Hanging In:
Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most

By. Jeffrey Benson

We all know or have had THAT student. The one that constantly disrupts you and your class. The one that refuses to do her work and has a complete meltdown when asked to. The one that cannot control himself during transitions between classes. In Hanging In, Benson gives us strategies to use when working with these challenging students that benefits  the student and their teachers alike. A lot of these students are also our GAP students, so these problem solving tips and tricks can be adapted and used to fit our most common problems in all content areas and unique situations.


First and Second Strategies: Toni (Benson, pp. 1-14)

Toni came to school with several issues that caused her to shout out when assigned work that she didn't want to or didn't understand. She also saw any attention from a teacher as negative, as she had adopted feelings of mistrust from a previous school. To not only create a better learning climate for Toni and her classmates, her instructors formed a team used the following strategy to pick their battles.

This Specific Behavior Plan (Benson, p. 9) gives teachers insight into Toni's common behaviors and reactions when faced with certain situations. This provides a guide for knowing what the appropriate response should be in some cases and what others should just be ignored so as not to prompt escalation. GAP students, especially those with behavioral problems, can benefit from having an "escape plan" that they make with their teachers.

Toni's "Get Me Out of Trouble" plan is a prime example of how allowing students to set their own parameters and gives them the responsibility of controlling their emotions and reactions to situations that arise in the classroom, whether they are negative or not. Escape plans are implemented to allow students to de-escalate or prevent anger escalation from happening.


Third Strategy: Charlie (Benson, pp. 15-28)

Some of our most challenging students have difficulties with smooth transitions. Students walking from one place to another in a timely, yet organized manner is critical at any school - but especially at the secondary level. Charlie was very impatient and would often succumb to sensory overload, which evoked negative responses. When working with Charlie, teachers developed a volume level chart that was easy to read and understand.

The Voice Volume poster (Benson, p. 18) has been adopted in several schools to remind students about what their voice level should be in assemblies, classrooms, and during transitions. Instead of having to constantly reiterate the rules, a teacher can simply point to this poster as a reminder to students - whether as a class or individually. (I actually have one in my classroom!) Having this model across the district implements it into the daily life of students and staff, creating consistency.


Fourth and Fifth Strategies: Paul (Benson, pp. 53-70)

One of the biggest problems I see among my students, both GAP and general population alike, is disorganization. As is often the case, physical disorganization (such as a messy locker) can translate from mental disorganization. Forgetting to set an alarm, losing your way to school or not being able to organize your thoughts when working on an assignment are problems that plagued Paul.  

When Paul worked on a writing assignment, he had so many ideas he couldn't figure out how to include them all into his piece. His teaching team developed a writing plan for him, followed by a survey created by a tutor. Through a method that would seem crazy to anyone else, Paul was able to develop his own way of organizing his thoughts and wrote papers that were miles above what he was producing before. (Benson, p. 67)

This Writing Plan (Benson, p.64) not only provides the student with tutoring possibilities, but also alternatives to the assignment when completing it through writing will not be answer. It also addresses the needs of the student and when the plan will be reviewed. GAP students may benefit from looking at an assignment from another direction that meets their interests, such as making a visual presentation instead of writing a research paper.

This is one of my favorite resources in Benson's book. The Writing Survey (Benson, p.66) puts a student's thoughts about their writing right in front of them. By selecting their feelings towards the assignment, an instructor can evaluate the results and come up with a plan of action. Paul's plan involved a very strange process, but it met his needs and gave him the power over his writing assignments.


Sixth Strategy: Amanda (Benson, pp. 85-95)

Although Amanda was very smart, she was concerned about how others would view her if she exposed what was on her mind. In doing so, she developed a fear of answering questions in class. What if she was wrong? She also thought that learning was based on memorization and, if she didn't understand a concept, she wouldn't ask for help. The crippling fear of raising her hand had set in.

Teachers often forget that a lot of students, GAP or not, have a fear of social rejection when it comes to asking for help. By using the following questioning strategies, teachers can make sure that students are not only thinking, but empowering them to voice their thoughts.

For these strategies to be successful, teachers have to build a relationship with their students. Creating a sense of comfort while explaining their thinking is crucial to building confidence. Teachers have to become fascinated with their students' thinking - whether it is right or wrong. With Amanda, her teachers had to encourage her to explain why she was right, develop her ideas completely and avoid asking her questions about the big picture. (Benson, pp. 88-89)


Seventh Strategy: Cedric (Benson, pp. 71-84)

We all love those students who want to be in our classes and are enthusiastic about learning. They are the students we dream about throughout our entire careers. However, what do we do when we come across one that is performing but not learning? Cedric was a bright student who always volunteered, did his homework and was widely accepted socially. His hand would shoot up, even if he didn't have the correct answer. (Benson, pp. 74-75) So what can one do to to make sure he is learning without "breaking his spirit"? (Benson, pp. 75)

Most teachers are familiar with using an Individualized Education Plan when working with special needs students. These students with benefit from having an IEP academically because it is a road map that can guide teachers when planning instruction. What accommodations can we make to help each student learn better? What needs need to be addressed before I begin my lesson? What technology or manipulative  can I use to help my students understand better?

By summarizing Cedric's IEP, teachers provided themselves with a cheat sheet that would enable them to teach to his needs. They know, in plain terms, what he does well and what he does not do well. By identifying his strengths and weaknesses, his teacher provide accommodations to his assignments to increase his chances of learning without breaking his spirit.


Eighth Strategy: Lou (Benson, pp. 125-140)

If you took a look at my house, you would not think a former perfectionist lived there. However, my disorganization is organized chaos. When you encounter students who have perfectionist tendencies, it is both a blessing and a curse. These are typically great students who strive to do well, however, they want to succeed so much that even the tiniest hint of failure, the simplest mistake or any grade below a 100 can cause a major breakdown. The following strategies are for helping students manage their perfectionist tendencies in terms of goal setting and finishing work.

Ninth Strategy: Katerina (Benson, pp. 141-152)

Students will often times ask their teachers why they have to complete an assignment. What's in it for them? Is it just busy work or will it actually make an impact on my life? Katerina asked these kinds of questions on the daily. It wasn't that she was trying to be non-compliant - she was honestly so intelligent that she needed to be challenged.

We, as teachers, want our lessons to inspire and intrigue. As  for our students, we expect them to be compliant -but relying on that is like trying to catch an oily spaghetti noodle. The strategies below bring those uninterested minds back in the game.

The strategies above put the ball back into the student's court. Not all lessons will be what every student considers fun, but by changing the rules and/or explaining the purpose behind why the assignment needs to be completed, we can bring them back on board.

Tenth Strategy: Derek (Benson, pp. 153-166)

Some students come to a new school with a general distrust of educators and administration due to negative experiences in the past. Also, in a fast paced education system, we sometimes forget that moving on to the next level leaves many students at the starting line wondering what's going on.

Derek's struggle with slow processing reminds me of an Ent from the Lord of The Rings trilogy. The tree people had to think about what was being asked of them, then their response would take a long time surface. It was a slow process because they would have to think of wording an answer in just the right way to convey their precisely what they meant. There wasn't any further explanation needed because their response was literal. Slow processing can lead to several problems in school because a student cannot think on his feet quick enough to respond in a situation, such as being told to take off his hat. So he just does what he is asked, which in Derek's case looked like a student giving a teacher some negative attitude as he proceeded to go to his locker without a word. (Benson, p. 154)

Bending the rules for these students isn't always the answer, but explaining thoroughly why certain actions are being taken that may not be of the norm, is. If you do this and give your word to a student, follow through. Even when the situation changes and different alternatives need to be explored, be sincere when you make that promise.

The following excerpt is a response to Derek's actions after being asked to go to the guidance counselor's office after refusing to work. Benson, instead of ordering him to go there directly, asks Derek if he can walk with him to no avail. He then asks him what he needs at this moment that is preventing him from going to the office, which is a drink of water. Benson allows this with the assumption that Derek will actually go to the counselor afterwards. Derek gets his drink while Benson walks slowly to his office, and when the student rounds the hallway, he praises him for holding up his end of the deal. (Benson, pp. 157-163)


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