challenging learners there s no such thing

Challenging learners? There’s no such thing

In my experience, the vast majority of learners that I’m lucky enough to work with are very pleasant.  Actually, no, that’s not quite right; all of the learners that I work with are very pleasant.  This might also be your experience.

Most of them are happy to share their ideas, give their experiences and contribute to discussions in a meaningful way that adds depth and texture to discussions.  When I say ‘most’, I mean ‘almost all’.

There are other learners, however, who are facing threats – both internal and external – that can negatively impact their reactions and behaviours in the learning setting.  These behaviours consequently affect the group, individuals within the group or my ability to move the course forward.  Think: ‘Individual, Team, Task’.

As a facilitator, I have a duty of care to manage any behaviour that isn’t conducive to a productive learning experience. And that’s key: manage the behaviour.  I have no desire, nor right, to change the learner.  Having ‘unconditional regard’ for all people means that I accept them for who they are.  That doesn’t mean to say, though, that I don’t want to help them to choose alternative actions.

First things first

I’ve learned that, sometimes, considering and removing underlying reasons can be enough to manage behaviour.  The chances are that it’s nothing that I’m doing that’s causing the behaviour.  Consequently, it’s important that I don’t take it personally.  It’s worth checking, then, that the:

• Temperature in the room’s comfortable
• Furniture’s comfortable
• Group have, or will soon be, fed and watered
• Learners feel able to attend to commitments outside of the training room if they feel they need to
• Group has subscribed to the Learning Alliance
• Pace, pitch and language of delivery is at the right level for the group

If these and any other influences have been removed – and I acknowledge that I can’t control them all – it’s time to move to phase two.

Adapt the behaviour; respect the person

There are lots of strategies in your toolbox to manage behaviour.  You just might not have realised they’re available to you.  There’s no need for confrontation either.  Remember: ‘unconditional regard’.

If a learner’s doing this…                                    Try doing this….                                              
Asking irrelevant questions Defer them until a more appropriate time
Lacking in contributions Use specific question techniques to encourage them to take part
Getting heavy eyelids Change the activity to get them moving around
Chatting to the person next to them Move close to them
Checking their mobile phone Be silent and still
Continually late back from breaks Remind them about the Learning Alliance


There are so many more things that learners do during a learning intervention.  Sometimes, they know they’re presenting challenges.  Other times, they don’t.  Whatever they’re doing, there’s a strategy that you can put into place to help them choose an alternative, more productive behaviour.

What challenging behaviours have you experienced?  What strategies did you try and how successful were they?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Paul Edmondson is an international L&D Consultant and Head of Training at .


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