Managing Difficult Learners

There are a number of reasons why a learner may behave in a difficult manner and a variety of key identifiers that can alert a Trainer to what the issue may be.   

Protecting the self-esteem of learners can be a challenge for some Trainers, particularly if the learner is displaying what can be perceived as negative behaviour.

Previous negative experiences can impact on learners when they attend new training and this can include:

¨ Resentment if they have been forced to attend training they feel they don’t need

¨ They could have a learning difficulty or a special need

¨ They may be lacking confidence in their ability to learn

¨ The previous negative experience can cause them to be feeling anxious about attending current training

Some examples of difficult learners, and suggested strategies to help manage and overcome the issues are listed below.

Aggressive attitude

This is often caused because learners feel they have been imposed and forced to attend training. Usually this happens as result of the fact that they already know (or think they know) the topic so they tend to feel they will get very little benefit from attending.  

The best way to manage this situation is to ‘recruit’ the learner straight away and get them to feel valued and as though they can contribute to the session in their own way.  ‘Recruiting’ the learner means using strategies such as asking permission to call on their expertise in the subject matter at times during the session.  This usually helps them feel valued and appreciated.  

Alternatively, if a learner has made it clear that they don't want to be at the training, and it is mandatory (often the case with WHS training or First-Aid training at some workplaces for example) an option would be to state something along the lines of “I completely understand, and unfortunately due to legislative reasons this is mandatory.  I would rather be outside on a lovely day like this myself, but we are here.  Let’s try to make the most out of this situation and work together to get through it”.

Sometimes, just the fact that you have acknowledged that they don’t want to be there is enough to calm them down.

If a learner really doesn’t want to be there and everything you have tried makes it clear this is the case, don’t insist on them staying.  You have the right to ask them to leave if they are being disruptive and it is affecting you or the other participants.

Not taking the training seriously

These learners can be disruptive to the rest of the group and won’t be tolerated by learners who are keen to attend the training.  Try to remind them in a non-threatening manner what benefits they are getting from attending.   If the behaviour continues, suggest that they don’t need to be there and work out an arrangement for them to finish the training off site or even not finish it at all if they don’t want to.

Lack of participation

Learners that don’t participate could be lacking confidence, or they could be shy.  Try to get these learners to slowly add value to a session by asking them questions you think they will most certainly know the answer to so that their confidence is slowly increased.  Look for non-verbal cues from them such as their eyes looking up when you ask a question – this is likely to indicate they know the answer.  Encourage interaction with the rest of the group and get them to buddy up with a louder personality initially to give them a bit of a boost.

Talking too much during a session

Learners who monopolise a session or talk with each other a lot can be disruptive to others.  It’s great for Trainers to encourage learners to network and build a sense of community, and unfortunately sometimes as a result of that, learners talk too much!

Suggestions for learners that monopolise the session - politely wrap up what they are saying and move on.  If they ask a lot of questions, tell them you will ‘park’ the questions (write up on the whiteboard or piece of paper) and if you have time at the end you will get to them, or they can see you after the session for the answers.  

Suggestions for learners that talk a lot among themselves – keep it light and make joke of it by saying you are feeling left out of the conversation, or ask them if they want to share their thoughts with the rest of the group.

Mobile phones

This is the easiest problem to manage in any session!  Say upfront (possibly during the housekeeping component) that you would like all phones to be on silent.  If someone needs to take a call, you completely understand, after all, they are all adults, and they are free to take the call outside to avoid disrupting others.

Let them know that if they forget and the phone does ring, it’s not an issue.  In fact, it would be great as they could put it on speaker so we can all say hello.  Guaranteed you will not have a single phone ring during class!   And if happens, as soon as you ask them to put it on speaker and become excited about the prospect of saying hi to the caller, you will notice everyone starts to check their phones to make sure they have put them on silent.  Usually people jump to put their phone on silent as soon you mention it during housekeeping.

From "How to be an AWESOME Trainer" by Alicia Vaughan