How to deal with difficult students in SRE


She’s got her feet on the desk, her ear buds in and a phone in her hand. It’s a Year 9 SRE class, and it looks like trouble is brewing. The other students are taking their seats and settling down. The teacher makes eye contact with the rebel, let’s call her Peta, and asks her to put the phone away. Peta ignores the teacher and is increasingly distracting other students. Further requests are met with “@#$% off! Make me!”, a defiant stare and crossed arms.

It’s every SRE teacher’s worst nightmare. How would you respond to this situation? How should we respond to such extreme misbehaviour?


Creating a healthy SRE classroom culture

As an SRE teacher, it is important to foster a classroom culture built on respect and community, to encourage the students to engage deeply with God's word

Prevention is better than cure, they say. Hopefully, if you work hard at creating a healthy SRE classroom culture, and get to know your students, you can often prevent these events in the first place.

When a teacher has given clear, reasonable directions, we should expect students to cooperate. Any kind of refusal is unhelpful. Extreme situations, like the example above, often end in a standoff between the student and teacher, a power struggle that hurts all involved if badly handled.

Here are  a few tips that can be very helpful before we go on to consider a strategic approach to respond to extreme misbehaviour:  

Remain calm

This teachers’ initial response is critically important: we do not want to escalate the situation. This is hard! Our natural reaction might be to shout or get angry back at the student, which only  adds heat.  

It’s not personal

Our attitude to this student is crucial. If we feel that the student is making a personal attack on us, we naturally try to defend ourselves. Often these students are crying for attention and help, their outward behaviour is screaming out their internal pain. Considering why students misbehave helps us to hold a positive attitude toward the student, show empathy and want to walk beside them in their hurt rather than draw the battle lines.

We need to express we are for them but not excuse the behaviour. Yet at the same time we have a lesson to teach. How can we do both? Here’s an approach I’ve found enormously helpful:

Deescalate the situation

Think of this classroom event like a stage performance. Suddenly, you and the student are on the stage and in the spotlight, while the rest of the class has become the audience. Who will win this power struggle? The student started this duel and is likely now to not back down due to pride. If the teacher takes the bait, and the show goes on, it  never ends well. We need to be wiser than that and turn off the spotlights and put a stop to the show. We need to get back to teaching, all the while minimising the shame to the student out of love for them. It’s like turning the house lights on and the spot light off and saying by your actions, “Sorry folks, there won’t be any show today.”

For example, you might say something like:

“I’m not sure why you’re angry today, Peta. Maybe we can chat later? We do have a school rule about swearing at teachers and students not complying with instructions. I also have a lesson to teach. I’ll tell you what, I’ll pretend that didn’t happen, and not report you to (the head teacher/deputy), if you put your phone away and move over here. I’ll give you a few minutes to decide what to do. I’d rather you join us in the lesson, but if you just want to sit quietly and not disturb others, I’m ok with that. I’ll leave you to think about it.’”

Then turn and keep teaching the class.

Give the student a choice with clear consequences

You need to give the student a directed choice with clear consequences, but more importantly give the student some ‘take up time’ to comply. That way you can turn back to teaching the class and by doing so you give the student the benefit of the doubt and time for an opportunity to redeem themselves quietly without a showdown.

Don’t stand over them waiting for them to move, just get back to teaching. The student may huff and puff about it, but give them time to think about it. It gives them space to process their choices and realise that you have given them a way out of a no-win  situation. Most students will eventually comply.

For those students who need to prove a point and think they have power over you, then you will need to act. This teacher has more power than Peta thinks. There are two more options.

If Peta refuses to move, the teacher can politely ask the other one or two students around her to help the situation by moving away from Peta, isolating her. If the defiance continues, the teacher can send two trusted students to the head teacher/deputy so Peta can be removed from class. (Remember: never leave your class alone.) There should be no need for this teacher to use this strategy often because the class will have got the message that their power exceeds beyond the classroom all the way up to the head teacher/deputy of the school.

Lastly, after an incident like this it is always important to have a one-to-one debrief with the student about what happened.  It’s an opportunity to restore the relationship, show you care and give them the opportunity to talk. Some students will want to explain what they were feeling or why the behaved in that way. Some won’t. Making the effort to show grace and care is important, whether they appear to respond at the time or not. In time the student will learn that you are for them, you care about them and want what is best for them.

For more helpful classroom management tips, watch Dr Bill Rogers’ behaviour management videos on the Osiris Educational’s YouTube channel.

Youthworks Ministry Support is here to support your professional development as an SRE teacher. We have a number of upcoming professional development opportunities. Or you can contact Ivan Harris about issues in high school SRE, or your regional primary SRE advisor, any time.