#112: A Guide to Dealing with Challenging Students in the Online Classroom
This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education
Online educators sometimes face challenging students who disagree with a grade or are argumentative in the classroom. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses ways to help online educators deal with such conflicts. Learn how to implement de-escalation tactics to meet in the middle, work with colleagues or administrators to get additional support, and finding ways to recover after a stressful situation.
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This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. This is your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. I’m very happy to be with you today to talk about difficult students online. There are a variety of situations in which you might find yourself working with a student you might describe as “difficult.” And by difficult, I’m talking about a variety of things. It could be that student is challenging a grade and persisting after you have provided additional feedback. Or the student might be arguing throughout the class, creating a tense atmosphere. This might seem like it is escalating. It might seem as though your student doesn’t like you and resists the teaching approach or even your personality. And with a lot of tense events are happening in our world, so it’s likely that you’re going to encounter challenging students more often in the future, as our students face unexpected stressors, trauma, world events, natural disasters, and uncertainty.
While you’re working with challenging students in your online teaching, your own stress level increases. The experience might drain your energy and might make it harder to notice the students who are having a good experience in your class, and all the positive moments happening. We can easily become defensive when a student reacts poorly or challenges us, and our own response might add fuel to the fire.
To address all of this, in today’s podcast we will first look at ways to meet the student in the middle. To focus on de-escalating the tension to find a potential step forward.
Then, we will look at options available to you when a solution is not reached. This might include other departments at your educational institution, members of your team, or colleagues. Although we may teach alone, we are not alone in managing serious challenges, and we can reach out for support.
And last, we will explore supportive habits that can help you to get through the stressful time you’re experiencing and to recover from what might be a traumatic experience. When a serious challenging experience occurs in the online classroom, it can shake your confidence and make you feel depleted. Focusing on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress can give you the space to regain energy and zest for teaching. And we will close with those ideas.
Focus on De-Escalation and Meet in the Middle
A lot of times, students escalate quickly when they don’t understand, or when we’ve made a comment to them that they have taken as a judgment instead of an evaluation of their work. While it might surprise us when this happens, especially if it happens quickly, it also makes sense that not all our students will immediately understand what we say to them.
As you face a challenging student in your online class, I recommend looking backwards. Consider your past teaching moments and any challenges you might have faced. How did you work through those challenges? When we reflect on our past challenges, we can identify key skills we developed that are now available to us in present challenging situations. Looking at past teaching challenges can also help us consider new perspectives about the current problem. There is a lot we have already learned from working with difficult students in the past, and we can draw on what went right in those previous scenarios, as well as what we would have wanted to do differently.
To meet students in the middle, we can draw upon the skills we have learned from our past challenges. And we can try to understand our student’s perspective. From their vantage point, what might have been more helpful in the assignment instructions, or in my grading feedback? And where they are sitting right now, what will be most helpful to move them forward in the class?
Meeting someone in the middle suggests that I consider how I might be part of the problem, so that I can be part of the solution. One way to learn about the student’s perspective in order to meet in the middle could be to have a phone call or video chat and ask them: “What is you understanding of the situation?” or “What might help you most right now?”
As we hear what students will tell us, the most important part of this conversation is to listen with a true desire to understand their viewpoint or their perspective. As this begins to take shape, it is tempting to jump in with comments or assume that we’re ready to make a compromise of some kind. However, I would encourage us to keep listening to ensure that we have the full story from our student. And then, we can summarize or paraphrase what we heard to make sure that we understand. Only then, the student feels fully heard are we able to take a step forward to resolving the situation.
Be Authentic and Present
Now, if you have a problem that you can’t de-escalate with a student, and you really do feel like you’ve put in the steps needed but things are not improving, authenticity can be one additional resource available to you. Authenticity is a combination of awareness, behavior, relational orientation, and unbiased processing.
When we think about being authentic in a moment of tension or conflict with a student online, we might find that to be just the opposite of what is possible for us. But, if we can stay grounded to our personal values, what we care most about, and the humanity of that other person we are dealing with, we can bring ourselves back down emotionally and become mindful of the moment that we’re in and be able to let those really tense thoughts just stream on by.
The most important thing we can do in a tense situation with students is to think clearly and to be able to be back in the moment that we’re living in. By doing this, you can be authentic, you can present yourself as your best self, even when there’s a tension there. Most people that we’re engaging with, even if they have a complaint, will be less aggressive when they feel that we’re being non-judgmental towards them and inviting them.
Pause to Refocus
If you start to feel inflexible, resistant and defensive towards the student, I want to encourage you to pause, take a step back and see if you can understand what the student is experiencing. Just giving that pause can give you a little bit of space to see it in new light and understand if the student has missed something along the way, then a simple clarification can help get things right back on track.
Of course, not all students are going to respond openly when they initially are defensive about something. Again, if you sense yourself tensing up and resisting the student or starting to argue back and forth, a pause or silence to breathe and refocus can help. Letting go of that sense of resistance may be the tone that invites your student to do the same. And once we are meeting in the middle and understanding what is going on, we can take a step forward towards solutions, no matter how small.
In my experience, I notice that when someone is being challenging or difficult, it’s like I’m being invited to get defensive in return. It’s like an unwritten invitation to get defensive right back. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to be sucked in quickly. It’s easy to do that when we’re not seeing the people face to face that we’re teaching, and if we read the question or complaint in an email. If we take the invitation and get defensive back with a student who’s having a challenge experience, it becomes very difficult to see the student in a positive light or present ourselves in a positive way. And we might invite more of what we don’t want.
Another problem that we might face is feeling that we need to be right. If we have seen the situation from an objective viewpoint, and we feel that we’ve communicated very well with a student, we might feel like we know the answer, we are right and the student just needs to accept it. The problem with that is that the firmer we get, the more we’re sort of inviting that fight in return. If we’re willing to hear the person out and be a little bit softer in our presentation, and really listen, sometimes that alone will de-escalate the situation and invite your student into a discussion.
Some things we can do to invite the other person to de-escalate and join us at the table for a conversation are to ask open-ended questions and just wait. And listen. If we’re able to do that, and just give silence and take it in, then another thing we could do is to restate back to the student what we’re hearing. To validate that, yes, they must be frustrated with that understanding, whatever that is, and to ask them what they’re hoping that we can do together to resolve the situation. Sometimes it really is a small thing that’s just a huge misunderstanding. If you find yourself in this situation, slow down, and see if you can get yourself present in the moment to be your more authentic self and invite that student to the table with you.
After focusing on de-escalation strategy, slowing down, listening, and learning about what the student is experiencing, and working toward a solution, we might find that this student continues to challenge. In some cases, it begins to seem as though everything in the class starts a new challenging conversation, and the student is not interested in working with us to resolve it. When this happens, there are options available to you when a solution is not reached. This might include contacting other departments at your educational institution, members of your team, or colleagues. Although we may teach alone, we are not alone in managing serious challenges, and we can reach out for support.
Consider a Partner or Department to Support You
One helpful partner we can contact might be a department chair, a manager, a partner teacher, or another team member who can be on the phone or on a Zoom call with us and our student. Having a second party there can bring in neutrality to help us to have the conversation in a less emotional manner than we might otherwise have. The team member can add value to the conversation by sharing additional ideas or perspective that can help both you and your student to move forward. And after the call has ended, this person might be able to share perspective with you that you’re not seeing, because you’re very close to the situation.
In any challenging situation, whether we are alone in the conversation or with a team member on the call, we can listen to the student’s story, their experience, and their complaint, and then let the student know we need some time to think about what they have said, and a second conversation to respond. It’s like we’re scheduling two different meetings, that first one will be to hear this student and really understand their situation. And the second conversation will take place after we have had the time to consider how we want to address the complaint or concern.
And be sure to respond in a prompt manner as much as possible. The wonderful thing about this approach is that it takes all pressure off you. In that first call, you can be open, a good listener, and just focused on learning as much as you can about the student’s perspective and experience. You don’t have to give any answers during the first conversation, and you can have time to think before responding.
If you work with another department, the representative from that department might be able to suggest alternatives and additional solutions to help you and your student. Some departments you might consider contacting include the student conduct department, a faculty advocate, a student services or advising team member, the university chaplain, or the disability services and accommodations office. Each of these teams has a slightly different approach when meeting the students’ needs, and you may find that aligning your approach with one or more of these teams gives you strength and perspective to respond well. If you have any suspicion that your student could use these services, you can even recommend them to your student, that they reach out to those departments. And of course, you can as well for a little more insight and support in dealing with a very challenging situation.
We know that online teaching can itself be challenging at times and a bit isolating. But with these ideas, we hope that you’ll be able to reach out to your students make some personal connections, feel that you’re able to really reduce the tension in a situation that might otherwise escalate and help your students to get right back on track.
During the conflict, it’s possible that you will feel unable to relax and consider the student’s perspective if this student has approached you in a hostile way or a threatening manner. If that happens, don’t wait to reach out to others for help and support. It’s difficult to know what to do in such a situation, and other team members and departments will be able to help you.
If the challenge is a tough one, but it does not seem that you’re being threatened or treated in a hostile way, it might still push you a bit. You can know if you’re feeling stress if you start to firm up your grading practices in response or if you feel like suddenly becoming strict with grading timelines when you were previously more flexible. If you start to notice yourself getting into more strict absolutes, which we call all-or-nothing thinking in terms of your deadlines and your grading, this serves as a red flag to let you know that you’re under a lot more stress than usual. And you might unintentionally invite more resistance from students, instead of less. When you notice these kinds of red flags in your approach, I encourage you again to pause, step back, and continue to treat that challenging student as you would any student in your class as much as you can. And at the same time, contact other colleagues, a manager, or one of the departments available to help you, and ask for back up.
If you need a break from your classroom, you can also talk to a partner teacher, a manager, or a leader in your institution, a department chair, a principal, or wherever you’re working for some backup for some help. Perhaps there might be a day or two, you could be out of that class to get some space if the situation has escalated.
Take Care of Yourself and Recover from Stress
For the final topic we explore today, we look at supportive habits that can help you get through the stressful time you’re experiencing and recover from what might be a traumatic experience. When serious and challenging experience occurs in the online classroom, it can shake your confidence and make you feel depleted. Focusing on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress can give you the space to regain energy and zest for teaching.
And you might truly experience stress and trauma when you’re working with very challenging students. Especially if there’s been a traumatic event. There is a resource one of my wonderful colleagues shared with me from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is linked here in the podcast transcript. And from it, we are taking some helpful tips to notice normal and natural reactions you might experience when dealing with a traumatic event or a disaster, and emotions you might have. Physical reactions you might also have, and then some suggestions on how you might manage your workload afterwards.
For example, one of the suggestions is that if you realize you’ve been injured, you need to seek medical treatment, of course, and if you’re not injured, focus on completing only one task at a time, just slow down in your work. And that will help you feel like you’re getting some control back and getting on top of things as you’re getting back in the game of working with your students.
Pause and take deep breaths. Take the time to gently stretch to calm yourself before you tackle each task. And plan to do something relaxing after work. Be patient with yourself if you notice that you’re having trouble remembering things, difficulty thinking clearly, worrying a lot, of experience more difficulty making decisions. All of these can be normal effects of stress or trauma. So do your best to exercise self-compassion.
And look at those tips for survivors of traumatic events. Talk with others who can understand you and understand what you’re going through. Listen to uplifting music, music that can help you relax and calm yourself. Of course, use what you know to be good coping skills, healthy coping skills that work for you.
As you work with challenging students, you know, because you’ve been teaching online, that there are many types of students that we work with, a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds. Hopefully you’ll be able to get through that experience and take the skills you have gained in the challenge to apply in other scenarios in the future. And if you’re not able to finish the class with that student, you will still be able to care for yourself and work through the stress and trauma of the significant challenge you might be experiencing. Regardless of how the situation ends, taking the time to focus on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress is important. And adopting habits to sustain your wellbeing will help you regain confidence after the conflict.
The ideas we have considered today around working with challenging students have focused on de-escalation efforts to meet in the middle, working with colleagues and other departments to get support if the challenge isn’t improving, and finding ways to recover once the stress has subsided. Although these ideas are a good start, there is no substitute for your own experiences and intuition about how to resolve challenging situations and relying on your own insight can be helpful throughout the process.
Thank you for being here today and for your desire to help challenging students get back into learning in your online class when possible. We wish you all the best in resolving tough situations in your online teaching and in your work this coming week.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.