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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Public Schools Educate Difficult Children or Just Maintain Them?

By Peter DeWitt — October 28, 2012 6 min read
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They wanted Jade to move. It didn’t matter if they were an aide, teacher or principal, when she walked in they didn’t want to engage with her. When Jade didn’t want to do work in the classroom she fell to the floor and began having a temper tantrum. It seemed like 2 year old behavior coming from the 7 year old body. She moaned and hissed at other students. Sometimes she even smiled when she walked away from students knowing that she scared them. It made her feel better.

When she announced she was moving to another public school the staff secretly wanted to offer to drive her to the new school that day to get the paperwork filled out. Although they had not heard the news from Jade’s mother, they were wishing on the brightest star that it was true. They probably would have offered to do a bake sale to raise money so she could attend a private school if she didn’t announce the news about the new school she would be attending.

Her mom didn’t help. She would e-mail the staff here and there offering a promise that she would do a better job working with her at home. Home, if that’s what you call it. She lived in the basement of one of the school’s needier families. She told staff that she slept on a couch and even suggested that mice ran around the living room. Child Protective Services did not help because it was an adequate living arrangement. The staff never really found out if the mice existed but they did know the house was not the most stable living environment.

Jade was supposed to get outside counseling but those sessions were few and far between. They weren’t frequent enough to give her what she really needed so instead she learned that if she dropped to the floor and screamed and cried she would get what she wanted. The teacher, counselor and principal were trying to break that habit when she announced the news about her move.

Schools do not always do a good job dealing with difficult children, especially when they can’t break them of bad habits or fix long term problems quick enough. Now that educators are labeled as the “Teacher of Record (TOR)” those children are seen more as a nuisance than a challenge worth taking on. Only a small percentage of teachers enjoy taking on difficult to like children. Many schools don’t educate difficult or oppositional children, they maintain them.

Difficult Children
What do difficult or oppositional children get when they act out? They must get something. Do they feel a sense of purpose knowing that their teacher hopes they will be absent? Most parents of difficult children do not keep their kids home. It’s a sad really that parents who raise these kids teach them at a young age that they don’t want to spend time with them.

However, no one wakes up when they are seven saying they want to get into trouble when they get to school. If they do, it’s because they haven’t had anyone meet their needs at home for a long time or they have something going on inside that prevents them from taking positive steps in school. Many children want to fit in. They want friends and want to do well in school. So what’s the benefit of acting out and how do schools best meet their needs during a time when these students are looked at as a barrier to APPR?

How do schools meet the needs of the emotional stressed students? When students don’t get their basic needs met it is unlikely they will come to school and get their work done. But perhaps that is part of the issue. For them, it’s about getting their work done and not about getting an education. School is not seen as something to do in order to grow up and get a good job or find a passion. They haven’t made that connection.

Ultimately, is this disobedience or is it a disability? Does their disability prevent them from behaving in the ways school wants them to or is it a learned disobedience? Disobedient children have parents who didn’t have discipline with them so therefore they know they will get what they want when they act out. Differentiating between a disobedient child and one with a disability, especially during stressful times for teachers and principals is not an easy task.

Low Expectations
Unfortunately, teachers may believe other students are worthy of an education and difficult children are seen as students who have to make it through the day. These children know we have low expectations for them. When they actually complete an assignment the teachers are happy and the children learn they can do the bare minimum and get away with it.

No matter whether schools have students entering with oppositional behavior or a student shows it in the middle of the year, schools have to be proactive and reactive at the same time. Building relationships with students is the way to proactively meet the needs of these students in need. Even with a student with a known oppositional behavior, schools need to establish some sort of relationship with them. It’s when they continue to break the rules that schools have to be reactive and discipline these hardest to meet students.

Students who are oppositional need a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). FBA’s require a great deal of prep. Students who are misbehaving need to have their behavior documented over a span of a few days. The following questions need to be asked:

• When does it happen?
• What instigates the behavior?
• What is the discipline that takes place after the behavior?

Part of the FBA process is to also come up with proactive interventions to use with students. With parent permission schools can offer hug vests or weighted vests. In addition, they can begin their day with sensory interventions or participate in Brain Gym. Many students with behavior issues have unmet sensory needs. These are ways that we can try to meet the needs of difficult students.

In the End
Difficult students enter our doors every year. They may enter at the beginning of the year or move to us mid-year. They may also be students that we see year after year. Most of them are dealing with some sort of internal struggle which prevents them from participating in school activities and hinder them from contributing positively to the classroom environment. There are many ways that teachers, counselors and principals can meet the needs of these students and FBA’s are one of those ways.

However, in An Examination of the Relation Between Functional Behavior Assessment and Selected Intervention Strategies With School by Terrance M. Scott et al. they found that with “intervention plans for students with challenging behaviors, there is no compelling evidence supporting the ability of school-based personnel to use the outcomes of FBA to develop effective interventions”. This means that the team working with students have to be on the same page and implement an FBA with integrity if they plan on getting any real value out of the process. Implementing with integrity means that teachers and staff have to consistently follow the interventions in the FBA.

The greatest thing about the public school system is that we get children from all walks of life. They grow up in different environments and see things many of us have never seen. Some of these students come to schools with deep internal struggles and there are times when educators are the only ones who can meet their needs.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.