What About “Problem Children”?

I am a huge advocate of teachers sharing background information about their students. The more I know, from all sources and perspectives, the better I can understand the reasons for a child’s behavior. I am curious about a favorite pastime, family and cultural history, academic abilities and progress, personality, likes and dislikes and emotional maturity. I want to know what makes them happy and sad and how they deal with stress and frustration. 

In my professional experience this information sharing, which usually happens at the end of the school year, has been done more or less successfully. More so in schools where teachers understood that behavior is a form of communication and had the best interest of children in mind. Less so in schools where teachers treated unwelcomed behaviors as problems that needed to be fixed and information sharing became a tool to label children and warn colleagues about them. Labeling should be avoided at all cost as it puts students in a position of beginning a relationship with a new teacher at a disadvantage.  

I had plenty of students in my classes over the years that other teachers winked about, telling me to brace myself. Children who acted insubordinate, rude and disruptive in class. Children whose parents offered no support and always took their side. Most schools I worked in dealt with behavior problems by pulling children out of class to attend a “social group” and having them meet with a psychologist, usually during subjects they really enjoyed. If they didn’t finish their work, they may have been kept during recess to finish. For bigger infractions, there was detention – spending an entire day out of class, busying themselves with drawing or pretending to fill in assigned worksheets. There were charts and stickers and there were consequences for every infraction, even the smallest one.  Parents have been called, school directors involved, etc., etc. I found all those systems highly ineffective.

In the spirit of being a reflective practitioner, I began compiling my own list of ways to address unwelcome behaviour in class. The list is a work in progress and only includes strategies that I’ve tested, implemented and deemed successful. It is my strong belief that those strategies will not only help with unwelcome behavior, but also keep it from happening in the first place.

  1. Begin relationships by establishing a strong bond

It is known that students respond better to teachers with whom they have a strong relationship. For a strong bond to form you have to convince your students you care and you will never give up on them.  

  • Express genuine interest in every child and show empathy. 
  • Make sure your students know you are their ally before you try to modify their behavior.   
  • Show them their opinions matter and can be different from opinions of their peers. If you invite your students to defend their views, they may learn to better understand and value different perspectives.
  • Treat infractions as conversation starters and teaching moments.   This openness and listening with interest might offer you a window to deeper understanding of the behavior on display. For this one, I have a story. One day I promised stickers to children who completed their work. A boy said:  “What is so special about a sticker?” His comment was quite rude and I could have reacted wish scolding him for his tone of voice. Instead, I replied: “Well, each child is different. You may not care about stickers but many children do. Did you see how excited the rest of the class got?” Later I realized that his reaction was prompted by the fact that he knew there was no chance he would be one of those early-finishing, stickers-receiving children. That was my window to the underlying cause (or at least one of them) for his behavior! 
  1. Address underlying causes not symptoms

Remember that all behaviors are a form of communication. In order to recognize the cause of any problem behavior, you need to know your students. As a teacher, I always care more about “why” rather than “what”.  A child displayed aggressive behaviour? Why? Without knowing why, a teacher can only punish a child for inappropriate behaviour instead of addressing the root of the problem and designing an intervention for that root. Children might display the same behaviors but for very different reasons. Is the child acting out and refusing to do work because he is tired?  Is it because he knows he cannot complete it, does not know how to ask for help and does not want to look bad in front of other children?  

  • Make a list of positive qualities each of your students possesses.   
  • Ask questions. 
  • Listen.  
  1. Solicit their help in class

Admitting that sometimes you might need help and letting children perform ‘helping hands’ tasks makes them feel part of the community. I am not talking about classroom jobs that are posted on your wall each week. I am talking about situations where you begin to teach and you realize you could give control of this particular task to one of your students. You would be surprised by how responsibly your students will act if you trust them to lead an activity or facilitate a discussion. It will engage your regular talkers and build confidence and empower your less talkative students. You may even hear them use your own words while they address their peers!

  1. Pick your battles

The truth is, children often display quite a plethora of unwelcomed behaviors in the course of a day. Pick your battles. Do not try to fix them all at the same time. If you can let some of those behaviors go, do so. Fair is not equal – there is nothing wrong with treating each child slightly differently as long as it is done fairly.  

  1. Clean the slate with every interaction

Just like you would not assume your students know how to solve a math problem, do not assume they know how to act responsibly in a community. We tend to enforce social skills instead of teaching them. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and we cannot assume they are all growing up in the same environment with the same values. Do not label children and do not give up on them! Labeling children is never right for two reasons. One, it may lead to a self fulfilling prophecy when a child subconsciously takes on a role assigned to him or her and begins to display more unwelcome behaviors. Two, children grow and change every day – they may act out one day and display amazing maturity another day.

  1. Give space to make mistakes and choose better

Model growth mindset. Nothing will have a stronger effect on your students than seeing you make a mistake, recover and try again. Children will misbehave and test boundaries, so don’t be surprised if they do. Treat problems as teaching moments and emphasize the value of mistakes. 

  1. Validate feelings, modify actions

Children have strong feelings and they are usually very honest about them. That combined with various social, cultural and religious backgrounds often means we cannot expect our students to magically know how to deal with their emotions – it is something that needs to be taught. So, show empathy, validate a child’s feelings and make it clear that it is OK to feel them. We cannot avoid or control feelings. What we can control is our actions. Give your students tools to express their feelings in a competent way – to use self control, see the world from someone else’s perspective, take responsibility and accept consequences.

I used to complain that as time goes by I teach less and less academics and more and more how to behave. What used to annoy me, now makes me feel privileged and powerful. As an educator, I have the power to fill a gap in social emotional learning by teaching my students how to be a part of a community. Each unwelcomed behavior is a teaching moment and an excellent opportunity to incorporate social emotional learning into the curriculum.  

In addition to teaching content, educators have a responsibility to teach social emotional skills, to create a classroom community with equal access to the curriculum, a place where everyone feels safe and valued. A community we would all want to be part of. And we cannot accomplish that without battling through many teaching moments. If we are successful, our guidance will become a foundation for young people to later spread empathy, kindness and fairness into their lives outside of school and later, hopefully, into their adulthood.

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