9 Tips for Working with “Difficult” Populations

“Troubled”, “High Risk”, “Difficult”, these are just some of the names that we label our students. With displays of symptoms of underlying problems, we often see behavior that can involve aggression towards self or others, extreme “attention-seeking”, low self-esteem or disproportionately inflated sense of arrogance, substance use, general disrespect towards authority figures, and more.  Admittedly, these kids are not always the easiest to work with. It takes endless amounts of patience, training, experience, and compassion to work with many “at-risk” students. That said if you are in a leadership role (teacher, coach, counselor, etc.) you can be a role model and show behaviors they may have not been exposed to before. While it may seem obvious that as a leader you will display compassion, authenticity, and patience, these youth may have never seen an adult act in this way before. In addition, it can be difficult to dig deep and find your own stride as you roll with their behaviors.

Here are 9 tips on how to maintain your cool under the pressure of working with difficult populations.

  1. Be authentic. Teens can smell it from a mile away if you’re not. Don’t try to “be cool”, just be yourself. You can even poke fun at yourself. Try “Alright, teach me. What is _____” and fill in the blank with the latest phrase/trend. Urban Dictionary.com is always a good place to start your research (making sure that whatever they are saying is situation-appropriate, of course). VSCO girl? Yeet? It’s hard to keep up! Have fun with it!
  2. Listen, listen, listen! No one likes to be lectured at, even if you’re in a lecture hall in college. Teens with behavioral symptoms have likely experienced some level of trauma. Some can have notably short attention spans, so save the lectures for academic settings. You can learn a lot more about a situation by asking questions rather than by preaching your own gospel.
  3. “Attention seeking” can really just be “connection seeking”. When we choose to see behaviors as symptoms, our response becomes more proactive”. Did the student who knocked over a bunch of chairs and then sit in the corner and pout just feel particularly destructive or are they trying to cope with emotions they don’t know how to handle yet? These “connection craving” behaviors could really just be a call for a teachable moment and some time spent with a trusted adult.
  4. Safety and natural consequences. Kid loses their cool and punches a brick wall? Try talking with the kid after the hand is on the mend (or on the walk to the nurse’s) about what led up to that display of anger, what alternative options they could have chosen. Try to encourage the student to identify their emotion and discuss the ramifications of their actions. Remember, timing is everything. Try not to push deep conversation too soon after a blow up as it will fall on deaf ears.  The student’s brain is still in fight-or-flight mode, so this may not be the best time for processing.
  5. From “Arrogance and Ignorance” to “Transparency and Authenticity”. Adolescent ego-centrism is a normal part of development, but learning how to work as a team is the next step in brain development in the teen years.  By role modeling that it is OK to sometimes say “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will find out and get back to you as soon as I do”, or “wow, that hurt my feelings. Can we talk it out?” can teach many lessons.
  6. Work with your team. It is OK to take a “tap out” when you’re noticing yourself about to lose your patience. Take a break. Grab a snack. Breathe! Find a common language with your staff. “I’m going to check in with the team about our schedule” is great code for “I’m about to lose it on this more-than-difficult kid. Help, please!”
  7. Go for a walk with your student(s). Remaining mindful of your organization’s policies on one-on-one time, sometimes when a youth (or even an adult) is acting out, what they are really trying to say is “I need someone to be beside me during this really hard situation”. Plus, a change of scenery, some fresh air, and physical activity can have strong impacts on emotion.
  8. Follow through with your words. Did you promise to take the crew out for ice cream if they behaved? Did you say, “If you do that one more time, I will have to…” Even if it is uncomfortable to enforce the rules or actually do what you said you were going to, it is vital for youth to see consistency between words and actions. You’re there to be their role model, not their BFF.
  9. Educate yourself. Certain populations require some extra training to work with. It could be to your best benefit to explore certain areas that may be common to your workplace. Populations such as CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children), addicts, LGBTQ, offense-specific sexual offenders, and refugees are all examples of groups that can benefit from having a well-informed professional on their side to be informed upon the struggles and situations each individual population may face. Not one size fits all in our interactions.

Perhaps we should change the way we begin our interactions with “at-risk” populations. By labeling them immediately as “troubled” or “high-risk” simply from the name of the program it can change their own perception of self. If we set expectations directly from the start (“Future Leaders”, for example), chances are that our clients/students/children will rise to meet that expectation.  We must remember that underneath all of these outward behaviors is usually just a person seeking to form a connection with a trustworthy individual- you have the ability to make a tremendous difference and be that person.