Keeping Up with the Students

There was a very interesting discussion on the We Are Teachers Helpliine facebook group.  A teacher wrote that her middle school students had begun saying she had “disrespected” them when she corrected them in some fashion.

Other writers said they thought the term “disrespected” didn’t mean being treated with something less than respect, but that, to the students, it meant being made to do something they didn’t really want to do, like complete class work.

The conversation was fascinating to me for a couple of reasons.  First is that I intensely curious about how language changes.  Second, I am constantly observing issues and situations that can have an effect on classroom management.

Language changes.  Fifteen years ago, I would receive phone calls from outraged parents who told me their child had come home saying, “The teacher yelled at me!”  To me, and to the parents, “yelled” meant shouting or raising one’s voice in anger.  However, to the students it meant the teacher had corrected them.  This correction could have been in a whisper but, to them, it was still considered “yelling”.

So perhaps the term “disrespected” also has changed.

I looked this up in the online Urban Dictionary.  The only reference was a post from 2007 that said “disrespected” was a means of bragging about a sexual encounter.  For example, “I totally disrespected my girlfriend last night.” 

That was eye-opening to me.  I had not heard that one before. (When did I get that far out of the loop?)

That made me start thinking about the gap between students and teachers.  It doesn’t matter how close in age the teacher is to the students, students view the teacher as an older person who cannot completely understand them.  That’s a tough realization for any teacher of any age!

I think most teachers want to understand students and build professional relationships with them.  Students expect teachers to “like” them and to “be nice”.  However, they do not expect or respect teachers who try to be just like the students.  They expect teachers to be grownups.  This is true even for high school students who struggle to be considered adults, even though they are not. 

Teachers do benefit from knowing a bit about the world in which their students live. 

But it is the exact same world, isn’t it?

No, not exactly.  The world of children (aged 5 through 17) is different than the world adults are in. 

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about being a teacher was to spend time every once in a while researching the world your students live in.  That might mean watching some of the television shows that are popular with the age group you teach.  It might mean reading a book that is very popular with the age group.  It may mean figuring out the latest popular app.  Whatever the process, we have to keep current on what it is that is shaping and influencing students.

Some years ago, I read an article about words middle and high school students were using as a sort of code for sexual acts.  The article said that young people were using the names of board games to mean particular things. 

On the one hand I was impressed that someone would come up with such an ingenious code.  On the other hand, I started to listen to what the teens I knew were saying much more closely!

So what can we do to bridge the gap?  Try these ideas:

  • Ask questions.
    If you don’t understand what a student means by a word or phrase, ask him to explain it to you.  Do this gently.  For example, you could say, “Help me understand . . .” rather than saying something like, “Just what do you mean by that?”
  • Do research.
    Read articles.  Make use of resources like Urban Dictionary.  Watch television shows aimed at an audience of that age group.
  • Teach students what particular words or phrases mean to adults.
    For example, if students are using the term “disrespected” to mean “she made me do something I didn’t want to do”, help them understand what “respect” sounds like, feels like, looks like.
  • Pay attention.
    Language changes all of the time.  It was not that long ago that saying, “That sucks!” would have been unthinkable in polite company.  Adults who work with children and youth must pay attention to what young people are saying.  If they are using words in a way that doesn’t make sense, ask questions.  But you cannot ask questions if you are not paying attention.
  • Enjoy!
    Try to look at how students use language as something interesting and fascinating.  Effective teachers like kids, even the naughty ones, and even when they don’t always understand exactly what they are saying and doing.

Have you noticed a different way your students are using words or language?  If so, please share!

Does THAT Student Have Problems with Executive Function?

Executive function is a process that takes place in our brains.  There are three main areas that make up executive functioning skills:

  • Working memory
  • The ability to think flexibly
  • The ability to control one’s impulses

Roughly translated, these skills include:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing
  • Planning what one will do to get a task done
  • Prioritizing what to do first
  • Being able to focus on a task and keeping focused until the task is complete
  • Understanding different points of view, whether that is with real humans or fictitious ones
  • Keeping one’s emotions in check
  • Keeping track of what you are doing, whether that is working on a school task or interacting with others

Most people develop these skills without much input from parents or teachers.  However not everyone does.  This is not because that kid’s parents didn’t teach him the skills.  It is not because she comes from a less-than-desirable home situation.  It is because not every person’s brain is wired in the same way.

Students who have issues with executive functioning skills often are in danger of becoming THAT student.  Their behaviors often become a thorn in the teacher’s side. 

Here are some examples of how issues with executive functioning skills might show up in the classroom:

THAT student

  • Has difficulty getting started on what he is supposed to do
  • Doesn’t seem to be able to get the task finished
  • She can’t seem to figure out what is the most important thing to do first
  • He seems to instantly forget what he just read
  • She hears directions and almost immediately forgets them
  • He can’t seem to follow directions
  • She gets the sequence of steps she’s supposed to do mixed up
  • He gets agitated, anxious, or disruptive when the classroom routine changes
  • She gets upset out of proportion when she thinks classroom procedures have changed
  • He can’t seem to get his thoughts organized so he tells or writes stories in a jumbled up sequence
  • She seems overly emotional about little things
  • He seems to fixate on things
  • She can’t keep track of her belongings
  • His desk looks like the inside of a dumpster
  • Her time management skills seem to be nonexistent

By now, you are probably thinking of a student who shows one or more of these characteristics.

You may be thinking, “This sounds like ADHD.”  Many people with ADHD also have executive functioning skills.  However, one does not have to have ADHD in order to have difficulties with executive function.

What can teachers do to help kids with executive function deficits, and keep them from melting down in the classroom?

Think about how you can explicitly teach the required skills.

For example, if you expect students to write a newspaper article, you can demonstrate that the most important information comes in the first paragraph.  Subsequent paragraphs provide the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of that important information. 

You might cut up newspaper articles and have students work with partners to put the paragraphs in a logical order.  You might work with the class to create an anchor chart.  You can refer frequently to that anchor chart.

Think about how you can scaffold the desired behavior.

Let’s take that dumpster of a desk as an example.  Many teachers have found that creating “desk maps” helps all students organize their desks. 

But just posting the map isn’t enough.  The teacher must help students use it.  For example:

Teacher:  Boys and girls, in a second I am going to tell you to put away your math workbook and get out your writing folder.  Don’t start until I tell you!  First, tell me, where does your math workbook go?  Julie?  That is correct.  Sam, tell me what Julie said.  Yes.  Very good.  Now, where will you find your writing folder?  Jack?  Hm, I think you are getting the journal and the writing folder mixed up.  Look at the anchor chart.  Yes, Jack, that is correct.

The following chart describes some of the things teachers can do to help students with executive functioning issues.

You can find a 26 page pdf booklet about executive function at
https://www.understood.org/~/media/040bfb1894284d019bf78ac01a5f1513.pdf

We can help students learn executive functioning skills!

Should teachers be afraid of parents?

It is easy to say “no” to that question, but the reality is that some teachers are afraid and some teachers should be afraid.

How can both be true?

Why some teachers are afraid of parents:

  • Many teachers do not like confrontation. 
    Sadly, some parents are habitually hostile towards teachers.  These are the parents who assume that whatever has happened, it is the teacher’s fault.  They call and are rude or holler.  They show up in the classroom, looming over the teacher in an attempt to intimidate.  Those parents can be scary!
  • Some teachers fear parents because they are pretty sure they have done something that wasn’t quite right. Maybe they did scold the wrong child.  Maybe they did make a mistake when correcting a paper.  Maybe they weren’t as polite as they could have been.  Maybe they were a bit too harsh. 
  • Maybe they really did do something wrong!
    We’ll circle back to this in a bit.

Why some parents are afraid of teachers. 

  • They had bad experiences with teachers when they were children.
    Maybe teachers did not help them, compared them to siblings or blamed them for things that were not their fault.  Maybe they were told they’d never amount to anything.  An adult who was alienated from education as a child will be unlikely to see educators as trustworthy.
  • They think teachers will blame them if their child is not well-behaved, learning at an acceptable pace, etc.
    Sadly, teachers DO blame parents!  Teachers seem to classify many parents into several categories: 
    • parents who don’t care and who, therefore, don’t discipline their children, or who ignore their child’s education, or needs.  They don’t show up for conferences, do not answer emails or return phone calls.  These are also, according to some teachers, the ones who dress their children in dirty clothes, clothes too large or two small, or not appropriate for the weather.  They seem too busy to get school supplies, or who take children shopping on a school night instead of doing homework.
    • Helicopter parents who hover over children.  They are the ones who never let children make decisions.  They call and holler about a first grader earning a poor grade because it will allegedly keep the him/her out of a good college.  They do their child’s homework, or make excuses for their child.
    • Indulgent parents who seem to only want to be their child’s friend.  These are the parents who don’t potty train children before kindergarten, who let children stay up late or sleep in, the ones who do not discipline children, or the ones who buy the child everything under the sun.

There is another group of parents that is rarely mentioned:  parents who are legitimately concerned about how their child is treated in school.

A parent I know has a child who has a genius IQ and a learning disability.  She does not have an IEP because she has been able to earn “acceptable” grades despite the learning disability.  That is, she’s been able to earn a D rather than an A. 

What this child does have is a 504 plan. 

Let’s take a little aside here and explain the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan.  Both are legal plans that define accommodations for legally recognized learning differences.  The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) defines the kinds of specialized instruction and related services the child is supposed to receive.  A 504 plan does not require specialized instruction.  It defines the accommodations that will ensure the student’s  academic success and access to the learning environment.

So the main difference is that one required specialized instruction from a person trained to deliver that kind of instruction or services.  A 504 plan requires accommodations to instruction that can be delivered by a “regular” teacher.

The child has a recognized learning difference, but only needs accommodations, not specialized instruction, to ensure her academic success and full access to the learning environment.

The problem is that almost to a person, none of this child’s teachers have honored the 504 plan!  And she is now in high school!

The parent is not a helicopter parent.  She is not an indulgent parent.  She is certainly not alienated from education; she has a master’s degree and beyond.  We certainly cannot say this parent doesn’t care, ether.  Yet she has been accused of all of the above by teachers.

All she wants is for teachers to do what the 504 plan says they are supposed to do.

The teachers have given a number of reasons why they haven’t done this. 

  • They didn’t know she had a problem.
  • They don’t know how to do the accommodations.
  • They don’t see why she needs accommodations.
  • They say they think the mother is just trying to have the daughter’s grades inflated.
  • They say they don’t have time to make those accommodations.

Quite frankly, these teachers have simply frustrated both the parent and the student.  And the parent is angry.

So back to the original question:  should teachers be afraid of parents?

  • They SHOULD NOT be afraid if they
    • are reaching out to all parents to let them know what they’ve noticed that is good about their child.
    • genuinely like students.
    • welcome parents as allies in the child’s education.
    • have a good relationship with parents and make a mistake like those described previously.
    • Keep parents informed of concerns before concerns grow too large or have gone on too long.
  • They SHOULD be afraid if they
    • Don’t actually like all students
    • Don’t respect parents.
    • Aren’t doing what each student needs to be successful.
    • Aren’t following the law.

Teachers go into teaching to make a difference.  None that I know would ever say they are teachers to damage children or to make their lives miserable.

Sadly some teachers become jaded.  Some are frustrated with working conditions, administration, or students whose needs challenge their know-how.  Some develop beliefs that they know better than anyone else what a student needs.  Some may be right, but none should deny a student accommodations designed to help that child be successful.

If a teacher has a student with a 504 plan, find out what accommodations are.  Ask colleagues for help on how to do this if you don’t know how.  And above all, work with the child’s parents. 

In an Age of Technology, Should Schools Teach Handwriting?

Edutopia recently posted an article on handwriting.  (https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-teach-handwriting-and-why-it-matters )  The article does an excellent job of explaining how handwriting supports learning to read, and what happens in the brain when we write by hand.

I currently live in an area where school districts have committed to being paperless.  Curriculum directors have told teachers that it is pointless to teach children to memorize facts like math facts, or to learn to write using paper and pencil.  Why?  They said children are living in such a technological society that all facts will be available through phones or other devices and everyone will keyboard instead of write.

By contrast, the very expensive Waldorf schools generally limit any technological devices.  They do not have a one-to-one program.  Technology in grades K-8 is often limited to just a few devices used for special research.  The schools recommend parents limit technology use as well.

Who would send their children to such a school?  Many children have parents who work in Silicon Valley, at Google, or Microsoft.  Granted, those parents can afford the tuition – tuition equivalent to many mid-westerners total yearly net pay.  But it is far more than being about how exclusive the school is. 


View a 10 minute video filmed by CNBC about these tech-free schools:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAZ-fuWdz8M


Organizations like the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic recommend limiting screen time drastically.  They say studies show that US children in elementary school, on average, spend more than seven hours per day focused on screens.  The result is obesity, poor social skills, irregular sleep patterns, and behavior problems.

“Screen time” is defined by a person watching TV, using a computer, and using one’s phone. 

Guidelines synthesized from several sources say screen time should be limited:

  • Ages 0-2 years            no screen time
  • Ages 3-4 years            no more than one hour per day
  • Ages 5-10 years          one to one and a half hours per day
  • Ages 11-13 years        up to 2 hours per day

I can imagine the shocked gasps from people reading those numbers.  So  many public schools have students in those age brackets using more than the recommended amount of screen time. 

What would schools do without having students using technology?  That takes us back to the article about the advantages of teaching handwriting.

I have my own experience with what happens when schools do not teach handwriting.

Several years ago I volunteered in a fourth grade classroom.  The teacher was trying to differentiate math.  I was asked to work with a group of children who were struggling with double digit multiplication.

What I discovered shocked me.

  • They did not know multiplication was serial addition – 9 X 4 = 9+9+9+9
  • They did not know multiplication facts
  • They did not understand place value
  • They were unable to write a single numeral in a one inch square on one inch graph paper.

That last point is one I would add to the Edutopia article on handwriting:  If one cannot write well enough to form legible numerals, math will be significantly difficult.

The Iowa Reading Resource Center sent out a letter in May 2019.  It says, in part, “The absence of standards for learning to write in print or cursive may have communicated to educators and families that handwriting is no longer relevant.”

The letter stresses the importance of teaching handwriting skills in literacy development.


You can read the Iowa Reading Research Center’s letter here:  https://iowareadingresearch.org/blog/importance-handwriting-instruction


I highly recommend that teachers read the letter and begin having a discussion with curriculum leaders about how schools can reintroduce handwriting.  It may really make a difference in children’s lives.

The Classroom Decor Dilemma

Have you started checking out Pinterest for ideas on how to decorate your classroom this year?

We all want a good looking classroom.  I know.  Really, I do!  However, I’m going to suggest something that might make you feel a bit anxious:  don’t sweat it!

Seriously, think about how you feel when you spend lots of time and energy and, yes, money on having the best decorated classroom.  Now think about how you feel if the students mess it up, or, worse, ruin something.  Pretty awful, isn’t it?

Think about why kids may not show appreciation for all the hours you’ve spent on having a lovely classroom.  I often hear teachers blaming parents or children who “have no respect”.  I’d like to suggest another reason:  Students don’t necessarily value the time you’ve spent on décor, because you have spent the time on décor.

Let me put that in terms of another of Roe’s Rules:  the person(s) who put the most work into the room, have the most appreciation for that work.

It used to infuriate me when kids would mark up a lovely poster I put by the pencil sharpener, or when they would ignore a beautifully composed bulletin board.  One day I thought, to heck with it (using a more adult idiom), I’m just going to let the kids do it.  I was busy, after all, planning lessons, taking a class, and being a single mom. 

I took down that lovely bulletin board and left it blank.  When the students completed some work, I had the students put some of it up.  I didn’t spend time making a brilliant anchor chart,  we completed one together, and we put it up. 

Soon we had a room “decorated” with the work the students had done, and anchor charts cataloging the skills we were learning.  And before long, I noticed my stress level had gone down a bit.  I wasn’t constantly feeling under-appreciated.

That’s all well and good, but let’s face it, there are a lot of pressures on teachers to have a well-decorated room.  We also know that those pressures can lead to stress and burn-out! So what can we do about it?

Head, Face, Stress, Flame, Burn, Fire, Old, Voltage

Let’s look at some of the pressures we put on ourselves regarding room decor and what we can do about it.

What will parents think of me?
If your school has a back-to-school night, you might worry that parents seeing a bare room will think less of you.  Here are some ideas on how to cope with that.

  • Have a well-organized room and label where everything is.
  • On the bulletin board, put a sign that says “watch this space for how we are learning”, or something similar.
  • Put up a display of things the students did last year – photos of the room or of children working (blot out faces) – with a note about how “we learned so much last year!” or “Some of the wonderful things we look forward to learning.”

Students will worry that I won’t be any fun!
One of the best ideas for the first day of school, besides teaching procedures, is to show students what they will be doing and learning this year.  Make it seem like the very best movie trailers, or make it a show of “coming attractions”.  Your attitude and enthusiasm will show them that they have nothing to worry about.

What will other teachers think of me?
Let’s face it:  teachers can help other teachers have unrealistic ideas on what they should do.  They can be a serious source of peer pressure!  Stand firm and say something like:

  • I am so excited about showcasing the students’ work this year!
  • I decided to take one bit of stress off my plate.
  • I want to make it our classroom this year.
  • Wow, your room looks terrific!  You must have spent a lot of your summer planning lessons.  I guess I was not that organized. 
  • I’m spending my time now planning really terrific units.

The principal will look sideways at me!
Explain to the principal:

  • Students have not been as appreciative of your decorating efforts in the past and it led you to feel a bit of resentment for them. 
  • You want to have a truly student-centered classroom this year and having the students help with the décor is the first step.
  • You want a pleasant room, yes, and you want to spend more time planning really effective lessons this year.
  • Research has shown that classroom walls that are too cluttered interfere with student learning — see Association for Psychological Science and Carnegie Mellon University 

Stress leads to burn-out and burn-out leads to a whole lot of awful things that happen to our bodies and our souls. Quitting teaching is the least of it! We can remove some of those stressors!

Map, Learn, School, Courage, Training, Skills, Teaching

Remember, effective teachers do not spend their time making the classroom look like it should appear on the cover of Better Schools and Classrooms, even if there was such a publication.  Effective teachers plan for effective classroom management and effective instruction. 

And to be the most effective, we have to set some of those stressors aside!

Planning for THAT Student

The Fourth of July always seems to mark when I start thinking about school again.  I take a walk and see an unusual stone and pick it up for the classroom.  A friend starts to throw out something and I snag it thinking I can use it for this or that.  I’m sure you have had similar experiences.

It is also time when we start thinking about the students we will have in the coming year.  We look forward to getting to know new students to the grade.  As pleasant as that can be, we worry a bit about THAT student, the one we’ve heard so much about, or have had in class before.  Thinking about THAT student can tie our stomachs in knots.

The teachers I know report that the number of challenging students has changed, and the kind of behavior these students demonstrate has become more violent.

Articles about the nation’s schools seem to indicate that the number of students with behavior problems has not actually increased, but that the intensity of their behavior has. 

What can teachers do now to have a better 2019-2020 school year?

The first step to find a way to make ourselves think about THAT student’s behavior in a different way.  Every time a student acts out, she is sending a message.  We must think like detectives to decode the message.  We cannot just conclude the behavior stems from some fundamental core of “bad child”. 

The fact is that less than 1% of the whole population can be considered psychopaths, people who do not have that little voice inside their heads telling them what they are doing is right or wrong, people who can be considered “bad” in their souls.  This means that the student who throws a temper tantrum, who swears at the teacher, who flinches when someone comes near them, or who seems to over-react to the simplest thing is not bad.  They are not trying to get on your last nerve.  They are sending you a message.

This is where we have to start looking at patterns. 

Some are easier to see than others.  The child who has to use the bathroom the minute the class is supposed to work on math is likely trying to avoid math.

Other patterns are a bit more difficult to decipher.

There is much being written lately about the effects of childhood trauma or exposure to trauma.  These students may have short tempers, meltdown easily, or be unable to switch smoothly from one task to another. 

Children who experience trauma have classroom difficulties in five main areas:  forming bonds with others, hypervigilance, negative thinking, issues with self-regulation, and with executive function.

Forming bonds with others
Clues we can expect to see are:

  • Being wary of adults
  • Suspecting adults have an ulterior motive for being nice to them
  • Not knowing how to make friends with other children
  • Being “clingy” with children and/or adults

Hypervigilance
Hypervigilance is defined as being extremely alert for possible danger.  Children who are hypervigilant may give these clues:

  • Flinching when someone comes too close
  • Requiring more personal space than other children
  • Positioning himself on the edge of a group
  • Jumping or startling in situations that do not seem to require that reaction
  • Consistently expressing that this child or that is out to “get” her

Negative Thinking
Negative thinking is, in essence, seeing the world as a glass half-empty.  They have been led to believe they are “bad kids” and bad kids just don’t do well in school, or in life.  Clues about negative thinking may be:

  • Figuring that adults or children are thinking poorly about them
  • Being a perfectionist, or giving up because he cannot understand something or do something quickly enough.
  • Believing the teacher’s behavior towards them has negative intent.  For example, the teacher says, “Sit down,” but the child hears the teacher as if he has hollered the same words.
  • They melt-down or over-react to making mistakes.  They may attempt to hide those mistakes or say the assignment is stupid and not worth the effort.

Self-regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to wait to have one’s needs met.  It can also be the ability to calm one’s self when one is feeling “big emotions”.  Clues to watch for include:

  • Attention-seeking behavior
  • Negative behavior that happens when the teacher’s attention is focused on another student.
  • Negative behavior that happens when a peer’s attention is focused on someone else.
  • Being easily angered, easily frustrated, easily reduced to tears
  • Having to be first, first in line, first to be called on, first to be noticed.

Issues with executive function
“Executive function” is a bit like the role of a company’s CEO.  She is the one that plans, organizes, and choses the company’s direction.  Our brain’s executive function includes our ability plan, organize, pay attention, switch from on task to another, and makes choices about what to do now and what to do later.  Clues that a student has difficulty with executive function include

  • Difficulties with organizing his desk, his locker, his backpack
  • Appearing to fiddle around with things instead of getting right to work
  • Appearing angry, overwhelmed, or lost when it is time to transition from this task to another
  • Confusion about what to do first, second, next
  • Taking forever to complete a task
  • Giving up easily
  • Seeming to lose papers, pencils, books, and not being able to locate them even when they are in plain sight

Students’ behavior tells us things about what is going on inside their immature brains.  Situations that would not test an adult’s ability to function are already challenging to children.  (Remember, the brain does not really reach maturity until it is 25 plus years old!)  Those students who have experienced trauma find getting though the school day to be even more difficult than their peers do.  Their behavior may seem naughty, irresponsible, or downright mean, but it is really the child telling us she is having difficulties in the only ways she knows how.

Teachers can do some things that other professionals cannot do as easily.  They can try to teach students a different set of behaviors.  They can demonstrate that adults can be trustworthy and positive role models.  They can show kids they find something endearing about them even if they do not like all of the child’s behaviors.

Now is the time to think about THAT student’s behavior. Try thinking about the things THAT student does as messages, rather than malicious.

Coping with Extreme and Violent Behavior

There are an increasing number of news articles, opinion pieces, and anecdotal evidence that students are becoming increasingly disrespectful, verbally and physically violent.  Many teachers I know have described teaching as becoming more and more difficult and exhausting.

A recent television news report described how teachers in Des Moines, Iowa, feel unsupported by administration and parents as they try to deal with children (grades K-12) who used foul language towards peers and teachers, and children who “lose it” so violently that the teacher must evacuate the rest of the class to the hallway while the student destroys the classroom.  https://whotv.com/2019/05/31/extreme-violent-student-behavior-pushing-iowa-teachers-to-breaking-point/

Extreme and Violent Student Behavior Pushing Iowa Teachers to the Breaking Point, WHO-TV, May 31, 2019

When I did an internet search on “violent children elementary”, I got thousands of hits, from almost every state in the US and from many countries world-wide.  Clearly this phenomenon is not isolated to Iowa, let alone the US. And it is not confined to elementary student either.

These articles offer dozens of ideas on why this behavior seems to be on the rise.  They suggest or lay the blame on many different reasons, like the following:

  • parents who raise their children too permissively,
  • teachers who do not know how to manage a classroom
  • colleges that do not prepare teachers properly
  • unmet physical or emotional needs,
  • integrating special needs children into the mainstream before they are ready,
  • too much “screen time” or exposure to violence through media and video games
  • a lack of free time to play
  • overwhelming boredom with and lack of engagement in school
  • experiencing childhood trauma,
  • social disrespect of teachers
  • a society that idolizes teaching as a calling and expects teachers to do it all without compensation or support
  • administration that is unable or unwilling to deal with disrespect or violence harshly enough
  • in Iowa, the law that says students may not be restrained or isolated even if they are having a violent episode unless it is to prevent them from hurting themselves or others
  • a lack of money for mental health services for students
  • a lack of social support for mental health services for young children

Probably for every proposed cause, there is another article refuting that reason and proposing another.

There are fewer, but many, opinion pieces written by parents that say that whatever the reasons, their child deserves an education free of the fear of violence, and an education uninterrupted by disrespectful and violent classmates.

There are dozens of articles examining the how and why on childhood violence and trauma published by the National Institutes of Health   You can see this list at https://search.nih.gov/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&affiliate=nih&query=violence+children&commit=Search

As many articles as we see on violence and disrespect, we see and equal number telling us

  • we need to engage students with media or interesting projects,
  • we need to keep students entertained
  • we need to teach social and emotional skills
  • we need to teach self-regulation skills
  • we need to make education relevant
  • we need to reward students who do the right thing
Teachers are Frustrated!

Whatever the causes or solutions, it is very difficult to hang on to the reasons why one became a teacher when one feels surrounded by chaos and are constantly struggling to keep control.  And the constantly changing initiatives to try to resolve the situation is liable to give a teacher whiplash.

There is often a kernel of truth in every article on the causes or solutions for extreme behavior and violence in the classroom. I have opinions on many of the proposed causes and on ways to confront these.  In addition, walking around in schools and observing in classrooms has shown me that there are classrooms where students appear to be better behaved than in others.  I also have opinions on the myriad of proposals to keep students interested in school and to keep them engaged enough to behave in ways that educators call “appropriate.”

What I would really like to know is this: 

  • What do teachers see as the difference between classrooms that are relatively better behaved than others?
  • What do teachers believe is the main cause of violence among school children in K-12?
  • What are the top three things teachers believe need to be done to turn this problem around?

Please comment or visit my Facebook page (Roe’s Rules:  Classroom Management for THAT Student) and join the discussion there.

Teaching School-Appropriate Behavior

When we work with children who use a dialect of English or who have a different home language, we teach those children to “code-switch”, changing from speaking in one’s home language in some circumstances and switching to another language in other circumstances.  We do not penalize the child.  We teach him/her when each language is appropriate.

The same principle is true for behavior.

Children come to school with many ideas about what is the best way to behave.  What is okay at Mindy’s house may be not okay at Henry’s house.  When these children do things that are not appropriate for school, we can blame the parents and deplore the behavior, or we can plan how to teach children what is acceptable at school.

When I was a principal, an eight year old boy was sent to my office.  I was on the phone, but he stormed in and threw himself into the visitor’s chair.  He began talking before I finished my phone conversation.  When I hung up, I interrupted him and said, “Charlie, I am going to show you the school way to come to my office.”  I showed him how to knock on the door frame and to wait until I said, “Come in.”  Then I had him practice doing that.  At first I stood by him and praised what he did right and then corrected any mistakes.  When he had that down pretty well, I sat at my desk and had him try the behavior on his own.  We high fived when he got it right.  Only then did I ask him why he was sent to the office.

The school counselor watched this with her mouth hanging open.  Later she told me that most of the teachers had given up on Charlie, believing he would never behave in the way they expected. 

Charlie was sent to the office many times during that school year, but he never forgot how to ask permission to come into the office.

I offer this story to show that kids can be taught exactly what to do in “the school way”.  Phrasing it in these terms takes away the idea that what children do at home is wrong and what we do at school is right.  That just makes children confused and parents alienated from the school system.  Instead we need to say It is just a different way to behave in a certain situation.  In other words, we are teaching the children to “code-switch” between a place where X behavior is appropriate and a place where Y behavior is expected.

It is difficult to do this at the end of the school year, but we can plan to teach children to code-switch their behavior at the beginning of the next school year.  Here is what to do:

  1. Make a list of the behaviors children seemed to have difficulty with in previous years and what you would rather the children do.
  2. Prioritize the list.  What behaviors are the most important ones?  By prioritizing your list, you will know what behavior procedures you need to teach in the first few days of school and which can be taught later on.
  3. Decide when to teach the behavior.  Something that is of paramount importance to you might need to be taught before you begin the process of handing out books or other beginning of the school year activities. 
  4. Decide how to teach the behavior.  If you can teach the behavior in the context of a subject area lesson, more power to you! 
    1. Explain the behavior.
    1. Model the behavior.  You may choose to first model a non-example.  If you do, model the expected behavior, then the non-example, then the expected behavior again.
    1. Have students practice the behavior.
    1. Reinforce verbally.
    1. Repeat steps A-D as needed.
  5. Remember to re-teach the expected behaviors regularly during the first couple of weeks.  Plan to remind students of the expected behavior after a long weekend or a school holiday.

Teaching children to code-switch their behavior between “home behavior” and “school behavior” saves wear and tear on our nerves.  The time we spend on teaching those behaviors up-front saves our stress level as the year goes on.  In addition, it helps kids understand what to do in a given situation at school instead of just telling them they are wrong.  Learning to “code-switch” behavior is a life skill worth cultivating.

Planning Ahead

The end of the school year is close at hand.  Teachers are trying to stay smiling while many feel they are at their wit’s end.  I don’t need to enumerate these end-of-the year stresses. 

Many teachers, on top of everything else, are already planning next year, thinking about what they can do differently.

Here are four things you can do now to plan for a better 2019-2020 school year:

  1. Plan how you will take care of yourself.  When the teacher takes the time to take care of herself, students as well as the teacher benefit.  Self-care could include better nutrition, regular exercise, and getting a full eight hours of sleep.  I know I used to think I simply did not have time to plan better meals, walk for a half hour, and try to get more sleep.  It always seemed like everything I did ate up any time I might use to cook, exercise or sleep.  What I discovered was that if I worked out for a half hour, I was more likely to sleep better, I was more likely to think about preparing veggies instead of loading up on carbs, and I had more energy to tackle whatever else needed to be done.  Really. 

    How can you force yourself to do these things?  I recently worked with a college student who was taking a class on how to be a personal trainer.  I showed up every day we were scheduled to meet, even though I frequently grumbled all the way there.  Why?  Because the student’s grade that was dependent, in part, on my showing up.  The lesson I learned:  find someone to whom you feel you are accountable.  This could be friend, a colleague, a spouse.  Schedule your time to meet to work on self-care.

    Use the summer to get into the habit so that it is easier to do when school starts up again.
  • Consider what procedures worked this year, which ones could be improved upon, and any procedures that might make your life easier in the fall.  Remember, procedures are the bedrock of managing a classroom.  Rules do not manage students and students often see rules as a dare.  They test us for days and weeks to see if they can get a consistent answer about whether or not we are serious about them.  In part, it is for that reason that I would rather teach in a school that had no rules and lots of procedures than in a school with a lot of rules and no procedures.

    It is all right to have procedures that benefit the teacher!  My students would tear pages out of spiral notebooks to turn in.  The “fringe” on the pages seemed to lock together irritating me no end.  The solution was to teach a new procedure.  I put a pair of scissors on a string next to a waste basket.  I showed the students how to cut down the “eye” of the spiral fringes, holding the papers over the waste basket to catch the resulting confetti.  Problem solved! 

    Think about what procedures might make your life easier in the classroom next year.
  • Think about ways to keep your enthusiasm for teaching alive and well.  If we are enthusiastic about teaching, that enthusiasm shows.  Students know which teachers are passionate about teaching, not just about the subject.  That passion is contagious.  The students catch it and our colleagues do, too.

    I always found that taking a class, whether or not it was for credit, and reading the required books or articles kept me on my toes.  Even when I didn’t take an actual class, joining others to talk about books, articles, videos, etc., helped me think of ways to keep my instructional craft fresh.   Lately I am apt to turn to social media to help me remember why I went into teaching in the first place.
  • Contemplate how you will find compassion for THAT student.  You know you will have someone in class that will fall into being THAT student.  It is inevitable.  Yet when we start thinking THAT student is purposely out to get us, or that s/he can’t learn or can’t behave, we begin treating him/her differently.  We don’t mean to, but we do. 

    I have used the “Ten good things about ___” strategy taught to me by another behavior disorders teacher.  That is, when I find myself thinking negative thoughts about THAT student, I sit down and try to list ten positive things about him/her.  If I can’t think of ten things, and I frequently can’t, I set myself the task of looking for positive things about him/her to round out my list.  Looking for good things, especially if I am planning on sharing that information with THAT student’s parent(s) helps me focus away from the negative.  I almost always find THAT student does something that I find amusing or endearing, some little thing I would not have noticed if I didn’t look at him/her with that in mind.

    What can you do to be more mindful of what is good, or interesting, or worthwhile about THAT student?  What can you do to view his/her behavior as clues to how to help him/her?  Planning strategies to look for ways to like THAT student can actually help you treat THAT student in ways that defuse his/her more irritating behavior.

Teaching is a far more difficult job than most people realize until they actually are teaching.  Planning now for a better next year can help smooth over some of the inevitable rough spots so we can focus more on the joy than the day-to-day difficulties we are sure to encounter.

Apology

This past Monday I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.
As of this writing, I have eleven more day in this sling, then four weeks of physical therapy. I am only able to write with one hand. I apologize for not writing a blog post. I will be back at it when I can use both hand again. You can see posts I share from other writers on my Facebook page, Roe’s Rules.