Some Thoughts on Classroom Rules, Part 1

If you do a web search for “classroom management” you will get a lot of posts about classroom rules.  This reflects a common misconception about managing a classroom:  if you have enough good rules, the class will be managed. 

I beg to differ.

Rules are about discipline, not about management.  Management is structuring the classroom and the class in a way that ensures learning will take place and maximizing the amount of time for learning.  Discipline is something else.

A google search shows the definition of “discipline” is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”  So classroom rules fall in the category of discipline. 

I’ve said many times that I would rather work in a school that had a lot of procedures and no rules than in a school with a lot of rules and no procedures.  Why?  Rules do not guarantee that students will do what the rule says. 

An analogy might be the speed limit.  There are rules, laws, that govern how fast one can drive a car in a particular area, but most people tend to drive faster than the speed limit.  They are breaking the law, or not following the rule.  I include myself in that group of rule-breakers.  I travel about 6 miles an hour above the posted speed limit figuring the police won’t bother with me where there are others who are going much faster. 

Everyone who is exceeding the speed limit knows they are breaking the law, but they do it anyway.  Why?  Pretty much for the same reason I do it:  we figure we won’t get caught, and even if the police see us, they won’t do anything about it.

The same is usually true for students in school.  Just because there is a rule that says to do a certain thing doesn’t mean the student won’t do that thing.  They are likely to do that thing hoping they won’t get caught.  This casts the teacher in the role of behavior police, watching students for infractions of the rules and punishing them when they inevitably get caught.

What does this do to teachers and students?

Students view teachers as the enemy.
Okay, “enemy” is probably too strong a word.  Instead, think “them and us”.  Students learn that teachers are in the “them” or “other” group and his/her peers are in the “us” group of fellow conspirators.

We’ve known for a long time that student-teacher relationships are of paramount importance.  Students will do a lot of things for a teacher who they believe likes them than for a teacher they view as disliking them or even being indifferent to them. 

When a teacher’s “classroom management plan” is all about rules then relationships have little to do with whether or not the student will do what the teacher asks.  Now the stage has been set for a game of “catch me if you can”.  The student see that what s/he or his peers are doing is fun and the teacher is there to prevent them from having that fun.

Fred Jones observed “zones of proximity” in the classroom.  Students who are closest to the teacher are in the “red zone” meaning their negative behavior will likely cease.  Students a little further away from the teachers are in the “yellow zone” meaning they will proceed with a particular behavior with caution.  Students in the “green zone”, farthest from the teacher, have a green light to go ahead with whatever behavior because the teacher is likely too far away from the teacher for him/her to see the negative behaviors. 

Fred Jones, Zones of Proximity in the classroom

These “zones of proximity” are used as the reason teachers should continuously more around the room.  However, what happens if the teacher is working with a small reading group and other students are supposed to be involved with station work?  The teacher cannot move  around the room and continue to work with the reading group.  If students have learned that the teacher’s proximity is the reason why s/he is to “behave”, then it is likely that s/he will engage in proscribed behavior when s/he is at a station and not working directly with the teacher.

Harry and Rosemary Wong characterize rules as a dare.  I know of few students who will walk away from a dare!

Students learn to be more sneaky.
As a result of the previous point, students learn to hide their misbehavior. 

For example, back in the dark ages when I was in high school, we had a school rule against passing notes.  Remember, this was before cell phones or even personal computers, so writing notes was a way to communicate with your friends under the teachers’ noses.  My friends and I probably watched too many spy shows on TV, and we devised many ways to pass notes so that the teacher would never know.  My favorite way was to roll up the note and put it into the barrel of a ballpoint pen after I’d removed the ink cartridge.  I don’t recall ever having a note intercepted by a teacher when I used that method!

Being told we couldn’t pass notes didn’t result in us not passing notes.  We just found more and more clever ways to pass them. 

I think every teacher has had that student who, when confronted with breaking a rule, turns on an Oscar-quality performance, telling us that they did no such thing.  You’ve probably also had the student who can seem to turn the tears on and off at will, and who look at you with those big eyes brimming with tears begging us to overlook this egregious behavior “just this once”.  In my opinion, this is just another way of being sneaky about things.  These students have learned that if they are caught, they should prevaricate.

Students can’t do what they don’t know how to do.
For any desired behavior to actually happen, students have to be developmentally capable of it and they have to have been taught how to do it. 

For example, just saying “respect the teacher” doesn’t mean the child knows how to do that.  S/he may actually like the teacher very much, but the way s/he knows how to show that may be a long way off from what the teacher wants to see.

An example of this happened to a speech-language therapist working with kindergarten children.  Ms. X was seated on one of the tiny chairs and working with a small group of children, holding a conversation with them while in the regular classroom.  One of the girls in the class came up behind Ms. X, reached around her and squeezed both of Ms. X’s breasts saying, “honk, honk!”  Ms. X gently took the girls hands and pulled her around to face her.  “No, we don’t do that to ladies,” she said.  The little girl’s face crumpled, “But Daddy does that to Mommy all the time, and she likes it!”  Ms. X staggered into my office, laughing so hard she could barely walk, to share that story with me.  After laughing myself, I wound up having to call the child’s parents to suggest the adults be cognizant of how children soak up things like a sponge, and that children do not have filters about what is okay for some and not okay for others.

While this story is funny, it illustrates my case in point:  children do not always know what we mean by rules and sometimes they have learned a different way of doing something than what we had in mind.  Many teachers have a rule about “respect.”  Yet signs of respect differ by family and by culture.  What the teacher means by respect may be entirely different than what the child has learned about respect.

I remember all too well asking a child if they were allowed to walk on the furniture at home.  He looked at me with what appeared to be sincere confusion and said, “Yes.”

Children have to be taught how to follow certain rules.  Just telling them isn’t enough.  Just as we have to do with procedures, many children must be taught, have the opportunity to practice, and have their efforts reinforced before they can follow a particular rule.

Children can’t do what they are not able to do.
Rules are sometimes things children are not capable of doing. 

One aspect of this is developmental.  Asking a kindergartener to sit still is not practical.  A five year old’s concept of sitting still is to squirm and wiggle and tap and twist and tie themselves into knots.  Expecting something different is like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.  It isn’t going to happen. 

Expecting a teenager to sit up straight is a terrific goal.  We adults know that they will be healthier in the long run and feel better in the short run.  But teenagers slump.  It is the nature of the beast.  Having a rule that says “sit up straight” doesn’t make sense when it is so very difficult for a teenager to comply.

Another aspect has to do with who the rule is really for.  A first grader is not usually responsible for setting an alarm, getting up when the alarm goes off, getting his/her clothes on and hair combed, etc.  It is an adult’s responsibility for that to happen.  The rule says that students are not to be tardy to school, but punishing the child doesn’t make sense.  It is not his/her fault if the parent oversleeps or has a flexible interpretation of “on time”.  On the other hand, a high school student is much more capable of all of the above, and it makes sense to hold him/her accountable for being to school on time.

Teachers focus on the negative.
Probably the most damaging aspect of focusing on rules has to do with the teacher’s attitude.

I’ve written many times about the power of a teacher’s attitude and beliefs.  If a teacher believes something about a student, even if the teacher never vocalizes that belief, and even if the teacher consciously believes s/he is treating everyone the same, the teacher will subconsciously act on that belief by treating some students differently.

If the teacher is focused on whether or not students follow rules, s/he will most likely watch for students who are breaking the rules rather than noticing those who are following the rules.  It may be an unusual thing for Susie Creamcheese to misbehave and the teacher noticing her disobedience will likely keep Susie in check.  However, THAT student already has a reputation for being out of line.  If the teacher is focused on seeing who is violating the rules, s/he will notice THAT student more often than not.

THAT student may have learned that any attention is better than no attention, but that is not what we really want the students to learn. 

What do we want students to learn about rules and behavior?  Most of us want students to learn how to self-regulate, to have self-discipline, and to do the right thing even when no one is watching.  Rules don’t teach that.  In fact, rules themselves do not teach.  It is the teacher – or parent, or peer – who teaches about behavior.  Rules are a tool teachers can use to draw a line in the sand that says “this I will tolerate in this classroom and this I will not tolerate”.  Rules allow a teacher to enforce behavioral expectations with negative consequences or punishments.  But rules only work a little bit, and may instead be elicit the responses outlined above.   

I challenge you to consider what it is that you are trying to accomplish with the rules you’ve selected for your classroom.  Are any of the rules you have making you the enemy in students’ eyes?  Are they making students better at hiding misbehavior?  Are the students able to follow the rules?  Are you so busy watching for students breaking the rules that you aren’t able to see the good things they are doing? 

Make a few notes about these thoughts so you don’t forget them.  We’ll come back to those ideas in the weeks ahead.

Look for more about Roe’s Rules for Rules in upcoming posts.


Photo by Miguel Constantin Montes from Pexels

Does THAT Student have ADD/ADHD?

Most of us learned a little about children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in college.  For example, I learned that kids with ADHD couldn’t stop moving and would fidget and squirm in their seats and could not concentrate on anything longer than a few seconds.  My professors told me that these children would calm down when given an amphetamine like Retiling, while those who did not have this disorder would “speed up”.   I was taught that the best place in the classroom for this student was right up front, next to the teacher.  The idea was that if he was sitting there, he would know the teacher had her eye on him and he would control his behavior.  And I was taught that setting up a system of negative consequences and rewards would get him/her to control his/her behavior once and for all.  Further, I learned from various sources that ADHD is a “made up” disorder and that what looks like ADHD is really the result of bad parenting or inappropriate school curriculum.

Does this sound familiar to you?  What if I told you that all of the above were myths?

Myth 1:  ADD and ADHD are “made up” disorders.
The truth is that these are both recognized mental and physical conditions.  People with ADD or ADHD have meaningful differences in their brains, how they process information, and their impulse control.  ADD and ADHD are neurological disorders that have been around for a very long time, but were not recognized as a particular health issue until the last 50 or 60 years.  Even then there were some who labeled children with symptoms of the disorder as “lazy”, “stupid”, “incapable of learning”, etc.

Myth 2:  Children with ADD or ADHD are lazy, stupid, or just plain bad.
It is estimated that the majority of children with ADD or ADHD are above average in intelligence.  They sometimes appear less capable because the work they are asked to do does not hold their attention, or because they are wiggling and squirming when the teacher wants them to pay attention.  They sometimes get the label “lazy” because they do not do school work for a variety of reasons or lose it before they can turn it in.  And ADD/ADHD is not a character flaw.  It is a neurological disorder.

Myth 3:  If a child has ADD or ADHD, s/he just needs to take medication.
First of all, the “test” of ADD or ADHD is not whether or not the child responds to amphetamines in a particular way is outdated.  Doctors who specialize in ADD and ADHD have much more sophisticated ways of determining whether or not the child has the syndrome.

Second, medication works for some children, but not for all.  Some children cannot tolerate the medication, meaning the side effects are dangerous.  For some, those side effects can include an inability to eat, an inability to sleep, increased blood pressure, nervousness, increased irritability when the medication wears off, headaches and stomachaches, moodiness, and overall increased irritability.  The result is that not every person can tolerate the various medications that are used for ADD or ADHD.  And the medication has little to no effect on some.

Third, sadly, our schools cannot control all of the bullying that takes place.  Children who must go to the nurse at particular times of the day to get medication are often the butt of bullying behavior.  Some of the language of that bullying has crept into our everyday language:  “take a chill pill” or “did you forget your meds today”.  This is a reason why some families choose to not medicate their children.

Myth 4:  ADD or ADHD is the result of bad parenting.
Parents can do everything completely right and still have a child who struggles with his/her ADD or ADHD.  Yes, there are parents who let their children “get away with murder”, and there are parents who are too strict with their ADHD children, but the syndrome is neurological, not the result of childhood conditioning. 

However, it is true that having a child with ADD/ADHD can get to a parent’s last nerve.  It can put an enormous strain on the family and can result in parents trying every which way to cope with their child.  This can result in being too harsh, too indulgent, and even in seeking “cures” from both good and fraudulent sources. 

I recall one family that would bundle their child off to the doctor every time they received a negative phone call.  They would ask the doctor to give the child different medication each time.  Sometimes this happened a couple of times in a single week.  The parents believed that medication would create a cure instead of making controlling behavior a little bit easier.  It certainly did not help the child. 

Parents who are caught up in trying desperately to find a way to cope with their “atypical” child really need help from the school rather than blame.  Telling the parent whenever the child has done something the teacher finds unacceptable puts further strain on the family.  Many, if not most, parents experience that as blaming the parents and they can respond with guilt, anger, or frustration.  That, in turn, can alienate parents from the school, and make them believe that the school, and the teacher are “out to get” their child. 

What parents really need is to hear when the child does something good.  If the teacher has not started the year out this way, it make take some serious effort to look for and find good things to tell families about THAT student, but the rewards are great.

Myth 5:  A child with ADD or ADHD needs parents and teachers willing to use strict behavior modification.
Behavior modification is when a person receives negative consequences when s/he chooses to do something like act out, and receives rewards when s/he chooses to do something “right”.  The problem with this approach with children with ADD or ADHD is that word “choose.”  ADD and ADHD are neurological disorders, not the result of choice.  Some children may benefit from some negative consequences, but the majority do not.  After all, if one cannot choose to have one’s brain respond in certain ways, how will a detention or a phone call home (common negative consequences) help?  If one cannot choose how one’s brain responds, how will a trip to the “treasure chest” or a sticker (common rewards) help?

The use of this kind of behavior management system may help in the short term, but it does not help in the long run.  Many with ADD or ADHD have said that they could never get a reward, that they tried their very hardest but they were only punished over and over again.  The result of this is often that the child learns to hate school, to believe the teacher is out to get him.  It can also backfire.  Some students over time become willing to accept negative consequences as a badge of honor.

What many of us learned in college, to have the child sit up front and next to the teacher comes out of this thinking.  However, many classrooms do not have a “front” and a good classroom manager is not going to remain in the front of the classroom or at his/her desk.  Putting a child with ADD/ADHD up front can have a negative effect on the whole classroom because it puts the child and his/her behavior where everyone can see it.  This can break down the child’s relationships with peers. 

I abandoned this strategy after having a class that consistently pointed out what the child with ADHD was doing:  “Ms. Roe!  He’s doing it again!”  I finally realized I was the grown up in the room and that I was much more capable of ignoring fidgeting, squirming, and seat dancing to an imaginary tune better than the children.  I moved that child to the back corner where fewer of his peers would see what he was doing.  I also resolved to allow him to do all of those “hyper” behaviors unless he was disrupting the class.  Life became so much better for me and for that particular student!

What the children need to learn most is a set of strategies s/he can use to cope with the demands of school, and to reach his/her learning potential.

Myth 6:  It’s not ADD/ADHD if the child can pay attention to something and not to others.
Many with ADD/ADHD demonstrate a behavior called “hyperfocus”.  This means that s/he is so fixated on a particular thing that is it is difficult to change to another behavior.  With my son, it was electronic screens – video games or computer screens.  He used to describe it as being sucked into the screen.  To change his focus, I would have to literally get between him and the screen.  Like many with ADD/ADHD changing that focus was difficult and often resulted in angry behavior. 

We see this in the classroom when a child does not respond well to changing activities.  She may continue to work on that math problem even after being told to put math away and get out the science book.  He may whine or act out when told it is time to stop one thing and start another.  Children with ADD/ADHD often benefit from having a quiet timer set up so that they can see how much time is left for an activity, or by the teacher telling the class, “We will be cleaning up in 5 minutes so start getting yourself to a stopping place.”

Children with ADD/ADHD also tend to perseverate.  That means they will continue to do or say something even after the time for that behavior has passed.  For example, the child may repeat a word over and over again, or look for a lost paper in only one or two places because the paper should be in one of those two spots even though it is not in either of those locations.  Sometimes this can look like OCD behavior.  That can be alarming for a teacher the first time they realize that it is perseveration, but please remember to use compassion – the kid just really cannot help it.

Myth 7:  ADD/ADHD is really the result of a poor curriculum.
Teachers are not really in charge of curriculum.  They are hired to teach the district’s curriculum.  But, if you are a teacher, you already know that.  I think maybe the people who say that mean “teaching strategies” rather than “curriculum”. 

There may be some truth to the idea that there are some teaching strategies that are better for kids with ADD/ADHD.  Lecture classes, or classes where students are expected to “sit and get” are probably less suited to them.  However, there is a good argument to say that those type of classes are not good for most students. 

My advice is to remember this “Roe’s Rule”:  The person who does the most work is the person doing the most learning.  That is, if the teacher is doing the most work, then the students are not doing the most learning.  Instead, creating lessons where students do the work is most likely to result in them learning the most.  For example, when I was teaching, the state said every eighth grader was to have a course in Indigenous People in the state.  The social studies teacher complained that she wouldn’t have time to teach everything else if she had to teach all of the “stuff” the state said the kids had to learn about Indigenous People.  I suggested that she form the class up into groups and have each group learn about a particular group, then teach the rest of the class what they learned.  That could be done in several different ways including a Jig Saw method.

There are many myths about people with ADD/ADHD.  We educators need to keep learning about this and other conditions that make a student different from the so-called typical student.  As a nation, we tend to pride ourselves on all being individuals, so shouldn’t we look at each of the students in our class as individuals?  Equity doesn’t mean treating everyone the same.  It means treating each in the way they need most. 

Special Education Students and General Education Teachers

A study released in May 2018 showed that the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities is “lagging”  (Heasley, 2018).  The study examined trends in having such students taught in regular education classes since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1976 through 2014.  IDEA requires that students with disabilities be placed in the “least restrictive environment”, meaning that they should be placed in a regular education classroom as much as possible.

I’ve read several articles about this study and I’ve found that there seems to be some confusion about what the term “intellectual disability” means.  I won’t go into a complete definition here but the term is generally used to describe students who have problems with general mental abilities that affect functioning in two areas:  intellectual functioning (such as learning, problem solving, judgement) and adaptive functioning (activities of daily life such as communication and independent living).  Some of the articles included students with ADHD, receptive and expressive language issues, those with poor social skills, etc.

This got me to thinking about teachers and special education inclusion. 

I do not think there are any teachers who believe that inclusion is bad for students.  The majority would say that inclusion has real, tangible benefits both for the student with special needs and for the general population of PK-12 students.  On the other hand, there are many teachers who believe that they are not the best person to work with special needs students.  A person outside of education, would, I think be unlikely to understand why that is, and would probably cast those teachers in a negative light.

All teachers take a course or two about special needs students.  At the college where I taught, this class was a 100 level class meaning it was generally taken by freshmen.  Another course in assessment was required for elementary education majors; this course primarily focused on special education assessment but was also supposed to include assessments teachers might use for “regular education” students. 

I taught an upper level course on classroom management and I found that, almost without exception, these pre-service teachers had a limited view of special education and almost no understanding of various behavioral issues that a special education student might demonstrate.  To a student, none knew anything about specific behavior disorders.

This is not to condemn those who teach classes about exceptional learners.  Not by a long shot!  Understanding students with disabilities and what it means to work with these students in the general education classroom is simply too much for one, three credit hour class.  In addition, in my experience, few freshmen can fully grasp the topic.  It is not because freshmen are deficit in any way.  It is because they are usually quite young, 18-19 years old.  They are usually away from home for the first time and exploring how to be independent from their parents.  In addition, college learning differs significantly from PK-12 learning.  College students are expected to have the discipline to do most of the educating on their own – for every hour of credit, the student is expected to do two hours of work outside of what is happening in the classroom.  In other words, the college student is expected to be in charge of his/her learning whereas the high school teacher is expected to “make” students learn. 

This is a very difficult transition for many young people.

Those who major in special education may receive more specific training in working with students with special needs, but those teachers are the ones destined for the “special education classroom” and for collaborating with regular education teachers who are working with special needs students.

So why don’t colleges require students to take more classes where they learn more about working with special needs students? 

Have you looked at the requirements education majors must meet?  Where I taught education majors, the list of classes that met requirements for an elementary teacher meant that an elementary education major could not take any electives unless s/he wanted to add a semester or so onto his/her college time.  Few students want to do that.  As it is, elementary education majors often have to take 16 or 18 credit hours per semester even though 12 credit hours per semester is considered full time. 

Many college professionals recognize that education could easily become a 5 year degree, or even a 6 year degree if courses and field experiences were added to ensure that all of the education majors were adept at teaching their own subjects and special education.  I have heard of only a handful of colleges that have made this a requirement.  The thinking is that students will vote with their feet, avoiding the 5 year programs in favor of those who say they can get the student through the program in 4 years.

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There are many outside of education who believe that the regular education teacher receives significant support from the special education teacher.  The special education teacher is supposed to help that regular education teacher find accommodations to use to help the student with special needs meet the same expectations as the other students in the classroom, and with modifications if the special education student is expected to be held to a different standard.  Many believe the special education teacher will be working along side the regular education teacher, co-teaching and collaborating.  And, really, that’s the way it is supposed to be!  But how many sp. ed. teachers are really able to do that? 

Consider an elementary sp. ed. teacher.  States use a number of plans to determine how many students a sp. ed. teacher has on her caseload.  There are students with whom she simply consults with the regular education teacher, students who are expected to have the teacher or another trained professional working with them for a significant part of the day, and everything in between.

The sp. ed. teacher might have students in multiple classrooms who are supposed to be receiving services from a “trained professional” at the same time.  She has to create a schedule where she is in this classroom for this amount of time, and that classroom for a different amount of time.  She has to have the time during the day to meet with the general education teachers for collaboration.  She has to have time to administer alternate assessments for some students, and assessments with accommodations for other students.  She must write and update Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and report on students’ progress to various people.  She must work with the parents of the students, too.  And she is expected to direct para-professionals on what to do with the students with whom they work. 

This is probably not half of what most special education teachers have to accomplish.

Some districts hire aides or para-professionals to work with special education students on a one-to-one basis.  Many districts pay only minimum wage to these aides and keep them under 30 hours per week so that they are not considered full time and do not receive benefits.  As a result, few of the aides can truly be considered “trained professionals”.  Some states require special education aides to receive training, but this training varies.  It could be an online overview of special education, or it could be a few hours of face-to-face instruction through a college, tech school, or district led inservice training.  Few states require special education aides to have a baccalaureate, and few states require aids to receive a salary commensurate with that level of training.

In short, most sp. ed. teachers wish they could be cloned so that there was enough of them to go around.

What this means for the general education teacher is that s/he is expected to accommodate or modify lessons for the special needs students assigned to them, find alternative materials as needed, work with the students developing social skills, helping the students change negative behaviors, etc. 

I’m sure there are many, many regular education teachers who are delivering fantastic services to special needs students!  My point is that those wonderful regular education teachers often have to figure out how to do all of that often based on what they were supposed to have learned in one or two college classes.

Some school districts try to “fix” the problem by integrating students with IEPs into “specials” like art, music, and physical education.  I used to be an art teacher, and I used to be a special education teacher.  My training as an art teacher did little to help me understand how to accommodate or modify art activities for special education students.  Special subject teachers in general receive no more training in working with special needs students than any other “regular” teacher.

As a special educator, I worked primarily with students with behavior disorders (BD).  Out of that experience, I’ve seen that it is very difficult for a regular education teacher to work with a BD student and assure that the other students in the class are learning.  By definition, BD students have problems with their behavior and can disrupt a regular education class regularly.  Regular education teachers can become frustrated and resentful if they are expected to work with a BD student without intensive support.  That frustration and resentment is communicated to the students in very subtle ways, even when the teacher truly does not want to project that.  (See the blog posts about teacher attitude.)  I found it was to the BD student’s benefit to keep him/her in a special education classroom where we could work intensely on his/her behavior, and to slowly integrate the student into regular classes. 

It takes a teacher with super powers to provide for everything a special needs student needs to be successful academically!

My hat is off to those teachers and paraprofessionals who are working hard to provide the best educational opportunities for both the “regular” and the “special” student!

In my opinion, that is why so many students with IEPs are served in classrooms separate from their general education peers.  It is not ideal.  It is not the intent of the law. 

And that is why, in my opinion, why we do not see an 80% or better inclusion rate.

If we really want special education students to be included in the regular classroom 80% of the day or more, we need to provide supports for both the students and the teachers.  We need more special education teachers and more training for regular education teachers.  And most teachers would say they also need fewer students – smaller class sizes or caseloads.

Sadly, I suspect that the student mentioned at the beginning will spur state agencies and local school districts to boost the number of students in the regular education classroom.  I also suspect that there will be no requirement for additional training for teachers or paras.

If you are a special education teacher, please have some compassion and empathy for the regular education teacher.  Help him/her develop effective accommodations and modifications.

If you are a regular education teacher, work as closely as you can with the special education teacher and recognize that s/he is probably doing the best s/he can with all of the things s/he is expected to do.

I encourage all teachers to request more training in working with special needs students, and I encourage all teachers to seek out more information themselves.  Advocate for the students by advocating for more support and training for all of the adults who work with special needs kids.  Remember:  being positive about what you do, tends to get more results that telling people how bad your day is!  We catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

The kids deserve it and so do you!

Take your advocacy a step further:  let your local school board know what you must do each day and how you do it.  Do this in a positive, informational way.  Help state and federal representatives know how the legal expectations for special needs children play out in the classroom. 

Let everyone know what the good things are that go on in your classroom and how students benefit from your dedication to the education all students. 

I hope I can do you a service by suggesting ways to work with THAT student in your classroom!


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Giving Back

Sometimes giving back is the greatest gift and one that helps students understand basic needs better.

In several schools in which I worked, we would plan to give personal hygiene and car products to the local women’s shelter or the homeless shelter in the area. 

Here is how we did it:

Each grade level would decide on an item to contribute.  The grade would brainstorm some ways of raising money so that each student would be able to contribute one of the selected items.  The teachers would ask parents to contribute one of the selected items in the name of the child in the grade if they were able to do so.  Families that could, contributed more than one item.  Families that could not were covered by the funding plan.

The items we collected were:

  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Washcloth
  • Soap
  • Lip balm
  • Shampoo

If we had additional grades in the building, the following could be collected”

  • Dental floss
  • Body lotion
  • Hand sanitizer
  • toenail clipper

The teachers would compose a short note to the intended recipients to be included in the package and would contribute boxes of Ziploc bags.  I suspect that some of the disposable plastic containers would work well, too.

When the items were collected, the older grades would help sort the items into plastic zip closure bags.  We’d set it all up like an assembly line.  Each student would take a plastic bag and then put one of each item into the bag, zip it closed (often with the help of an adult) and then drop it into a box.

We did a variation on this project for victims of a tornado one year.  Each grade made a Christmas ornament – you know, the ones that are often made by elementary children, the ones moms and grandparents cherish.  Those are often lost in a catastrophic event like a tornado.  We made a package containing one of each kind of ornament and, by contacting local churches, send a package to each family who had lost the most.  We received many phone calls and letters from families who told us that the ornaments helped them remember the ones their children had made and that had been lost. 

When teaching at the university level, two of my students spearheaded a project for a capstone class they were required to take.  They contacted local organizations and businesses and put together backpacks with various items in them for foster children.  Foster children may wind up moving to a new home or environment at a moment’s notice and often are not able to take much if anything along.

Has your school done anything like this?  Share your story!

It’s That Time of the Year!

It is that time of year again.  December.  The month when elementary teachers

  • Observe students that seem to gravitate to either eerily good or Grinch-like badness and sometimes both in a single day.
  • have to try to hush the kid who is bragging about there being no Santa Claus when she knows that another student fervently believes.
  • wish snowsuits could go on in 5 seconds or less and without teacher intervention
  • wish snowsuits came off in 5 seconds or less and without teacher intervention
  • dream they could take coffee intravenously
  • Ponder getting a long term sub so they can do the expected holiday things for their family AND for school
  • Secretly want Santa to lace the students’ drinking fountain with valium

I’ve seen new teachers go from chirping about how much they love Christmas to asking obsessively when the holiday break begins.  And I’ve watched the color drain out of their faces when they realize that the break is far shorter than the break they had during college.  Poor things.  Welcome to teaching!

All of the teachers I know talk about the stress that comes this time of year.  It doesn’t surprise  me.

Teaching at any time of the year is stressful.  And no wonder!  Having to constantly make decisions is stressful and teachers are estimated to, on average, make 1,500 decisions a day.  Having to constantly exert self-control is stressful, and teachers must keep tight self-control or they would be making sarcastic comments to students, snapping at parents, and telling insensitive supervisors where to go and what to do with it when they get there!  Teaching is one of the few professions where one cannot attend to bodily functions whenever one feels the need; teachers have to train themselves to go to the bathroom during prep time or recesses.  A 2017 survey reported by AFT says that teachers feel a lack of societal respect for a variety of reasons and feeling like one is being watched and judged constantly is another form of stress.

This is not mentioning the amount of paperwork, the long days, the constant pace of the school day, feeling like one is trying to teach more and more while the available time to teach it all has decreased . . . oh, and let’s not forget the day when you are starting a lesson you’ve planned so very carefully only to find that three kids are out with the flu, the internet is down so you can’t show the video clip and, oh NO!  Johnny just threw up on his desk.

Add to the generous amount of stress educators encounter on a daily basis to the stress many feel during the holidays and a teacher can feel like she is about to break in half.

So what’s a teacher to do?

I know you’ve heard this advice over and over again, and it is SO much easier to say it than do it:  You have to take care of yourself!  This means getting a reasonable amount of sleep at night, eating healthily, drinking enough water, and exercising.

I know it is easier said than done because I am struggling with doing those things myself.  I constantly wonder what I can do that will force me to choose wisely when it comes to food and will make me want to exercise despite the cold and early darkness and lack of will power.  One thing that was suggested to me was to put alarms into my phone reminding me to drink water or to get up and move.  I’m ready to try it!

Maybe we all can help each other?  Maybe we can approach another educator or school worker and ask him/her to be your school “mom”?  (You know, moms take care of everyone.  Who doesn’t need a mom to take care of us at school?)

I certainly am open to ideas on what and how to do these things!

The other thing we can do is this:  Create a “Why I Teach” file.  A WIT file is where you put those sweet notes kids periodically write to us, the email from that parent that said that nice thing, or even a photo of something good kids have done.  My WIT file has cards from kids and parents, notes from kids, emails with rather cryptic remarks that I’ve had to explain in the margin.  Your WIT file could have newspaper clippings, marvelous quotes from famous authors, funny cartoons.  It could be almost anything.  The idea is that you are collecting things that you can look through when you feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope.  It is a gift you give yourself for those times when you’d like to chuck the whole career out the window.

Most of the time I am fairly positive, but there have been times when the tongue-in-cheek newspaper clipping feels like it could happen and I have thought my WIT file was the only thing that could remind me of why I chose this profession.

There are a lot of people who will tell you that teachers make a difference.  But I’d like to echo Harry and Rosemary Wong when they say, “You ARE the difference!”

Take care of yourself, and take care of your fellow educators!  Have a good holiday!

 

Please share what you are doing to take care of yourself during this time of the year, and what you are doing to help take care of other educators.

Invisible Disabilities

December 3 was World Disability Day. For many people, disabilities are something visible, or something a teacher would encounter in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  That is true for some disabilities, but not for all.

Those of you who know me know that I am hearing impaired.  Being hearing impaired means having a nearly invisible disability, and having one that is often misunderstood.

I lost my hearing as an adult.  I caught a cold and my ears never recovered.  Yes, they did surgery, and no, it didn’t help.  I was teaching at the college level at the time and I did not tell students or colleagues to begin with.  As I discovered how little people understood hearing impairments and how much a lack of hearing affected the one with the impairment, I began to tell people.  I would let classes know about my hearing impairment on the first day, but I wouldn’t always say something later on when I didn’t understand something someone was saying.  I even had a couple of classes where students purposely would mock my inability to hear.  (Gee, I wonder why I didn’t think those students should become teachers!)

I decided I needed to help future teachers understand hearing and not hearing better.  I began to pass out foam ear plugs and encouraged students to try a class using one in one ear.  Many were astonished how much diminished hearing in one ear could affect their comprehension of the class.  I taught them a bit about how we hear and how we can lose part of our hearing.  I taught them about what hearing aids can and cannot do.  Many told me that they’d always be taught that hearing aids meant the person could now hear like “normal.”  Nothing could be further from the truth!

In retrospect, I could have done more to educate my colleagues.  But there is a part of me that wonders why I’m the one who is responsible for educating others.

If you are not standing near me at just the right angle, you might miss seeing my hearing aids.  That is not because I am trying to hide them, because I don’t.  Hearing aids today are easy to miss.  The parts that hook over the ears, like mine, are smaller than they were in the past.  Some people have hearing aids that are completely inside the ear.  The only clue for them is the tiny bead that is at the end of the part that helps the wearer remove them from the ear.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may miss the reason why I want to sit in a particular part of the room during a meeting.  I am an adult and know where I need to sit to have a better chance of hearing the speakers.  However, I will not try to do so if I’m met with resistance, or if I have to ask every time we have a meeting.  I won’t ask, but I will become resentful that my colleagues are not more understanding.  As time goes on, and that attitude is likely to color other interactions.

If you do not see my hearing aids and we are in a large meeting room, please do not say, “I don’t need the microphone.  I have a loud voice.”  You may have a loud voice, but I probably need both the amplification and to be able to see you to understand most of what you are saying.  I may be bold enough to say, “No, I need you to use the microphone, please.”  Many people are not so bold.  They may wind up staring out of the window or playing with their phones, not because they are rude but because they can’t understand what’s being said.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may keep talking to me when you’ve turned away so that I cannot see your mouth.  Many people think hearing aids make it so the wearer can hear everything that goes on.  Hearing aids do not give back “normal” hearing.  A hearing impaired person relies on many things to know what a person is saying.  They may need to actually see you, to be able to partially read your lips and to see your expression.  Hearing aids may  help mask tinnitus, but they do not make it go away completely.

If you do not see my hearing aids and I ask you to let me see what you are saying, you may just try to raise your voice.  That doesn’t help much.  Yes, hearing aids boost the volume of sounds, but those are only the sounds the person can hear.  There are sounds that are now higher than my ability to hear and lower than I can hear.  Just talking louder will never make me hear those sounds better.

If you do not see my hearing aids and I tell you I am hearing impaired, you may be tempted to talk louder and slower, and to use single syllable words.  My hearing loss has not affected my intelligence.  You do not need to simplify what you are saying.  I assure you, my intelligence will allow me to understand complex concepts.  I just need to be able to hear you or to see you in a way that allows me to read your lips.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may not understand why I am so reluctant to use the telephone.  If you see my hearing aids, you may not understand either.  Telephones are strange things to me.  Sometimes I hear the other person very well.  Sometimes I do not.  It has to do with the timbre of the person’s voice.  For example, I can hear one of my grandchildren just fine, and another I cannot understand at all.  My personal telephone uses an app that translates messages from voice to text.  I’ve asked for this to be part of the telephone system at work only to be told the system cannot do that.  Inside my own head I was angrily snapping, “Maybe it should!”  But I didn’t want to make more waves.  Yes, there are devices that allow totally deaf people to communicate using telephones, but I am not that profoundly deaf.

If you cannot see my hearing aids because you are calling me on the phone and you want to leave a message, please do not rattle off the phone number you want me to use to call you back.  It is highly embarrassing to have to ask a student to listen to a message and have them write down the phone number for me!  You don’t know if the person for whom you are leaving a message is hearing impaired or not.  It is only polite to state your phone number is a way that the listener has the best chance of understanding it.

If you do not see my hearing aids and you are talking about a current movie that I have not seen, do not assume I do not like movies.  I like movies a LOT.  I just cannot go to theaters that do not offer closed captions.  There are a lot of theaters that do not, and there are a lot of hearing impaired people who are too shy or too timid or too irritated to ask the theater for that kind of help.  Many theaters have young workers who do not know what to do with a hearing impaired person and may do any of the above when they are told you are hearing impaired or they may just act like being asked if they offer devices for the hearing impaired is a burden.  It often makes it a hassle to even try, so I tend to wait to see movies when they come out online.

If you do not see my hearing aids, or maybe even if you do, if I ask you to repeat what you’ve said, please do not sigh, or roll your eyes, or become exasperated.  I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t need to.

If you do see my hearing aids, you may think that all I need is to have the sound turned up.  I’ve even had movie theater workers tell me to just turn up my hearing aids.  I’ve been told the theater, or church offers sound amplification devices.  Amplification doesn’t help if the sound itself is out of my hearing range. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The problem may be that the sounds are out of my range of hearing, but there may be other issues as well.   Even though I’m hearing impaired, I am sound sensitive.  That means that loud noises and/or certain frequencies are like fingernails on a chalkboard.  There are sounds that make me yank my hearing aids out of my ears that fast!  (Come to think of it, young people may have no idea of what fingernails on a chalkboard sounds like!)

I’ve been told to go to events even if I cannot hear what is going on.  How many people will go someplace to sit without understanding what is happening for several hours?  Would you?

If I am in a hotel, I will want to be able to turn on closed captions to be able to watch TV.  I’ve been in some very classy hotels that do not have this ability on the room’s remote.  I’ve had to call the desk and have someone with the “normal” remote come and turn on the closed captions.  I’ve been in some where the clerk has just told me that they don’t have closed captions available.  It is both embarrassing to ask and exasperating to have to ask.  Maybe those hotels should advertise that they do not cater to hearing impaired people – oh, but that would be against the law, wouldn’t it?

Even if you know I’m hearing impaired, you may question why I have a handicapped tag for my car.  Part of my hearing impairment has affected my balance.  I’ve had people question my use of handicapped spaces enough that I am tempted to affect a limp when using the handicapped parking spaces.  Lately I’ve decided that I’m a big girl and I can tell when I’m having troubles with my balance and when I’m not.  I am the only one who knows when I need to park closer.  But that means I’ve had to try very hard not to see people’s faces or to not hear them tell me the handicapped spaces are for people who are “really handicapped”.

That brings us back to invisible disabilities.  There are many of them.  People who suffer from depression or anxiety may not be obvious.  They may take medication and still be depressed or anxious so telling them to take a pill can be insensitive, and can make them more depressed and more anxious.  We may not be able to see vision problems, autism, ADHD in adults, chronic illnesses, or learning disabilities.  That does not mean these disabilities do not exist.

Too often we’ve been lead to believe that disabilities mean something obvious.  In the 1970s when legislation was passed in the US requiring accommodations for children and adults with disabilities, we started seeing changes in textbook images and characters on TV.  Largely these images show people in wheelchairs or using crutches or white canes.  It is no wonder that we think of disabilities as something we can see.

I have been in education for 39 years.  I’ve had the opportunity to observe how children and adults with disabilities are treated.  If the student is learning at the same pace as his/her peers or if the disability does not require a teacher with specialized training, his/her disability does not have to be recognized through an IEP.  There may be something in the student’s file suggesting preferential seating, but that may be it.  Children are not always the best advocates for themselves.  They don’t know how to ask for more.  They also do not always know that there can even be something that would help them in the classroom, hallways, lunch room or playground.  (I have a great deal of trouble in lunchrooms.  The background noise prevents me from hearing.  The sound can overwhelm my hearing aids.  And my noise sensitivity may make it so I am overwhelmed.)  A child’s disability can even be a source of embarrassment.  I recall children who hid their glasses, or pocketed their hearing aids to try to be “normal.”  I even worked with an albino student who refused to wear her sunglasses, and always tried to sit in the sun – she cried and said she just wanted to be like everyone else.  Doesn’t every child?

If you are an educator, you may now be thinking, “Well, those kids should have 504 plans!”  For those of you who are not in education, a 504 plan is a legal document that outlines the accommodations a student needs to be successful in the classroom.  Students are eligible for a 504 plan if their disability does not require specialized instruction, but who need some “extra” things to reach their potential in the classroom.

In every school district in which I’ve worked, there has been great resistance to developing 504 plans.  I asked one superintendent why he would tell me to not allow 504 plans.  He said it would mean too much pressure on teachers and gave parents too much ammunition to “helicopter” their children, to not allow the children to learn without the parent hovering over them.

Yes, a 504 plan does require school districts and teachers to provide those accommodations to students.  It does allow parents and others to hold teachers accountable for those accommodations.  Yes, it does allow parents to legally advocate for their children.  And why shouldn’t educators be willing provide those accommodations?

If teachers have not received training in how to best work with a child with a 504 plan, they should be encouraged to get that training.  The school district should provide that training.  If the parent is willing to work with the teacher, the teacher should not be shamed by the school district or the parent.  I know from experience a four year degree does not allow enough time to learn everything a teacher needs to know!

The real point here is that we don’t know who does and who does not have a disability.  We should not wait to provide accommodations until someone asks.  We should not assume everyone around us is completely able-bodied.  If we aspire to being a kinder society, we should assume someone in any given group will need some accommodation.  And we should provide those accommodations without someone asking us to do it, without the law forcing us to do it, and without shaming the persons who need them.

So the next time I say, “Pardon me, I didn’t hear what you said”, please just look at me and repeat it.  Don’t sigh, or roll your eyes.  Don’t raise the volume of your voice and talk to me like I’m not bright.  Don’t make me always have to fight to be able to know what is going on.  And, frankly, don’t always make me ask!

When you come right down to it, all I’m asking for is to be treated with dignity and welcome.  I think I deserve it and I think everyone else deserves it too!

The problem with “I Statements”

Picture this:

It is time for math.  The students have been given a couple of problems to solve on their own.  While the rest of the class is busy with those problems, Anne has stopped working.  She is sitting with her arms crossed and has a scowl on her face.  She is staring daggers at Ms. Jones.  Ms. Jones really wants Anne to get to work.  When the teacher says something to Anne, the student begins to mock her by mimicking what Ms. Jones has said.

What should Ms. Jones say or do now?

Many teachers would say, “Anne, knock it off!  You are supposed to be working on your math  Why aren’t you doing that?”

According to those who advocate for using “I Statements”, the teacher has just put Anne on the defensive by being accusing.  If Anne feels defensive, she is more likely to act out furthe.r  Instead, they believe Ms Jones should use an “I Statement.”

“I statements” are a way of communicating with others in terms of what the speaker is feeling  They are in opposition to making “You Statements”, statements like “Anne, you are supposed to be working with the group.”  “I Statements” are supposed to be less accusatory, and are supposed to help the speaker to get the listener to stop doing something because s/he now knows how that behavior affects the speaker.

When using an “I Statement,” the teacher should say something like, “Anne, I feel hurt and frustrated when you mimic what I say instead of working.”  If we take the statement apart we see that speaker has phrased his/her statement by telling the listener what the listener’s behavior has made the speaker feel, and has turned it around from accusing the listener to communicating what the speaker feels as a result of the listener’s behavior

The idea of using such statements evolved from the work of psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987).  He is credited with developing a sort of non-directive therapy.  One of his clients, Thomas Gordon (1918-2002), was influenced by this kind of therapy to develop a series of training programs:  Parent Effectiveness Training (PET), Leadership Effectiveness Training (LET), and Teacher Effectiveness Training (TET).

TET was introduced in 1965 as a way of helping teaching develop better teacher-student relationships.  In this training, teachers are taught to communicate with students by using “I Statements”.  The premise is that teachers communicate to students that they are not valued by using certain phrasings, and they can also communicate that they are valued.  During the 30 hour training programs, teachers are taught better understand student behavior and to to use active listening when dealing with a student who is acting out.  They are also taught to use “I Statements”

There are several very useful parts to TET training.  Active listening is an important skill for teachers when meeting with a student or parent in a one-to-one setting, or when talking to a parent on the phone.  However, it is very difficult to use when trying to calm an angry student who is threatening to throw a chair, or when working with an oppositional or defiant student.

Every child will have its good and bad days  A truly oppositional child is something different.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, defines mental disorders like oppositional defiance.  The criteria listed in the DSM for diagnosing Oppositional-Defiant Disorder are symptoms that must have been happening for at least 6 months. The criteria include emotional and behavioral symptoms that last at least six months.  These are:

Angry and irritable mood:

  • Often and easily loses temper
  • Is frequently touchy and easily annoyed by others
  • Is often angry and resentful

Argumentative and defiant behavior:

  • Often argues with adults or people in authority
  • Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules
  • Often deliberately annoys or upsets people
  • Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior

Vindictiveness:

  • Is often spiteful or vindictive
  • Has shown spiteful or vindictive behavior at least twice in the past six months

In addition, the DSM classifies ODD into three levels of severity  These are:

  • Mild Symptoms occur only in one setting, such as only at home, school, work or with peers.
  • Moderate Some symptoms occur in at least two settings.
  • Severe Some symptoms occur in three or more settings.

Levels of severity aside, a teacher with an oppositional student knows that it almost always feels “severe” when THAT student is arguing with him/her, is defiant, or deliberately annoying the teacher.

Let’s think a bit about Anne’s behavior.  Ms. Jones has tried to communicate with Anne’s parents, but these conversations have left her feeling that she’s made the situation worse because the parents have over-reacted, or the parents tell Ms Jones that nothing they do will change Anne’s behavior.  Anne’s previous teachers and other current teachers have labeled Anne “a challenge” for several years.  Her older brother behaved in a similar way.  A couple of the teachers said they just gave up on Anne because it seemed like nothing they did helped.

Anne hasn’t been diagnosed with ODD, but she seems to fit the profile – and that profile is daunting.

So the advocates of Teacher Effectiveness Training would suggest that when Anne starts mocking Ms Jones and refusing to do her math, Ms Jones should use an “I Statement” to communicate how the teacher feels when Anne mocks her.  The idea is that by knowing how one’s behavior makes the other person feel, the person will mend his/her ways because s/he doesn’t want the other person to feel bad or feel bad about him/her.

Here is my issue with “I Statements”.  In the situation described above, is there any indication that Anne cares what the teacher feels?  I would suggest that Anne probably does not particularly like Ms. Jones, or at least doesn’t like her at that particular moment  In addition, the teacher probably does not have the time to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Anne.  If that is true, then will Anne particularly care how her behavior affects Ms Jones?

I went through Teacher Effectiveness Training back in the late 70s or early 80s  I see many good things in this approach to working with students.  However, there are parts of TET that I have come to believe are less effective.  I’ve come to those conclusions through using the strategies, observing others using the strategies, and through learning more about behavior, and linguistics

The words and tones we use convey messages beyond the simple meaning of the words.  There is the connotation, or underlying messages, in a communication.  If we think about the underlying messages that Ms. Jones is sending to Anne when she uses an “I Statement”, we can see some of the flaws in the strategy.  As mentioned previously, if Anne doesn’t already like Ms. Jones or care about how her behavior affects Ms Jones, then telling Anne about Ms. Jones feelings of hurt or sadness are unlikely to make Anne want to change.  Second, an oppositional student will use the knowledge that s/he is hurting the feelings of the other person as ammunition for further misbehavior directed at the teacher.  If Anne knows that mocking and mimicking the teacher hurts Ms. Jones’ feelings, and ruffles her feathers, then Anne is likely to act this way again in the future.  Remember, an oppositional person deliberately seeks to annoy or upset others.

“I Statements” simply do not work with THAT student, and, at worst, gives THAT student more leverage when she is engaging in oppositional behavior.

One may argue that if Ms. Jones wants to develop a better relationship with Anne, then her feelings have to come into play, that Ms. Jones is going to have to tell Anne how she feels because two people in a relationship of any kind must care about how the other is feeling.  While that is true, when Anne is being openly oppositional during a class, that is not the time to work on deepening the relationship.  It is also true that making statements that are likely to make Anne defensive won’t help much either.

Instead, using more neutral strategies would make sense.

Somewhere along the line, people began changing “I Statements” into phrasing directives in terms of what the other person needs, for example, “Anne, you need to do your math.”  The problem is Anne doesn’t feel any need to do math, and she doesn’t like math, so saying it is “you math” is likely to have Anne protesting that it is the teacher’s math, not hers.

In this case, being neutral means leaving “you” and “I” out of the mix.  Ms Jones does not want Anne to feel more defensive than she already does, so saying something like “you knock it off” wouldn’t work.  She doesn’t want to give Anne more ammunition, so saying something like “I feel hurt when you” doesn’t make sense.  She doesn’t phrase the directive in terms of anyone’s wants or needs.  The best approach is to try to redirect Anne while remaining calm and low key.  Something like this would work:  Ms Jones moves closer to Anne, but is standing a bit sideways presenting the smallest “barrier” or “threat” with her body  She says in a low, quiet voice, “Anne, get to work on the math problems.”  Or, “Anne, there is ten minutes left to do the math problems.”

Ms Jones has very simply stated what it is that Anne should do.

Here is a method I’ve used:

Step 1
Make sure you have the student’s attention by making eye contact, using the student’s name in a very calm, and business-like tone, or by using proximity.  Doing all three is best.

Step 2
State what you want the student to do.  Do not say what not to do.  Say what you want the student to do.  Use a calm, business-like tone, and use as few words as possible.

For example, do NOT say something like, “Anne, it’s time to take your math book out now, okay?”  or “Anne, it would be really nice if you would join us in doing math, so you need to get your math book out right now  Please?”  or “ANNE!  I told you to get your math book out right now!  Stop playing around and get to it!”  Or even, “Anne, I worry about you when you do not work on math because I don’t know how you will learn it without practice.”

The non-examples use too many words, put the directive in the form of a question, or demonstrate a loss of control by the teacher.  The student hears “okay?” or “please?” as making the behavior optional.  Shouting or becoming angry shows the student that his delaying strategy is working.  And putting the directive into an “I statement” just gives the student more ammunition for her defiance, or falls on deaf ears if the student doesn’t care what the teacher is feeling.

Saying “Anne, get to work on the math problems.  There is ten minutes left to do them” is clear and concise  There is no room for misunderstanding.

Step 3
Walk away!  Don’t give in to the impulse to breathe down the student’s neck.  Walk away and give the student 15 to 20 seconds to process the directive and to demonstrate that he is going to comply.

Step 4
If the student is showing ANY sign that he is beginning to comply with what you have told him to do, praise that partial effort.  Say, “Good  You have done the first problem.”.   Or say, “You have begun to work on that.  That’s a good start.”  And walk away again.

If the student has not begun to comply, you have a choice to make.  Will telling the student about a negative consequence that will happen if she continues help Anne understand what she is supposed to do, or is it best to further ignore Anne’s oppositional behavior?

In my opinion, the decision is rooted in what one can predict the outcome will be.  If the student’s defiance is quiet, if it is not harming anyone else’s learning,  and if the teacher believes that engaging with Anne about the behavior now would escalate the situation, then it would be acceptable to ignore the lack of compliance until later.  If the defiance is more overt, if it is distracting others in the class, or if it is preventing the teacher from teaching, then one must take the next steps.  That is, repeat the first 3 steps and add a choice.  For example, “Anne, you may choose to do these math problems now, or you may choose to do them during lunch.”

Then walk away!

Walking away means you cannot get sucked into an argument.  Remember, students  with ODD want to engage you in an argument.  You will not give the student more ammunition for her attempts to pull you into an argument or to make you lose your temper.  By presenting the choice in a calm, business-like manner, you are continuing to teach the class with minimal interruption.

Step 5
If the student has even partially complied, use positive feedback:  “Good, you have your book out.  Now turn to page 93.”  If the student has not complied in any way, follow through on the choices.  Use proximity and quietly say, “Michael, you chose to do this during lunch.  I will see you here in this room at 11:15.”

And walk away!  Become deaf to the face-saving behaviors the student might show.  These could be making a remark under his breath, or slamming the book on the desk top, or putting his head down and not participating in class at all.  Remember, s/he is doing this to try to engage you in an argument.  As long as the behavior is only preventing the student from learning the lesson planned for the day, ignore what the student is doing.  At this point, you only need to intervene if the student is preventing others from learning or the teacher from teaching.

Using this 5 step strategy means the teacher is not being controlled by the student’s behavior.  The teacher is being authoritative and not being either a doormat or aggressive.

There is a time and a place for using I statements.  They are very useful when two people have a working or personal relationship that both want to keep positive.  They do not work especially well with that student who is chronically defiant or oppositional.

OMG! I Yelled at THAT Student!

Let’s face it.  We are all human, and being human means we lose our temper sometimes.  Everyone gets angry.  Honest.  We all do.

All teachers get angry. Is yelling sending the message you want?

Yelling is one way we humans cope with anger.  It can be a way of telling others that we are angry.  If our goal is to communicate that we are angry, it works pretty well.  However, if our goal is to change THAT student’s behavior, it is not the most effective route.

I’ve interviewed many students over the years, at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels.  They have increasingly told me that a teacher who would yell became fair game to them.  It became a game to see if they could make the teacher lose his/her temper and yell.  I find that appalling and scary that more and more students find out of control behavior funny and desirable, and I could speculate for pages on end about why that has happened.  However, the purpose of pointing it out here is to show that yelling may actually play into THAT student’s hands.

Many challenging students do not have a role model for what to do when angry other than yelling, screaming, hitting, or destroying things.  These behaviors cause many children to become anxious, and researchers have begun to classify growing up in a chaotic household as trauma..  The yelling may, to them, signal that something scary is going to happen.  They may respond by acting like nothing bothers them, or they may act out or they may withdraw.  All of these can be signs that the child has experienced this sort of trauma.  And when a child has experienced trauma, they are more likely to not respond well to yelling, and they are honestly not able to make changes in their behavior.  Childhood trauma actually rewires the brain, and not in a good way.  (We’ll talk more about the effects of trauma in another post.)

Consider apologizing.  Now back in the dark ages when I was training to be a teacher, we were told to never apologize.  We were told that it would make us look weak.  I’m calling BS on that.  Apologizing demonstrates what a mature person does when they lose control.  THAT student probably NEEDS to see that people can say “sorry” and that it is not the end of the world.

We can be role models for other kinds of behaviors when a person is angry.

We may need to repeat the mantra, “I am the grown up.  I am the grown up. I am the grown up.” many, many times to avoid losing our temper and showing an alternative to yelling.

We may need to perfect our use of “the Look” – you know, the teacher look – in a way that says, “do not do that.”

We may need to train ourselves to speak in a much lower, quieter voice when we are angry.  I’ve found that students (and children and grand-children) really come to attention when I start speaking very softly and slowly while giving the Look.  One granddaughter witnessed me doing that with a car repair person.  Later she asked, “I wonder if he knew how close he was to dying?”

Consider what would go on inside THAT student’s head if you lowered your voice and said, “I’m too angry to talk to you about this right now.  I will talk to you right at the beginning of recess.”  (Or before lunch, or at the end of the class period, etc.)  What would THAT student be thinking?  His/her anticipation of what will happen is often communicates more than yelling at him/her would.

I taught fifth graders to leave me alone if I was “on vacation.”  That is, I would put a post card of a tropical beach up on my desk.  I’d written “on vacation, back in . . .” on it.  I also had a timer that I would set.  So my “vacation” might be 5 minutes or no more than 10 minutes.  I would use the time to get that homework ready for that sick student, or to file some paperwork, or to check email.  All the time I was doing that, I was taking deep breaths and thinking calming thoughts.

And speaking of interruptions, don’t they drive you crazy?  They do me!  And when I’m being driven crazy, I tend to get angry.

So the next thing to consider is “what are the things that happen in the classroom that make me angry” and then think of ways to avoid having those things happen.

I hate interruptions.  I’m not talking about the student who blurts something out.  I’m talking about things like when I’m working with this small group, and a constant stream of students suddenly have to ask, “Can I use the bathroom?”, “Can I get a drink?”, “Can get a pencil out of my back pack?”  You know what I mean.

I taught the students to write their questions on little white boards in a what that could be answered yes, or no.  If I was working with a small group, they could write on the white board, and walk to a place where they could hold it up and I could see it.  I could then nod my head yes, or shake my head no.  I found this really helped me avoid getting angry about interruptions.

What things in the classroom tend to make you angry?  Make a list.  Now think about how you could structure things to help prevent those things happening.  Can you create a procedure?  (Remember, any procedure must be taught, practiced, and reinforced.)

Above all, think about this:  behavior of any kind is a sort of communication.  When babies “act out” we recognize that they are telling us that they are hungry or wet or tired or need cuddling.  We tend to forget that children, adolescents, and even adults do things to communicate needs.  Consider what THAT student’s behavior is telling you.  Sometimes if we treat situations as a puzzle or a mystery to be solved, we are less likely to be angry about it and more likely to treat it as data.

We’ve known for a long, long time that the most effective thing to do when trying to change student behavior is to notice and recognize the positive things a student does.  Positive recognition helps the student know what it is s/he should do again.  If we only tell kids what they’ve done wrong, they never learn what they should do instead.

Now, I do not mean giving students tangible rewards.  Giving kids candy, or stickers, or a trip to the treasure box does not change behavior for the better in the long run.  Instead studies show that it actually decreases student engagement in whatever the task is.  Other studies have shown that giving tangible rewards for anything beyond rote memorization actually decreases productivity.  (I highly recommend Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on the subject.  You can see a YouTube video of it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc )

What are the consequences of teaching students to do something only if they get a reward for it?

In addition, it is good to think about the underlying message we send when we reward behaviors or academics with tangible rewards.  Are we saying that this is only worth doing if we get something for it?  Are we saying that the good feeling we get when we succeed at something is not enough?

Tangible rewards can be useful with some students who have challenging behavior.  However, that practice comes with some limitations.

First, the goal of using tangible rewards to change behavior is to make that behavior go away, or to replace it with a different behavior.  To do that, we have to wean the student off the tangible rewards because eventually we want the student to do X without the reward.

Second, the reward must mean something to the student.  If I don’t particularly like chocolate, giving me a mini candy bar for X isn’t going to mean a lot to me.  (Yes, there are people who do not like chocolate.  I’m one who can take it or leave it.)

Third, the reward has to be something attainable.  I’ve seen too many children who have been set up to fail because of this.  For example, Cody’s* parents promised him that if he did not have any trips to the principal’s office for the whole 9 weeks, they would buy him a bicycle.  Cody wound up being sent to the principal’s office during the first week.  Cody usually was in the principal’s office 3 or 4 times a week, so being sent only once during a week was actually a real improvement.  It showed he was really trying to make a change.  But it also meant he wasn’t going to get that bike.  As a result, Cody now had nothing to lose and his behavior actually got worse.

*Names are changed for confidentiality purposes.

Fourth, many students with challenging behavior respond to rewards only if they are given by someone the student believes likes him/her, and who has a relationship with him/her.  If THAT student perceives the teacher as his/her enemy, all the candy bars in the world won’t change his/her behavior.  It is true, however, that some many change their behavior just enough to get the reward, but often it is done with a heavy dose of the attitude that says,  “I’m just doing this to get that thing, I still hate you and I am still going to make trouble.”

And, finally, I’ve noticed that students who receive a lot of tangible rewards develop what I call the “what’ll ya gimme” syndrome.  That is, they do not do things just because it is the right thing to do.  They will only do things after asking, “What’ll ya gimme?”  For example, I had a group of fifth graders lined up to come into the building.  A bit of trash blew along the line and I, “Please someone pick up that trash and throw it in the bin on the way in.”  Every student watched the trash roll past them.  One finally said, “What’ll ya gimme if I do it?”  I looked at him, blinked, and said, “A nice big smile and a thank you.”  He let the trash lay there, and I began reflecting on what rewards were doing to children.

So if yelling doesn’t work, and rewards tend to backfire, what can a teacher do about THAT student?

I read a blog somewhere where the teacher said she would greet THAT student at the door in the morning and say, “I’m planning to make a call to your mom today to tell her the good things you are doing.  Make sure you are doing something today that I can tell her about!”  How ingenious!  It puts THAT student on notice to do good things and it makes the teacher notice them.  It is a win-win.

Think about how to offer a student encouragement when you notice s/he is trying to make changes or when s/he takes a baby step in the direction you want him/her to go.  (In another post I talked about the formula to use for praise or encouragement.)  Remember, THAT student can’t do whatever that positive thing is again if s/he doesn’t know what it is.  Think of encouragement as a way of getting students to replicate positive behavior.

If you are thinking, “Easier said than done,” you are likely right.  But also think about this:  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is ineffective as well.  Maybe it is time to try something new.

Teach students that when they see this picture to give the teacher a 5 minute “vacation”

Can THAT student really learn?  Maybe . . .

I recently had dinner with a friend who teaches special education at the high school level.  She was telling me about the difficulties she is having with some of the students.  (Confidentiality was not broken.)  At some point she responded to something I said by saying “No!  They CAN’T learn!”

It got me to thinking.

I have worked my whole life with students who were classified as “can’t learn”.  I was the parent to a child who was labeled in the same way.  I know from experience that people can and do learn when given the chance.  They can even blossom in ways that exceed our wildest dreams.  I also know  there are certain conditions that make their ability to learn increase or decrease.  I know THAT student can be made better or worse by the things we do.

We cannot, however, do it all!

Educators can control the environment in which THAT student is schooled.  We can control, to some extent, THAT student’s interactions with others.  We can ensure that our interactions with THAT student are equitable.  We can set aside our negative thinking and look for the positive in THAT student.  We can examine our beliefs and our attitude about THAT student.

Yes, we can make great advances with parents.  We can show them we know they love their child.  We can show them we care about their child.  We can go into conferences with a positive attitude and stick to what is observable and measurable.  We can make “good news” phone calls and work together with them for the benefit of the child.

But there are somethings we cannot control.

Students spend more than 2/3 of their lives outside of school.  They spend it sleeping, with parents, with other young people, and in front of screens.  We educators have absolutely no control over what those experiences are like.

Take sleep for example.  Adolescents need between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep, but most get only 7 and many get much less.  Experts recommend that children aged 6 to 13 get nine to eleven hours of sleep and kindergarteners get 10-13 hours per night.  Few young people get this much sleep.  We know that a lack of sleep negatively affects a person’s ability to learn and to behave “appropriately” in school.

Educators can provide parents with information, but we cannot control how much sleep students get.

Continue reading Can THAT student really learn?  Maybe . . .

Does Sugar Make Kids Hyper?

Today is Halloween and I’m seeing posts on Facebook that refer to teachers and parents dreading Halloween because of the way candy (allegedly) makes kids hyper.

So does Halloween candy make kids hyper?

The research done back in the 1990s showed that sugar does NOT make kids or anyone else hyper.  There are a lot of scientific and medical explanations for this, but it really comes down to a question of what happens when parents and teachers believe this?  What’s going on?  Why do normal children turn into hellions on Halloween?

The answer has more to do with expectations and routines than with sugar.

Let’s look at three reasons that explain why the behavior of “good kids” changes during the Halloween season.

The self-fulfilling prophesy
Parents and teachers who believe that sugar changes children’s behavior communicate that belief to the children in many ways.  Some even say to kids something to the effect of “now that you’ve had all that Halloween candy, you will act crazy.”

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, our beliefs have power.  Whether we tell children our beliefs out loud or not, those beliefs are communicated through our behavior.  One article about the effects, or non-effects, of sugar on children’s behavior pointed out that parents who believed sugar made their children act out tended to position themselves closer to the child, and they tended to criticize the child’s behavior more.  (https://www.livescience.com/55754-does-sugar-make-kids-hyper.html )  We know from other studies of teacher behavior that the more a teacher criticizes student behavior, the more likely the child will act out.

Changes in class procedures and routines
In addition to our changed expectations of kids around Halloween, the classroom routine is changed.

Kids crave routines.  A well-managed classroom has a set of daily routines that provide a framework for the day.  Consider how different the kids’ normal behavior is in October compared with August.  By now, in most classrooms, the class routines and procedures are well-established and the teacher rarely has to remind students of this procedure or that.  But if those routines are changed, kids will start testing the limits to figure out where those limits are again.

I used to have the college level students think back on how student behavior changed on days when a class party was scheduled, or the school day was shortened, or, as is done in some middle and high schools, the day is reversed so that the last period of the day is the first period.  When the familiar routine of the school day is disrupted, kids’ behavior gets out of whack as well.

Changes in visual stimuli
If the kids are wearing their costumes to school, the level of visual stimuli has changed.  In the article, “Dos and Don’ts of Classroom Decorations” (https://www.edutopia.org/article/dos-and-donts-classroom-decorations ), author Youki Terada reviews the studies that show that too much visual stimuli can affect children’s ability to learn and their behavior.  The article suggests that there can be too little to look at in a classroom as well as too much (Terada, 2018).  The answer lies somewhere in the middle, or as my grandmother used to say, “Moderation in all things.”

Even if the classroom décor is in that “just right” range, Halloween can throw kids off.  Who can avoid looking at Cindy’s princess costume, or Peter’s Spiderman?  When students are wearing costumes, there are suddenly 20-25 brand new things to look at.  Is it any wonder that students seem to have stopped paying attention?  In reality, they are not paying attention to the teacher, but they sure are paying attention to other things in the classroom.

How to avoid Halloween behavior problems
Here are things you can do to avoid the behavior problems that seem to haunt Halloween and the days after.

  1. Review class procedures regularly during Halloween season.  When we anticipate that kids will stray from the established procedures, it is time to review them.  I recommend that the teacher remind students of a procedure before having them do any procedure on October 31 through November 3, and again after the weekend.

    Doing this might look like this:
    “Class, in just a moment, I’m going to tell you it is time to line up.  Don’t move until I tell you to!  Now, I want you to tell me the procedure for lining up.  What is the first step?  Cindy?  That is correct, the first step is to listen to see which pod goes first.  What is the next step?  Peter? . . . “

  2. Make Halloween and the following days highly structured days. These are not the days to take a walk to look for signs of fall, or the days to have students doing a science experiment that has the potential for getting out of hand.  This goes for class parties as well.  If we give students “free time” for a party, we are inviting disaster.  Instead, play learning games while nibbling on those class treats.  Play vocabulary or math games, and keep the party time to a minimum.  This doesn’t mean the class shouldn’t have time for laughs.  By all means, read fun stories aloud to the class, play those academic games, tell corny Halloween jokes, etc., but make sure the teacher is in control of what the activities are.
  3. Be prepared! This motto doesn’t just belong to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  It is a teacher’s best friend as well.  Before the day begins, think about what can go wrong.  Then think of ways to avoid that thing going wrong.  It does not mean eliminating the activity altogether, but it does mean helping students avoid problems.

    For example:  You want to send two students to get milk for morning snack just like you do every day of the school year.  But this is Halloween season and one of the things that can go wrong with this procedure is that the two milk monitors stop and stare into just about every classroom on the way to and from the milk cooler.  Knowing this, the teacher makes a point of saying to the milk monitors, “I know there is a lot of stuff to see on the way to the milk cooler and back, but we are counting on getting that milk in ___ minutes.  Can you do that?  Can you make absolutely sure you can get there and back in that amount of time without running?    Now I’m going to start the timer right about now.  Walk, and we’ll be waiting for you.”

I doubt Halloween or the days that follow will be any teacher’s favorite of the year.  There is too much potential for kids to act out or get off track.  Even if the teacher does everything in his/her power to do to make sure behavior issues are kept at a minimum during this time, we have no control over what the expectations and procedures are at home.  All we can do is keep looking for the good in students and structure the school day to minimize problem behavior.

Have a Happy Halloween, and have some fun!