Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Difficult Kids

I posted this meme on Facebook:

We have all had "difficult" students in our classes. I actually feel like we are actually seeing more extreme behaviors year after year. In my humble opinion, the combination of growing up in a digital world where everyone seems more disconnected added to what seems like less recognition by adults on the importance of consciously teaching kids how to deal with their feelings-- I believe has made it difficult for many students to assimilate to school situations.

This past school year I saw the most aggressive and destructive behaviors that I have ever seen. Resources thrown across the room, torn up books, furniture destroyed. Tables were flipped over and chairs thrown-I had to put my classroom back together on a daily basis. This student would run out of the classroom into the parking lot, actually tried to climb over the fence to escape the campus at recess. I was bitten, slapped, punched, kicked. I went home with bruises, a split lip, a black eye, swollen knees and drove home many days completely stressed and upset because I felt completely inadequate. Always walking on eggshells trying not to do something that would set him off.

I wanted to share what I learned from this experience because as I said, I think many educators will face the same challenges in upcoming years.

1) You cannot let the stress and pain that the student is causing you show. Yes, you are frustrated, yes you are sometimes angry (I spent my own money on those resources that are being destroyed). But the other students will take their cues from you and you have to show that you still love that student just like all the others. I would say something like "I love you all" and a kid would ask even that student. Yes, of course! We had conversations after he was removed from the classroom about how everyone doesn't act the same way-this is what you can do that would be helpful, yelling at him and calling him bad is not helpful. I set the tone and these students tried to do whatever they could to help. We had a code word and if I said it there were 2 assigned students who would go next door and get help. If I had to run after him, I wanted someone to still be watching the students. If I had to evacuate the classroom, a student was the "manager" in the hallway making sure everyone was sitting down quietly while I tried to calm my student down in the classroom. They were part of the solution.

I worked with a teacher once who had a student that in hindsight was probably autistic. She couldn't stand the behaviors he exhibited and said when students would say "I hate you" to him she encouraged it because she wished she could say those words. I was appalled. That student was sent to my class one day when he was acting up for a sub and I had a talk with my students beforehand. Look, he's going to part of our class today and we are going to treat him like a member of our class. They were doing a group project and he gave an answer to the problem. One of my students said "you are really smart". I could see it on his face, he was so happy to finally be accepted. You set the tone.

2) Ask for help when you need it. This was incredibly difficult for me. I have been teaching for 18 years. We got a new principal last year and I didn't want his impression of me to be a high-maintenance teacher who couldn't handle her class. I had colleagues making comments about they would never let a student act like that in their class. It got to the point where I was literally losing hours of instruction every day. I needed help. 

3) You can get through this. I see posts from teachers all the time quitting because of situations like this and I understand it. I really do. It's almost like being in an abusive relationship. You think to yourself-I don't deserve this. I show up every day and I just want to teach. But this too shall pass. Hang in there.

4) Be open to new ideas. I tried everything anyone suggested to me. At one point our diagnosticians said to just let him do what he wanted to do. He liked to play with legos and draw. I was against this at first. I thought if we just let him do what he wants and not requiring him to do the work the other kids were doing it wasn't fair. But you know what, as soon as we started doing that I could actually teach again. Everyone was more calm. We had these major outbursts 2-3 times per week instead of 2-3 times a day. I'm glad I had been convinced to try that.

5) Don't give up on them. Every behavior stems from a need. Our job is to figure out what that need is and try to fill it. 

I will say I sent a letter to my district leaders asking them to consider offering more training for these situations and to make the process easier. This student was with me for 6 months before testing was complete for a referral. There really should be an emergency process in place.

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