Home All 24 Ways to Like a Difficult Child

24 Ways to Like a Difficult Child

written by Denise Quinlan 2 December 2011

Denise Quinlan, MAPP '08, is a trainer with the Penn Resiliency Program and Strath Haven Positive Psychology Curriculum and is currently a PhD student focusing on strengths and subjective well being. She has over twenty years experience in management consulting. Helping people discover strengths and what makes life worth living is what Denise enjoys most, that and the joy of a good theory. Full bio. Denise's articles are here.

Most experienced teachers have struggled to like a student at some point.

Often it’s the badly behaved student who won’t play ball. Despite a teacher’s best intentions, he or she finds it hard to like or see the good in the child.

Unhappy child

Not a big deal? Wrong. Student-teacher relationships are among the most important predictors of engagement and achievement at school with an effect size of .72 (Cohen’s d). In layperson’s terms, the relationship to the teacher (and relatedness to others in the classroom) has a HUGE influence on the student’s learning and achievement. There’s more about this in the paper by Skinner and Furrer as well as in the book by Hattie.

Teachers get little training or support with building supportive relationships with students. Adopting a strengths focus can help a teacher expand his or her view of what’s right with a student. I often describe the VIA character strengths to teachers as 24 ways to like a difficult child. Identifying the strengths of their least favorite student lets most teachers experience the VIA’s potential as a relationship bridge builder in the classroom.

Teacher pointing out a strength?

When a teacher notices a strength in a student and comments on that strength, some very important things are happening in the classroom. First, the teacher is actively on the look out for what’s right with a student rather than just focusing on what’s wrong. Second, when the teacher spots a strength, they are literally seeing the good in a student and that alone can help increase regard and appreciation for the student. However, the most powerful part might be the teacher’s comment on the strength.

We know from Shelley Gable’s work that how we respond to good news can strengthen our relationships. A teacher’s comment on a student’s strength use is an active constructive response to the student’s behavior, and so is likely to increase relationship satisfaction for both parties. Building better student-teacher relationships translates into greater engagement and learning, the core business of schools.

Happier child

So far however, although strengths are often used in schools, we have focused on developing individual’s strengths to create individual benefits – making students better, faster, stronger. The social effects of strengths have been ignored. We haven’t looked at what happens to relationships when strengths are noticed in the classroom. There may be important benefits for students and teachers by adopting a strengths focus and noticing what’s good and what’s right with each other.


Furrer, C., & Skinner, E. (2003). Sense of relatedness as a factor in children’s academic engagement and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 148-162.

Gable, S., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904.

Gable, S., Reis, H., Impett, E., & Asher, E. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228-245.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

India courtesy of Anthony Kelly
Teacher Appreciation week: The Art and Craft of teaching courtesy of the Gates Foundation
Another view of India courtesy of Anthony Kelly

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Kevin Simmons 2 December 2011 - 3:09 pm

Great observation Denise. I was just thinking about the relationship between positive emotions and learning (broaden-and-build), and the extent to which a person’s affectivity would then influence their rate of learning.

Adding in the social dynamic sounds like an important practical step to increasing engagement. It seems that you are implying that noticing student’s strengths will not only help build rapport, but will also prime the student to engage that strength. This might increase positive emotions (and thus encourage learning) through two paths – a stronger relationship, and through activating the positive emotions that are associated with that strength.

I appreciate the article, and the new insights to explore.

sherry 3 December 2011 - 9:36 am

Hi Denise….we work a great deal in schools as a collective using the Nurtured Heart Approach. I presented at the world congress this year on Nurtured Heart Approach in Education and I believe what we do would give you rich data to support relationships. Indeed by taking the three stands of the approach and applying the recognitions by honoring, installing positive emotion and building “inner wealth” in the form of character strengths and values, we get rule compliance, increased test scores, reduced challenging behavior but above all, we build relationships that percolate positivity. I would love to discuss the possibilities of a research design with you!

Meryl Neiman 4 December 2011 - 10:43 pm

Great article. Those difficult children are the ones that most need a teacher’s attention and caring, but it must be so hard for teachers to meet that challenge.

Denise Q 5 December 2011 - 3:45 pm

Hi to Kevin, Sherry and Meryl,
thanks for your comments – much appreciated.
Kevin – what we’ve found is that children are often not conscious of their strengths use, so yes, I think having it pointed out to them may be helpful in developing conscious ownership and development of that strength as well as building rapport. We don’t yet know how the interplay of all this works.

Sherry, your work sounds really interesting and I really would love to hear more.
all the best,


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com