How to Deal with "Problem" ESL Students

Updated: Sep 12, 2020




As teachers it’s important to learn to detach the problem at hand from the student themselves. We can do this by focusing on finding workable solutions to the problem instead of taking our frustrations out on our student.


In order to deal with problem behaviours, we must first understand the underpinnings thereof, so follow along with us as we explore more about the very nature of classroom problems and possible reasons for their arrival in both an in-class and online environment. Remember that problem behaviours may spring from certain areas that really are out of your control.


Common problem behaviours include:

  • Students become restless

Students often become restless when they are bored so be sure to keep your lessons lively and entertaining so that they are fully engaged and participating, excited to see what is coming next at all points in the lesson.


  • Playing with toys

In this scenario, try and involve the toy that the student is playing with into your lesson. Incorporate it into a game or song or start asking questions about it. Involve their toy as one of the class “members” and allow it to be a help and guide to your learner. Another response to this problem could simply be asking your student to put the toy away until the class has ended. Remember that if your student has a toy in front of them, but it is in no way majorly interfering with the lesson, then let it slide as there is no need to make a fuss over this.


  • Name calling

Name calling should never be tolerated and students should be reprimanded immediately in a gentle manner in an attempt to stop this behaviour right in its tracks. Students should be reminded that they are to be kind at all times.


  • Teasing, mocking, arguing and bullying

As mentioned above, these behaviours should be stopped as soon as they are recognised. Remind your students that you are there for them if ever they need to talk and open up about any hardships they may be experiencing.


  • Throwing objects

Simply stop and look at the student who threw the object, making them aware that what they have just done is not acceptable. Calmly tell them that it is not allowed and ask them to remain behind so that you can discipline them in private and give them the opportunity to apologize, maybe even explaining why they threw it in the first place. When choosing to address a problem directly after the instance occurs, do so in a manner that is quick and allows you to continue on with the lesson with as little disruption as possible having occurred.


  • Yelling or shouting when uncalled for

If you find that these behaviours occur, try and implement a sterner approach for a short period of time so that discipline and good manners are instilled in your classes. Remind students to raise their hand or wait their turn if they have something to say- ensure that you are making use of TPR and gesture here so that your words are supported by your actions and a more solid understanding of what you are asking can be built.


  • Having private conversations

Ask your students to share what they are talking about with the class. Remind students to concentrate on what the class is working with and not get distracted. If the students are having private conversations in their native language prompt them to only use in English within the classroom.


As teachers it’s crucial that we understand our learners and whilst we wish to avoid “categorizing” them into boxes with set labels, sometimes doing this allows us to make sure that we know how to work with them rather than against them.


  • Insecure or shy students

These students should be handled with care in order to avoid them shelling up completely and never participating within your classes. The goal here should always be to meet the student at the point they are so that we can first make them feel comfortable and assure them that they are within a safe space. Try to make use of humor, animated puppets or pictures or even give them an animal friend. Assign this student to a group within the classroom so that she can buddy up with hopefully at least one of them. Sometimes seeing a friend participate and enjoy themselves will allow them to feel confident enough to do the same.


  • Eager beavers and attention seekers

These are students who are incredibly keen on learning or they seek out attention and detract from focus that should otherwise be directed towards the entire class. Eager beavers tend to want to over clarify points before starting with work, rush to complete their work before anyone else and often put pressure on themselves to ensure tasks are completed to perfection. A solution to this would be having extra work prepared for them to continue quietly with whilst other learners are finishing up. Eager beavers are often attention seekers and you will find that they will absorb most of the class time and even eat into your time spent outside of the classroom. In order to deal with these students, we should remind them to give other learners a chance to speak and participate and remind them that if they have further questions or points to add to the conversation, they can tell you at the end of class or even write you a note.



  • Defensive students

Most times, if a student is defensive it is about the work they have completed or in response to possible reprimands after they have strayed from the rules. Keep the focus on the work or issue at hand, rather than focusing on the students themselves. We can combat our students getting defensive about our constructive comments, by using a technique called the sandwich method. This means that we would first give the student a compliment or address something they have done well, then move in with criticism or constructive feedback given in a kind manner, and end off with another positive point so that they learn to understand that you are not giving feedback or punishment to hurt them, you are doing it to help them- think about explaining the importance of rules and feedback at this point. You can explain that rules are in place for everyone so that the class can learn to work well together and that you give feedback after tasks to help them improve and be the best that they can possibly be.


  • The entitled student

These students are rather crafty in their approach. Behaviours that they employ often include, but are certainly not limited to; taking time off, changing the schedule or modifying the work, and or negotiating a better grade. Explain to these students that they are not exempt from the rules and deadlines set for the entire class. Express to them that you are understanding and if they have a problem, they should approach you and you can decide on a workable solution together.


  • The know-it-all

Students who come approach classes with an inflated attitude often tend to dominate an environment. Make it known that class is a safe space in which you want everyone to be able to participate. Students should be encouraged to raise their hand if they have something to add to the conversation so that you can decide on who you give the opportunity to answer- ensure that you call on different students each time.


  • The refuser

These students never want to participate and may do so for a number of reasons. It’s our job as teachers to ensure that all lessons are fun, engaging and rewarding so that we can coax them out of their shell and into participating. Give your student a need and a want to participate. You can choose to adopt a gentle or more firm approach, depending on their reasoning and reluctance to participate.


  • Mr/ Miss Inappropriate

Sometimes it’s best to rather choose not to respond to these types of behaviours as learners are often looking for a reaction. At other times, especially when extremely inappropriate behavior or language is displayed, an immediate no-tolerance attitude should be displayed. If you are working in an in-class environment ask the student to remain behind and set some boundaries with them. Explain to them why their behaviour was inappropriate so that they know and understand that it should never happen again. If working for an online company, you have the ability to turn off a students microphone or camera and should do so immediately. Explain to the student that what they are doing is not acceptable and considered to be rude. Report the behaviour in their memos and do not hesitate to approach the company you work for if the problem should get out of hand, both in an in-class and online scenario.


  • Demanding and cynical learners

These learners generally struggle to see the value of a class, may lack motivation or may have just had a negative attitude when they walked into class that day. In order to combat or address this type of behaviour, ensure that you show concern for your learner and let them know that you want them to succeed. Set group goals so that if they lack personal motivation, they at least have something to work towards within a group in the class or even within the class as a whole.


Offer a reward system as this often aids in increasing participation as well as motivation. Demonstrate that you have a wide working knowledge of the field and that you have a passion for the work that you do- if your students can see that you love your job and care about them, the majority of the time their cynicism will fade and they will reach a point where they enjoy attending your classes.


In order to deal with the above behaviours its best to employ one or two strategies or at least be prepared for should the occasion of needing to, ever arise. Set expectations and lay down one or two class rules with your students so that they know what is expected of them when they attend your classes. It’s advisable to set the rules with your students if they’re at a level where they can understand how to do so- this in turn gives them a sense of responsibility in deciding what is tolerated and what is not, also allowing them to come up with suitable punishments should they not adhere.


If rules are broken, teachers should be strong enough to meter out the punishments initially decided on and not make threats they cannot adhere to. Contact parents, businesses, or teaching assistants at the company if a problem persists or gets out of hand.


We hope that this article proves useful to you and your students. Let us know what you think in the comments below!


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