Six Tips: How To Handle the Problem Student (Part 1)

Ideally, every adult student would be eager to learn, quick to help and clean up their own space. Ideally. In reality, whether you are a business trainer, teach art workshops, or lead retreats, you will face disruptive participants. When you are an instructor or workshop leader, much of your success (and income) depend on how you handle problems when they come up. I’ve asked some instructors to tell me what works for them, and here’s what I learned.

There are many reasons participants are unhappy and act out. They are out of their comfort zone, they were sent to the class as punishment, they feel vulnerable, they generally control their environment with their own rules and are now in your space.

Book cover from fantasticfiction.co.uk

Of course the very first thing to try is kindness and distraction. If that works, it’s great. I’m not talking about those students. I’m talking about students who hijack your class; not responding to them could disrupt the entire flow of the day and create problems from the participants who want to learn.

1. The Whiner. This is a person who is too hot, too cold, has dry skin, needs lip gloss, needs music, hates music, has a reaction to fluorescent lights, thinks the 10-year old rug may still be off-gassing and asks if the paint might have lead in it. She can’t be helped. She triggers all the “fixers” in class who cluster around her, offering help and bringing the class to a complete stop.

Solution: After the fixers are rebuffed, they will feel angry themselves. This is a very delicate situation. At the next complaint, ask the class, “Is anyone else [cold, hot, etc.?] Almost certainly, they will shake their heads, “No.” Look the whiner straight in the eyes and say, “As long as no one else is uncomfortable, I think we’ll move on. If you are too cold, you can step outside to warm up.” Don’t forget the second half, you are giving her a choice, and if she doesn’t take it, you have offered help and she refused.

2. The Know-it-All. This person may know a lot, but it’s no fun unless you know that he knows it all. Every example you give is topped by his example. Every statement of yours is not as valid as his experience. In the beginning, he sounds helpful, but the constant interruption drives the class crazy and puts you behind your schedule.

Solution: If you are lucky, someone in the class might say, “I paid to have the instructor run this class,” in which case you can say, “Thanks for the compliment, Mary. Bill, I value your experience, maybe we can have a time later today when we all share information, but I’d like to stay on schedule till lunch.” I’ve also had good results with letting the know it all tell me when it’s time for breaks or lunch. It keeps them watching the clock and distracted.

3. The Low-Self-Esteem Downer. Everything she tries doesn’t work. She puts herself down in ways so powerful that others feel a need to encourage her, which feeds her need to be negative. If you try to draw her into participating, she prefaces every sentence with “This is probably wrong,” or “I hate myself for choosing this solution.” Like a dreadful emotional flu, others will start to mimic her.

Solution: End the spreading cycle quickly with a cheerful, “This is just practice. This classroom is where we can make mistakes and be wrong and learn from it. So I’d like you to eliminate all negative phrases and excuses so everyone is on the same level. No putting yourself down, just a focus on what you are doing right.” You will then have to enforce the “no negative” rule with a comment on how prevalent negative emotions can be and how easily they spread. That gives the other participants permission to point out negativity, including their own. Make light of it, but keep the rule in place.

Tomorrow: The Gotcha, The Passive-Aggressive, The Sulker. And an extra–The Fixer.

Quinn McDonald is an instructor in business communications and a workshop leader for raw-art journaling. She is also a life and creativity coach.