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When Good Kids Go Bad: Handling Problem Students

Dealing with problem students in a classroom is something that all teachers have to deal with.

By 5 min read 13

I’ve been teaching English for more than 8 years, in that time, I’ve met students from a variety of backgrounds, ages and abilities. As much as I love being a teacher, there are some students that are more challenging than others.

These students can present some of the most satisfying and absolutely frustrating moments of your teaching life. Japanese culture, with its hive mentality ideology and emphasis on group harmony can sometimes amplify these problems still further.

I am, of course, referring to students with learning difficulties.

The term “learning difficulties” is so broad and diverse, to try and cover all aspects in a single article is nigh on impossible. So today we will look at possibly the most common problem both foreign and Japanese teachers will face in the classroom, students with behavioural problems.

Please remember that there is no set way to tackle these issues, each teacher must adapt their own approach and develop their own style. Please also note that Japan is a unique culture and as such Japanese students present a unique set of challenges in this regard.

Contrary to the stereotype of the quiet, shy and subservient Japanese student, public schools in Japan have seen a huge increase in disruptive and violent behaviour in recent years. The somewhat obtuse interpretation that the Education Ministry has of Japan’s constitution does little to ease the problem.

According to the Japanese constitution: Every student in Japan has an equal right to an education.

Personally, I would interpret this as: each student’s rights must be respected equally and teachers must do all they can to ensure a safe and secure teaching environment for all. However, the Education Ministry has interpreted this as “It is unconstitutional to individually discipline a student, as all students must be treated equally.”

This often leads to anarchy in the classroom as powers that teachers in other countries would take for granted such as detention, removal from the classroom, suspension and exclusion are stripped away. Japanese teachers are left with few tools in their arsenal for combatting increasingly defiant students.

As an assistant to our Japanese colleagues, officially ALTs are not supposed to have any input into student discipline, but the reality is we often have to help out our colleagues, it is after all supposed to be “team-teaching”.

So what can we do to make a more harmonious classroom? Actually there’s quite a lot we can do.


One of the biggest differences between Japanese schools and schools elsewhere is the altered relationship dynamic between teachers and students. In many regards, students consider themselves on the same level as teachers, and will think nothing of approaching teachers directly with any issues they may have. This is the polar opposite to school in my native Scotland, where students are left with no illusions as to who is in charge in the classroom, students know their place and there is always a distance between them and their teachers.

This can be used to your advantage however. I have always found that the best teachers I have worked with, the ones who have the best control of their classroom are the ones who take the time to get to know their students.

Between classes, take time out to talk with your students, practice your Japanese, or even try to encourage the kids to use simple English. It will make the world of difference. If you can engage with the so-called “bad kids” in your classes, they will, in most cases, be a lot easier to control in the classroom.

Along similar lines, before you teach a new class for the first time, ask your Japanese colleague about the students. Do any of them have special needs? Do any of them have family problems or personal issues? Is there any suggestion of bullying amongst these students? These are all huge contributory factors to classroom behaviour, and understanding them will give you a massive advantage in the classroom.

It’s also very important to keep calm. We all remember the scene in the classic movie “Kindergarten Cop” where Arnold Schwarzenegger, unable to cope with the chaos he sees around him, screams at his 5 year old charges to “SHUUUUT UUUUUUP!”

Funny though it may be to see a teacher crack like this on-screen, the reality is that losing the plot in front of your students will only attract ridicule, and if the disruptive elements in your classroom know they can get to you, this will only embolden them further.

Always keep your cool, don’t rise to the bait. To use internet parlance “Don’t feed the trolls!”

Instead, always present a positive atmosphere in your classroom. Reward and praise good behaviour and positive contributions at every opportunity. Some would disagree, but I honestly believe, in a country with as many self-conscious people as Japan, a teacher can never give too much praise to his students. Japanese are naturally reluctant to express themselves in most contexts, for fear of breaking the social harmony. This presents particular problems in the English classroom as foreign languages, by their very nature, require a high level of speaking and personal expression. A little encouragement goes a long, long way.

Conversely, where bad behaviour rears its ugly head, ignore it. As much as is feasibly possible, do not respond to bad behaviour, do not entertain tantrums, and above all keep calm.

Teaching students with behavioural problems can be a frustrating experience. However, when you do finally turn it around, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a class of wannabe hooligans transformed into angelic model pupils.

Most of all, stay positive!

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  • Jem Bascon says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article, ive been browsing this kind of articles, to learn / adopt to the things i wanted to know. I’m also studying to be a teacher in japan, these kinds of things really crossed my mind lately. I believe that being positive/understanding is the key on this kind of work enviroment , for you to be connected with your students. Again, thank you for this wonderful tips!

  • kayumochi says:

    When I first began teaching at a local KOSEN (non-ALT) I had a bunch of bad boys, engineering students all. What a disaster. Then in time I learned if I could win the leaders over the sheep would follow right along. I never had any problems after that and learned to enjoy the bad boys.

  • Ronald Ivan says:

    I’m studying to be a teacher in Japan now. So naturally, I’m curious as to what counts as ‘bad behaviour’ in Japan. Is it as the Japanese dramas and movies depict it (G.T.O., Crows, Gokusen, etc)?

    • primalxconvoy says:

      From first and second hand experience, bad behaviour in state schools in Japan (Gunma) ranged from trailer trash high school girls using mobile phones to talk/text in class, skinhead junior school boys throwing books given to them on the floor and grunting uninterest to a foreign teacher on day one, to children of yakuza parents stabbing foreign teachers (and the TEACHER being reprimanded or moved, rather than the child due to fear of the Japanese Mafia).

      In private conversation schools, I’ve encountered a5 year old boy who hit his mother with chair, boys exposing their genitals during class, and screaming continuously during a demo class.

      Generally though, most kids will just be too noisy, not do homework and not sit down in class. In state schools, many might be unwilling to communicate in English and say “Eigo yadda/Eigo wakaranai” (“I don’t want to speak your stupid English/I can’t be bothered to understand silly English”) or follow instructions.

    • Tom says:

      I wouldn’t know, I’m still a highschool student myself. But one thing is for sure, the OP is obviously not a teacher like Onizuka! If I were to be a teacher in Japan, I’d want to be the cool teacher everyone wants as their homeroom teacher haha. I’d try to be on the same level as my students as much as possible and remove the social gap between the teacher-student relationship.

      • primalxconvoy says:

        Being a foreigner, I doubt that would ever happen ..

        • Tom says:

          It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.

          • kayumochi says:

            impossible. sorry to burst your bubble but that ain’t how japan works. you may find yourself teaching a class of high school kids eikaiwa but you will never be their homeroom teacher or have any genuine responsibility in the classroom. removing the “social gap” as a gaijin in the classroom can be advantageous and a lot of fun, but it doesn’t work, and is often disastrous, in other educational settings.

  • primalxconvoy says:

    These are good points, but some things to consider are, across the whole spectrum of teaching in Japan, including Eikaiwa, International Schools (teaching Japanese learners), juku and state or private schools; is that as a foreign teacher, most negative error correction or classroom management is not an option. Monster parents, ethnocentricity, language and cultural differences, an adherence to customer service (especially in privately run institutions where patents pay money), etc all contribute to an environment of animosity towards (western) negative classroom management style.

    However, your focus upon positive management is spot on. Rewarding the group and keeping calm are vital in order to deliver a successful lesson. This is especially true as Japanese colleagues may not or will not be able to share information (in advance) concerning classroom dynamics or learner intelligence styles/behaviour. Adjusting activities to a number of intelligence styles and to the learners needs is a good way, which will need some time to achieve this.

    Regardless, as fatalistic as this may be, it is only our job to show the horses where the water is, and not to bring them to it. As long as we have delivered our lesson or instigated the classroom tasks to fulfill our teaching aims, it is best to avoid any discipline. You probably can’t lose your job for ignoring bad behaviour, but you could for trying to negatively correct it.

    • Boey Kwan says:

      As a high school student I agree. Of course, the job is to provide students with the best learning experience; it requires both curriculum and mental/emotional nurturing. ‘Good’ is not enough – making sure a smart and diligent, well-behaved generation graduates from your course is also well worth the effort. (^_-)-☆

  • Adrian Buckles says:

    Thank you for this article 🙂

    • Boey Kwan says:

      I saw your comment, and I just thought, the world needs more appreciative people! Thanks for taking the time to thank Mr. Liam 🙂 It’s quite encouraging.

      Thanks Mr. Liam 🙂



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