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 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 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 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.