investing in books such as ‘The Colour Monster’, which explores the way that we understand feelings, and using them constructively.

Anything to add? Let me know what you think in the comment section!





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