Student Problems : Problem Students

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Table of contents:

  • Introduction
  • From a teacher’s point of view
  • Interview with Angelica (Welfare Officer)
  • Focus group with DOS’
  • Students – What do they think?




    The catalyst for this topic of development came about during my time at Crisis. As a teacher at Crisis I was confronted with a different demographic of student compared to our standard students at International House. Some students presented particular needs which needed to be met with different strategies by the teacher. These included mental health issues, depression and anxiety*. Although such needs are not immediately obvious with our students at International House, they must still exist. Equally, teachers at IH will be individually employing methods to deal with these situations.

    This led myself and Jo to explore the idea of ‘Problem students’- i.e.- difficult students who behave in a way that can make life difficult for teachers; and ‘Students’ problems’- i.e.- Some of the difficulties our students may face in and outside the classroom that may or may not make them behave in a certain way. When we experience difficulties in the classroom, we often search for a reason why these may be occurring and then seek to remedy it. The purpose of this ‘DIY development’ is to open this topic up for discussion to collectively consider some factors that may affect student behaviour as well as how we might manage them as a community.

    We decided to get talking to as many different people who may be able to contribute to this topic as possible. As teachers, we are forever discussing those students who get under our skin or cause us concern in some way. We conducted a focus group with IH teachers and considered some of the common problems we face with students and explored and shared our different methods of dealing with them. We also spoke with the Dos’ who we were able to offer us a highly experienced perspective on these issues, as well as an insight into some of the problems students have and disclose to them in ‘Student Hour’. We also spoke to Angelica, our welfare officer, whose first-hand experience with the students of IH offered us an insight into the various problems our students may be facing. Finally, we asked some students about their experiences and what they consider to be the hardest aspects of life as a student and as a foreigner.

     *While at Crisis, I received training in what is called ‘Mental Health First Aid.’ It was a fascinating training session that dealt with the symptoms, effects and risk factors of Depression, Anxiety Disorders and Psychosis. We were trained in how to recognise such conditions and provide initial help before guiding sufferers towards appropriate professional help. Not only was this helpful in equipping me to deal with some of our clients at Crisis, I also believe it gave me a deeper understanding of human relations and communication in general which everyone can benefit from! If you are interested, I have the contents of the training in a manual given to us when we completed the course. Please let me know if you would like to borrow it!

    Back to top


    From a teacher’s point of view

    There’s just no getting away from the fact that, on occasion, a teacher will encounter a student that causes a problem. Sometimes it’s a problem for the teacher, sometimes the other students, sometimes everyone. To examine what some IH teachers perceived problems are, and how they deal with those problems (or don’t) we held a teachers’ focus group. Some really great ideas and debate came out of the discussion, and I think we all felt a certain relief at hearing that other teachers experience the same problems we do. So let’s have a look at some of the problems, and some solutions that various teachers have suggested. But, let’s bear in mind that everyone has their own way of dealing with things and what works for one teacher may not work for another.


    The Apathetic Student


    A common problem in classes, particularly with long-term students or students who have been ‘sent’ rather than those who have chosen to come.


    Talk to them.

    Talk to the whole class about lack of motivation and ways to combat it.

    Personalise a lesson: Stray from the food/family/towns norm and do something different that a student has shown an interest in. (Although it was pointed out that when you do this, and then that student misses that class, it can be a little frustrating.)

    Don’t take it personally. Easier said than done.

    Show your frustration if it’s appropriate.

    Get some anonymous feedback on a Friday, on what you’ve done and what you’re going to do next week. You might find they are happier than you think. Or vice versa.

    Don’t lower your expectations of what they can do. Make you expectations clear, keep them high and encourage the students to live up to them.


    The Late Student


    Jean’s experience of talking to the class about lateness and finding that ‘sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t’ is probably a universal feature of life in the classroom. So, as Jean asks, how do we take it to the next stage?


    First remember: any excuse may be genuine. Even a student who is 15 minutes late every day may, on the day you decide to ask them about it, have a genuine excuse.

    Also: Don’t wait for people, start your lessons straight away.

    Do a true/false quiz near the start of the course to explain how attendance is marked, how absences work, what good reasons for being late are, etc. Explaining that being late means their attendance drops can have an effect. (Probably one of the best solutions, in my opinion. Thanks Cat)

    Try to enforce a late rule, i.e. if you’re late you must sing a song.

    Talk to them at break time and try to find out the real excuse.

    Erase the travel excuse: show them the TFL website and help them plan their journey better.

    Ask them what time they go to bed.

    Some students respond to you making them aware that everyone notices how consistently late they are.

    Have a class discussion about it; let other students say what they think about constant lateness.

    Use your common sense. If a late student is going to seriously interrupt an activity you could ask them to come back after the break, or in 10 minutes, or to wait outside until you ask them to enter, but without knowing their reason for being late this could be unfair. Asking a student to sit at the back of the class and wait for the activity to be over would involve them more. If you choose either of these options you’ve got to be professional about it and not let it seem like you’re treating them like a naughty child.


    The Talker


    In pairs, in groups, in whole-class discussions, this student just loves the sound of their own voice. They dominate and other students, especially shy ones, find it hard to get a word in edge ways.


    Use interaction patterns, do activities where students have to invite others to speak, “What do you think?”. We do this with exam classes, and it could be used in GE too. (Thanks Martin)

    In whole class discussions use a slowly closing hand to signal to a talker that it’s time to wrap-up and shush. Conditioning the whole class to this helps. (Thanks Caroline)

    Point out that they’ve been talking a lot. “Oh, Jeff’s doing all the work everyone. Does someone else have an idea?”

    A good old-fashioned shush.


    The Student Who Won’t Work In Pairs.

    (Generally, or for cultural reasons)


    N.B. Everyone agreed – you’ve got to respect cultural beliefs/differences.


    From Nicola’s example, we can see that talking to a student may help, as there may be an underlying reason why they don’t work well in pairs. It may not be just that they are anti-social, but they may not see the benefit of it or may find it too frustrating a task.

    This seems to be quite situation-specific and finding out why will often lead you towards a solution.

    Explaining the way we teach here, and that we focus on communication, which involves a lot of pair work and sometimes teaching grammar in a different way to that which they might have previously been used to, can often help.


    The I Want The Book/ I Want Grammar/I Don’t Like The Communicative Nature Of These Classes Student


    This also extends to students who don’t like the way we teach, or want a more prescriptive grammar course.


    Listen to a student’s problem with a method or activity. Try to explain why you teach in a certain way.


    The Non-Gelling Class




    Lots of books in the library tackle this problem, and most of them suggest a large number of activities you can try out:

    The Confidence Book, Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri, Longman 1990 – Useful for exercises to encourage building trust between students and other students, and students and the teacher.

    Classroom Dynamics , Jill Hadfield, OUP 1992 – Lots of activities for classes to help with group cohesion, taking it from forming a group to maintaining it and then ending it.

    Dealing with Difficulties, Luke Prodromou & Lindsay Caulfield, DELTA Publishing 2007 – Hundreds of activities. Includes sections suggesting help for teaching exam classes and mixed-level classes.

    I just did a variation on ‘Fruit Salad’ which I think I found in the Prodromou book, and jolly fun it was too.


    The Isolated Student

    Problem and Solutions: (Thanks Jayne!)



    And finally…. There’s a section on classroom management in the library with a variety of books, some of which have been mentioned here. In addition if you’re having difficulties teaching a particular nationality (either through cultural differences, learning/teaching style differences, or what-have-you) then read up on that nationality in Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems, ed. Michael Swan and Bernard Smith, CUP 2001.

    Finally you can read Rose Senior’s columns. She’s got some interesting ideas on dealing with discord. Check them out at

    Back to top

    Interview with Angelika

    One person who has been dealing with IH students’ problems for nine whole years is Angelika, our very experienced and trained welfare officer! We met with her to get an idea of the common difficulties students come to her with and the process by which they are dealt with. Angelika’s role is to assist students if they have any personal or emotional problems- i.e. – home sickness, loneliness or just needing someone to talk to.

    As we discovered, ‘just needing someone to talk to’ is the most common reason that students go to Angelika. She described how many students come to her just wanting to vent about what is going on in their lives and the frustrations that they are having. She often says very little and just listens and lets them know that they are not alone.

    Some common problems students report are as follows:

    –       Accommodation- not being happy with where they are living and feeling generally unsettled.

    –       Not being used to living alone and feeling overwhelmed by this. (Angelika noted that this often transforms into a positive experience as students learn to be more independent and are very happy for it.)

    –       Homesickness

    –       Insomnia

    –       Depression

    The last three can especially contribute to absence and lateness and perhaps even some of the behavior in class that we considered in our teacher focus group. If there is a deeper reason for such behavior, we all agreed that Angelika’s role should be better promoted so that students know that there is someone who will listen, support and give confidential advice on a range of issues. For issues that Angelika is not qualified to counsel on she has a number of sources of help at hand to which she can refer students.


    Focus group with DOS’

    We have all heard of ‘Student hour’ and wondered what is disclosed to our dear DOS’ between the hours of 12.30 and 1.30pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays in room 110 (just in case you didn’t know!) We thought getting some feedback from the DOS’ about this hour, and hearing of their views on the topic, would give us some ideas about the types of problems students typically experience during their time at IH. We all agreed that student welfare and support is much more prominent in ESOL environments and in organisations such as Crisis, and that perhaps it is something that IH could develop more.

    The issues we discussed existed in and outside the classroom and ranged from ‘being uncomfortable’ during class, to being mugged (twice in one week!). Some common problems are as follows:

    –         Being completely overwhelmed.

    –         Feeling stressed

    –         Feeling scared

    –         Feeling ‘out of place’ and intimidated.

    –         Feeling uncomfortable in class (due to a range of reasons such as the teacher/students/ teaching style.)

    Although some of our students are well-travelled, street savvy people, many are quite the opposite. Several have come from a protected environment in their own country and are outside of this setting for the first time. Some are ‘just kids’ and do not know how to look after themselves.  As Angelika also confirmed, many are unhappy with their accommodation and feeling extremely unsettled as a result. Many suffer from ‘Culture Shock’ and find it very difficult to overcome the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a different country; as well as the shock of being separated from the important people in their life who would normally give them support and guidance.

    In relation to issues within the classroom, we discussed the ethos that students have about complaining or relating problems that they may have. We asked the DOS’s why they thought that students went straight to them instead of going to their teacher first when unhappy in class.  They suggested that it is sometimes a matter of culture, and specifically, respect, where students feel they are being disrespectful or critical if they report any kind of trouble in class. 

    So what can we do to encourage our students to talk to us?!

    We agreed that it is important to let students know what support is available to them from which sources at International House. This could be achieved by:

    –         Informing students of the practical help they can get and referring them to the Student Handbook section ‘How can we help?’ This could be done on Monday Week 1 and 3.

    –         Informally letting students know that you are an accessible teacher that they may come to should they need to.

    –         Holding deeper ‘counselling’ sessions 2-4 times a month to have an individual, informal chat with each student to check that they are happy and to give them an opportunity to convey any problems they may be having. It was suggested that this could be done during a SAC slot.

    Students – What do they think?

    Students are, naturally, unwilling to discuss any deeply personal problems, particularly if there’s a video camera being waved in their faces. Maybe they don’t have any deeply personal problems. Maybe they do.  We’ve already covered what a lot of the classic problems IH students have are, but it’s pretty interesting to hear students themselves discussing what they percieve to be problems they have. After the videos we’ve included some quotes that students included in questionnaires we asked them to fill in. See what you think.

    But first, here are some talking head videos with students. See what they think!


    Elisa discusses the ups and downs of being a long term student at IH.


    Leyla discusses the personal change that can occur in students, especially how they can become more open-minded when exposed to a variety of other cultures.



    Hannan discusses not fitting into society, cultural differences, and having difficulties settling down.



    Hyungjoo talks about cultural differences impacting within the classroom, particularly when some students are more likely to be loud and others more likely to be quiet.


    Shabs discusses how getting nervous about not being able to generate writing ideas can negatively impact her writing.




    Lola talks about frustration when student interaction goes awry. She also discusses problems with unsatisfactory host families.


    Liana talks about timetables, feeling tired, cultural differences, and doing pairwork.


    Mashar is pretty happy with life here, and appreciates how helpful and supportive teachers can sometimes be, especially when it comes to homesickness.



    Christos discusses the joy of passives. No really, he does.


     Some students filled out questionnaires to feedback to us on ‘Being an IH student.’ A majority of the feedback was positive, but the following comments offer a small insight into some of the problems they may have:

     ‘The teacher could take better care of you, maybe if the class is with less students.’

    ‘I have problems with talkative people who never let you talk or never let the teacher talk.’

    ‘Sometimes teachers could be more motivating.’

    ‘Drilling in the class is really stressful. It is very hard to concentrate.’

    ‘I don’t like to talk about my problems.’

     ‘Different level students are a big problem.’

    ‘It depends on the student, but sometimes I find it difficult to study together with very young students.’

    ‘I had a lot of problems with accommodation.’

    ‘Speaking- I find it hard about explain things.’

    ‘What I can say is that I thought students would be friendlier.’

    ‘There is no help desk at IH for people living in London.’

    ‘There is a lot of students that arrive late to class and disrupting the class. I think it’s rude.’

    ‘I have problems with one Brazilian girl who speak a lot and I don’t have space to learn and talk.’

    ‘I have some problems but don’t want to talk anymore..shame.’

    ‘I’m so tired.’

    ‘When I first arrived I felt embarrassed.’

    ‘I don’t want to make any trouble or complaint.’

    Most students said that if they felt ‘sufficiently supported’ at International House and that if they did have a problem they would go to reception or to their teacher.  It seems that for most students, there first port of call if they have a problem is reception:

    ‘I talk to Mr.Nobu at reception.

    ‘For all my doubts and advices I always talk to Joshua at reception.’

    ‘I was helped by Johan and I feel really grateful.’

    However, many students also said that they would go to their teacher and seemed very happy with the teacher-student relationship at IH:

    ‘I think all of teacher have a good relationship with their students, and supported all of them, and most of student have good connection with each other.’

    ‘All teachers and staff are happy to help us.’



    As can be seen, our research into the students’ opinions is not complete. There’s a lot more that could be done to research the problems students have, and find the solutions.

    As it is there are people students can talk to, but getting in a full time counsellor should be considered. Or a fully trained counsellor for a few hours a week.

    We also suggest that more research is devoted to examining what problems students really have. We feel we’ve have only scratched the surface, and that with more time, more could be achieved.

    Finally, it’s clear from talking to teachers that we all share similar problems and that if you’ve got a problem with a student, talking about it to your colleagues may help you find a solution. Don’t suffer in silence!





Leave a Reply