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A 5-Step Plan for Handling Clingy Students

An enthusiastic student handing his teacher an apple.

Everyone wins when student-teacher relationships are strong. Positive, healthy student-teacher connections can lead to better performance and higher levels of classroom engagement.

But that's when student-teacher relationships are healthy. Many teachers have dealt with clingy students—children who become overly attached, needy, or inappropriate. This type of behavior can be disruptive to other students and, in extreme circumstances, could even pose a threat to your job if you don't handle the situation correctly.

Further Reading: Can We Teach Happiness to Students?

Fortunately, there are clear steps you can take to address this issue. Here are five steps that teachers can take to handle clingy students properly.

1. Identify the Problem

First, ask yourself: What is the student doing that feels clingy or inappropriate? Is the student:

  • Spending too much time in your classroom?
  • Physically touching you or invading your personal space?
  • Treating you as though you're their friend and not their teacher?
  • Asking questions or being disruptive to gain your attention?

Identifying and documenting problems will give you the clarity you need to address the issue. It's also a good way to list and delineate specific student behaviors, which can come in handy later.

2. Set Boundaries—Then Enforce Them

Whether you're dealing with helicopter parents or creating guidelines for positive student interactions, knowing your personal boundaries as an educator—and clearly communicating this information—helps set everyone up for success.

When you're dealing with clingy students, it might be best to write down exactly what your boundaries are, whether on a piece of paper or in an email to yourself. Try to identify the behaviors that feel violating or over the line. You might not like it when students physically touch you or sit too close, or you might not like interactions that involve your personal life. Remember: This list is solely for you, so be candid.

When you're done, note how many of the clingy student behaviors you're noticing violate your boundaries. Then remind the student—or your entire class—of your expectations going forward.

3. Keep Clingy Students Engaged

Some students might be clingy just because they're bored. By keeping that student engaged and on task, you could solve the issue.

Think about when the clingy behavior normally takes place. If it's during the middle of a lesson, try building more brain breaks into your lesson plans for the next week or two. If it's during scheduled breaks, see if reducing or eliminating downtime improves the student's behavior.

You might need to tailor your engagement tactics depending on the age of the kids you teach. Elementary-age students might simply need more practice developing certain skills; older students could need additional activities or prompts that call for leadership responsibilities and socialization.

4. Reinforce Good Behavior

Some clingy students might just want attention. Kids of every age, not just those in elementary school, will go to great lengths to get noticed, especially if they aren't getting enough attention at home. They might not even care if the attention they receive is positive or negative.

It might help to reward positive behaviors.

  • For younger students, simply acknowledging their good behavior could be enough. A simple "You're doing exactly what I asked you to do" or "Good job keeping your hands to yourself!" can motivate a student to seek more positive reinforcement.
  • For students in middle school and high school, connecting their good behavior to future professional success or better social relationships can be very effective tools.

Some students simply don't pick up on social cues. You might have told a student multiple times to stop, but if they don't understand why you're saying it or comprehend that what they're doing is wrong, they might not see why it's a big deal. That doesn't excuse their behavior, and it doesn't mean you should ever feel uncomfortable; it's just a reminder that each solution is going to be unique to each student, and that deploying empathy can help.

5. Cover Your Professional Bases

If a student's clingy behavior becomes excessive and positive reinforcement isn't working, it's time to get others involved. Never feel bad about protecting yourself or taking actions that help you feel safe.

To cover your bases, you should:

  • Inform your supervisor. Explain the situation and the steps you've taken to address the problem. Do it over email so that you have something in writing, just to be safe.
  • Contact the student's parents. The earlier parents get involved, the less likely they are to be defensive about their child's behaviors. It's also a good way to have your message reinforced at home.
  • Talk to other teachers, if it seems appropriate. Maybe a colleague has experienced similar behavior and found a strategy that works.

Some other best practices:

  • Follow the rule of three. Never be in a room alone with a clingy student. Always have another person there—preferably a colleague—and keep the door open.
  • Document any inappropriate behavior. Type out each incident in detail along with how you handled the situation on a single Google Doc. (If you keep it online, it won't get lost.) Time-stamp each incident and categorize them chronologically.

Those last two steps might seem excessive, but it's best to start logging inappropriate student behaviors before they get out of hand.

Further Reading: The Importance of Mental Health Awareness in Schools

Dealing with clingy students really comes down to three things: clarity, communication, and proactive measures. Follow these steps, and you'll hopefully see your situation improve.