How to Engage and Inspire Challenging Students

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Author: Chris S. Published on: March 6, 2019 Expected Reading Time: 5 mins


Nine times out of ten, our students are the main reason why teaching English as a second language is such a joy. They arrive on time and eager to learn, engage with all those fun lesson plans we put together, and remain inspired, motivated and productive from start to finish.

Yet every now and again, we find ourselves faced with a pupil who proves to be just a little bit more difficult to teach.

We've tried everything, yet simply encouraging such students to even participate and cooperate with us seems like an insurmountable challenge, never mind actively inspiring them to engage with the learning process.

As a result, they're bored and unresponsive at best, and outright disruptive at worst.

But hey, we're not willing to give up just yet, are we?

We're convinced that every student can experience the joy of learning if only we could find a way to really connect with them.

That's why we're here.


Today, we'll be sharing our top tips for working with students and offer practical suggestions on how you can help them to feel fully inspired about engaging in your lessons.


1. Form a relationship

We can have all the tips, tools, and techniques in the world for teaching students with challenging behavior, yet if we don't have at least some kind of relationship with those students that is based on mutual respect, they aren't going to amount to much.

There are all kinds of reasons why we may not have this kind of relationship.

In some cases, it may be that students crave the attention they don't get elsewhere and have learned that the only way to any kind of attention is to be disruptive.

Or it might be that students come to us from challenging circumstances where they have learned to distrust and dislike authority figures. If they view us a such a figure, it can almost be a natural instinct to refuse to cooperate.

Over at TeachThought, Dr. Allen Mendler recommends that we counter this by building a relationship with our students and becoming their 'cheerleader,' showing them recognition, respect, care and attention especially when they are not engaging in what Dr. Mendler calls 'objectionable behaviors.'


2. Understand their learning style

In 1987, New Zealand teacher Neil Fleming launched the VARK (Visual, Auditory, Reading, Kinesthetic) model which aimed to help us better understand the way that different people prefer to learn.

According to Fleming, most of us have one distinct way through which we learn best, whether that's by seeing visual aids, touching, moving and doing, hearing, or reading.

Though VARK has been challenged by some scientists, there is still something to be said for the idea that some students simply get more out of the learning experience if the material is presented to them in a particular fashion.

So it may well be the case that simply switching up the way we present our lessons could make a big difference.

If, for example, you've been focussing on comprehension-based exercises and finding that students are non-responsive or disruptive, you might want to try role-play based activities or something that gets students moving around.

Experiment with different learning styles and see which ones resonate the most with students. Though it may not be a magical cure, it may well be just the thing to start slowly re-engaging challenging students and helping them to enjoy learning.

Not sure where to start?

Teach Hub offers some great, practical advice on teaching in different learning styles.


3. Build themed lessons around their interests

Your student makes no secret of the fact they’d much rather be blasting zombies on the Xbox than learning English, but look:

This can actually be a blessing in disguise.

When students are actually learning about things they’re interested in outside of the classroom, they’re far more likely to engage in the learning process. So, rather than trying to force students to learn about street directions or grocery shopping, you can use their interests and passions as the subject matter for your lessons.

The British Council’s Teaching English website even has a full lesson plan on the theme of video gaming, and you’re likely to find a wide range of resources and lesson plans for just about any hobby that your students may have.

Not sure what your students are into? As part of that relationship-building process we touched on earlier, you could take the time to get to know your students, talking to them about their life outside of learning.

The following fill-in-the-blanks exercise could even prove highly effective in helping you discover the kind of subject matter your students are likely to engage with the most.

My name is ____, and in my spare time I love to _____.


4. Gamify the Learning Experience

Speaking of games, there's a lot to be said for turning the learning process into a game, complete with points and rewards.

Over on Teaching English, Kevin Thomson recalls the time an ESOL teacher he worked with split her classroom into teams and rewarded points based on certain activities. For example, the first team to open their textbooks to the right page received points, pupils who engaged in cooperative behavior received points for their team and, well, you get the idea.

Though you don't necessarily have to follow this particular model, Thomson notes how transforming learning into a game and introducing a friendly, competitive element produced terrific results in a class of highly disruptive pupils.

You could even use a similar approach when working with students on a one-on-one basis, offering them opportunities to accrue points that can later be redeemed for rewards such as certificates (check out Certificates for Teachers for lots of customizable templates), a favorite learning activity or, hey, why not a 'Get out of Homework Free' card?

If you need some inspiration, Teach Thought has 12 great examples of gamification in the classroom, though you may well have your own fun ideas that we'd love to hear.


Let us know how you gamify your classroom in the comments below or tell us about any unique ways to engage challenging students that you've found particularly helpful.

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