By Janice Burch
All of us know that dealing with behavior issues can be more difficult than dealing with academic issues. With academic struggles, we usually have a clear understanding of what the student can and can’t do, and what skills and strategies we need to teach them. We can also monitor academic progress much easier than we can monitor behavior issues. Behavior isn’t as black and white as academics; there are shades of gray when it comes to emotions, relationships, and feelings.
I never realized how much I was interested in the kids that really seemed to struggle in a school setting. They always had a hard time just going with the flow and behaving like the other kids. In my mind, everything seemed like a battle of wills, and I started to wonder if they woke up every morning and planned out how to be more disruptive and disrespectful than the day before. Honestly, I’m not sure when it exactly started, but I found myself very intrigued by these tough kids.
There were always one or two in the classroom that stood out, so I started really watching these kids and trying to figure out what made them tick. I felt like a detective and as I investigated I started taking their outbursts less personally. Not surprisingly, this helped me respond to them in a more appropriate way and would keep me from escalating the situation unintentionally.
I knew within the first few weeks of school which students were going to be my challenges. I knew I would be spending a lot of time with them and getting to know them very well! I would do a lot of experimenting with my responses to these tough kids, trying to figure out how I could reach them at a level where they could start being more successful. Trust me, it wasn’t easy, and things definitely did not always go smoothly. However, I kept remembering that they were part of the class and part of the school—even if it seemed like they really didn’t want to be.
I started keeping their behaviors separate from them as a person. I worked really hard at finding connections with these tough kids: looking for their strengths and passions. Some students were easier to connect with than others, and having that relationship didn’t always guarantee they would follow directions and make appropriate choices. But it certainly helped create the opportunity for them to try. Whenever I found myself getting frustrated or mad, I would put myself back into the detective role and try and figure out what was going wrong.
I knew that challenging kids were put into my room every year and I was willing to take them on, but I hadn’t really thought about why. I didn’t realize that I looked forward to that challenge, and didn’t realize just how much time I spent thinking about how to support each of those kids. When my supervisor, Albert Felts, first suggested that I pursue a position in behavior, I thought he was crazy. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it truly was a passion.
I felt that, if I could get the toughest kid in class to engage in learning, and be willing to try, then I could certainly get all of the other kids to do the same thing. In a lot of ways, this is how I’d measure my success each year. After all, most of the other kids would learn and be successful no matter who was teaching them, but the kids with behavior challenges? They needed someone willing to teach them in spite of their behaviors; someone who wouldn’t give up. It wasn’t easy, in fact it was often tiring and frustrating, but in the end, it made a difference for those kids to know that one person in their life was there for them, rooting them on, and caring for them.
Now, in my role as a behavior specialist, I find myself trying to help teachers consider the approach they’re taking with tough kids, and providing strategies and supports that help these teachers and students. Teaching is incredibly difficult and demanding, and it gets more so every year. It’s never easy, but if the teacher and the student can end the year with common ground and some positive feelings about their experiences, then to me, that is success.