7 Tips to Deal with Difficult Student Dialogue
Difficult conversations are inevitable. It hurts my heart when students try and try and yet they do not get the recognition (or score) they feel their effort warrants. Further, it stinks, when you are required to have an awkward conversation with a parent-you have to pull the sheet from over their eyes and discuss how their baby (who technically is not a baby and who physically is bigger than me) has flaws and daily struggles in the classroom.
As we face these challenging conversations, the outcome only adds more stress. In thinking about my talks with students over the years, the conversations rarely end as I would have liked. Unfortunately, students have stormed out of the room. There has been name calling-recently, a student nonchalantly noted, “You are just a teacher, you can’t do anything,” Of course, tears have been shed (many times by me-but in my defense, at least I was able to avoid the “ugly cry” that Oprah jokes about ).
So, can we learn to successfully navigate difficult talks with students? Below are a few tips to help start the conversation-no pun intended:
A communication strategy that is a personal favorite for me is incorporating story books when having a tough talk with a child. If you match the child’s concern with a character or situation from a book, you may use the story as a starting point for the conversation. If you want to take a look at my research in this area you can find it here.
A strong teacher-student relationship makes all the difference. Unsurprisingly, research on improving conversations between physicians and patients confirms that when you maintain a relationship with a foundation of trust, you are “better positioned” to have tough conversations.
Similarly, feelings about your relationship are influential as well. We hear of the ill effects of words during interpersonal conflicts-remember the chant to downplay the damage of words-“sticks and stones will break your bones…”, but research suggests that relationship satisfaction plays a bigger part than communication style in managing a verbal conflicts. Specifically, how you perceive your relationship is more powerful than what is said during a heated conversation. The take away for me is that if you have built a strong relationship with your students, it is ok if you do not know exactly what to say during a difficult conversation. In the end, you will be able to reach a resolution that everyone is comfortable with.
In addition to strengthening the teacher-student bond, avoidance may be a strategy worth considering. Keep in mind that avoiding the conversation has drawbacks, but in one conflict management study with couples, it was determined that avoidance is ok when there is time to go back to visit the issue later. So it sounds like if a conversation is needed, but it is more convenient to speak with the student after school, or during a scheduled conference, delaying the talk may be effective. Also, the study revealed that age and duration play a part in increased avoidance. So, it seems that the avoidance strategy may be useful for older students, veteran teachers, and schools that utilize looping (same teacher stays with same group of students each year).
If the idea of avoidance makes you uncomfortable, a more well-known strategy is trying to better engage the student in the conversation. Although, we as teachers often divulge or own flaws to help the student see us as real people, research reveals that this may be a mistake. One classroom study determined that teacher negative self-disclosure made students think less of the teacher. My take away is that having a “pity party” with students may not be as effective as utilizing genuine empathy to facilitate teacher-student conversations.
Also, I found a body of research that links touching behavior with positive child outcomes. For instance, touch helps with the growth of premature babies, sleep problems, and colic. Further, cultures where more physical expression is shown to children, these places had lower incidences of adult physical violence. A study with Greek preschool teachers (Stamatis & Stonkatas, 2009) revealed that the teacher’s touching habits resulted in the children feeling more comfortable and less insecure. So, if you are having a difficult conversation with a small child, consider the benefits of tactile behavior.
In my search for discussion strategies, I found Oprah Winfrey’s Life Class very resourceful. Specifically, the episode with Life Coach Iyanla Vanzant offers a series of rules for managing hard conversations. Some of these guidelines include setting ground rules, speaking from your own experience (using “I feel” vs. “You are”), and checking for understanding (differentiating between what was said and what was heard). A video clip of those guidelines can be viewed here.
These ideas are just a start. What strategies seem to truly make a difference for you when having a sensitive conversation with a student? What is your go-to method? If you have tried any of the suggestions listed, how useful were they for you? Also, can you share how effective or ineffective the strategy was for your students? If you feel that my list is missing something, or you have insight on another approach, please leave a comment below.