In every classroom, training room and other learning space around the world, there will be at least one ‘challenging learner’.  Perhaps they appear to be confrontational – or entirely withdrawn.  Often they are not engaging with the learning that we need to be taking place and it can be utterly frustrating and demoralising.  Interestingly, it probably is for them as well!  So how can we deal with this?  As the famous saying goes, all behaviour is communication – and that is exactly what we need to do.

Setting the ground rules

Whether you are working with one challenging learner or one/some in a group situation, it’s really helpful to make it absolutely clear that you are not interested in embarrassing anyone and you are equally receptive to everybody’s ideas.  This sounds obvious, but all too often we don’t spell this out.  They need to know that you care! It may be appropriate to take this learner to one side at a break time in private and to reinforce the ground rules.  You could take this opportunity to ask them to write down anything they feel anxious about.  This won’t put them on the spot but will be the catalyst for a relationship between you that will enable some communication.

Trust and building a relationship

Clearly, this doesn’t happen straight away!  Some quick wins are good practice in all teaching, such as knowledge of their favourite football team/band etc.  Showing a positive interest in your learners’ interests is always a good strategy and playing some games early on/doing a quiz that elicits these responses is a great way to go.  Then you will be able to make what seem like throwaway comments but are actually incredibly important to that learner.
After you have put this in place, ‘watch and wait’ is the next great strategy.  Have patience – buckets of it - and set mini targets for that particular learner who is still reluctant to engage.  They made eye contact with you – fantastic!  They laughed at one of your jokes – amazing!  You are breaking down the barriers.  ‘Watch and wait’ is really about doing some detective work.  As you teach/they carry out activities, watch how they learn best.  Listen to anything they say with great care and make a note.  Watch their body language – is there anything that gains a positive response?  


You will have found out many things already about your challenging learner by this point.  Most of these learners are masking anxiety with different behaviours.  Of course, this anxiety will have many different causes, but if these learners know there is a direct way that they can communicate with you, they will be reassured.  How do they like to communicate best?  Perhaps they will be happy to talk about their feelings about the learning.  This may be overwhelming and they would rather write it down or even let you know with a signal that they need a short break.


Teachers are used to being relentlessly positive, even when it is a huge performance!  Challenging learners need more positivity than all other learners: however, they will generally find it much more difficult to receive praise.  Again – ‘watch and wait.’  How do they respond to being given praise?  Do they prefer a written comment as it’s not so overwhelming?  Do they prefer a quick ‘thumbs up’?  Above all, make sure the praise is specific: ‘Your introduction really sets the scene’, rather than ‘It’s a great start’.
Having to give positive feedback to another learner can be really good practice for a challenging learner.  They will need this modeling as their mode of operation will probably be automatically quite negative.

Is the learning relevant to them?

Of course, not every piece of learning can be both relevant and fun – but this should be our aim.  Sometimes it is helpful to level with the learners that they just have to get through the next bit to get to the fun bit!  Again, this will engender a positive team feeling.  The learner needs to know very clearly why they are learning this and what is in it for them.  Many challenging learners respond very well to a checklist that they can use where possible – this is a helpful visual representation for them.  Visual timetables of the day or course are also very helpful so they can see the learning broken down.
Many of these strategies are just about good teaching and learning.  We can’t solve everything for every learner but we can listen, learn from them and communicate effectively.