Students Who Challenge Us
As articles in this month's EL make clear, confronting, guiding, and even appreciating the "difficult" behaviors of students teachers find challenging isn't an add-on to good teaching. It's at the heart of good teaching. But dealing well with challenging behaviors doesn't follow automatically from being a caring person or even a skilled instructor. As Laurie Boyd, ("Five Myths About Student Discipline," p. 62) says, even during a great lesson with a great teacher, students may act up.
To Reach Them, Recognize Strengths
Skillfully handling challenging behaviors requires persistence and deliberate practice. According to Thomas Armstrong, ("First, Discover Their Strengths," p. 10) a good way to start is by applying the positive attitudes most of us hold about diversity in nature to diversity among students' brains and learning styles, including for students who have been given an official label, such as Attention Deficit Disorder (see "Ferrari Engines, Bicycle Brakes," p. 36), autism (see "Call Me Different, Not Difficult," p. 40), or Tourette syndrome (see "Tourette Syndrome in the Classroom," p. 46). The neurodiversity movement argues that students who approach information or interactions in atypical ways aren't deficient, just differently wired. According to Armstrong, they shouldn't be called "disabled":
We don't look at a calla lily and say that it has "petal deficit disorder;" we appreciate its beautiful shape. We don't say that a person with a different color skin than our own has a "pigmentation disability" … . Similarly, we shouldn't label students as ADHD or as learning disabled, for example, just because they have different ways of paying attention or learning. Instead, we ought to honor and celebrate those differences (p. 12).
- Take some time to discuss the phrase "learning disabled." What exactly does the phrase mean or imply? Is it the best term to use for students like those Armstrong describes? What might be a better term?
- Do you agree that "there is no typical mental capacity—no ‘normal’ brain to which all other brains are compared"?
- Armstrong recommends focusing on each student's assets, including strengths that often come with a particular learning difference. Think about a student who challenges you and make a list of that student's strengths.
In an ASCD video connected to his book "Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom," Thomas Armstrong makes a connection between appreciating the strengths of students with learning differences and using Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences in the classroom. In Part 6 of this video, he suggests practical ways teachers might improve their classroom management by keeping in mind that different students are likely to be stronger in different intelligences—some will excel in linguistic intelligence, some in musical, some in kinesthetic, and so on. Teachers can reach and motivate more students if they use varied classroom management techniques—for example, sometimes using words to call the class to order, sometimes playing soft music, and sometimes prompting children to move their bodies a certain way.
- Watch the video and discuss the suggestions Armstrong makes in Part 6 for varying your classroom management strategies. Could you try some of these things to reach students who don't seem to respond as well to verbal requests or to your usual classroom management style?
The ABC's of Behavior
Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan ("Cracking the Behavior Code," p. 18) describe an approach that helps teachers deal with their toughest kids—those whose behavior drains teachers' optimism and disrupts everyone's learning. Two underlying points they make are: (1) "difficult" behavior usually serves some function for a student, and (2) how a teacher responds to that student makes a difference in whether the difficult behavior continues or drops off. Problematic behavior serves one of four purposes: to let a student escape something, gain a tangible thing, engage in a sensory activity, or get attention. Typical teacher responses to challenging behavior often reinforce that behavior by giving the student what he or she was after in the first place, such as an escape from a classroom activity.
- The authors suggest that, to understand a challenging kid's behavior pattern, a teacher should take "ABC" notes each time that student has an incident. Read their description of how Ms. Silva used ABC notes to get a handle on a boy's behavior. Think of a student who exhibits behavior that's a big problem in your class. In the coming month, take ABC notes right after each problematic incident with that student.
- Do you see a pattern in what precedes the behavior, or in what kind of consequences you usually give the student afterwards? What purpose might that child be trying to achieve with his or her behaviors—and do your consequences inadvertently help the child achieve it? What might you try instead next time?
Motivation for Black Males
In "Empowering Young Black Males" (p. 67), Baruti K. Kafele exhorts us to consider what he sees as the greatest challenge facing education: motivating, educating, and empowering black male learners. He cites statistics showing the disproportionate rates at which black males suffer reading problems, slide into academic danger, and drop out of school. Kafele, an education consultant and a black man himself, says "a staggering number" of elementary teachers tell him that
they have run out of ideas on how to keep their black male students focused and inspired. … They desperately want to help their black male students succeed, but they feel overwhelmed by the challenge.
Kafele has a solution: Bring black male role models in to school to guide and inspire young men. Read about how he established weekly Power Mondays to connect young black males with successful black men at an urban high school. Watch a video of EL editor-in-chief Marge Scherer's interview with Kafele, which shows Power Mondays in action at Newark Tech High School in New Jersey.
- How might you try this kind of strategy with black male students—or other minority learners–in your school?
- If weekly assemblies aren't an option, initiate at your school some of the other strategies Kafele describes on p. 70 (like after-school study groups for black students or having black males visit successful black men at their jobs).
In an article by Alfred W. Tatum published in EL in February 2006 ("Engaging African American Males in Reading," p. 44), Alfred W. Tatum recommends helping black males become stronger readers by choosing "enabling texts." These are books that "move beyond a sole cognitive focus … to include a social, cultural, political, spiritual, or economic focus" (p. 47). Tatum lists the four characteristics of such texts: They are intellectually exciting for both students and teachers; serve as a roadmap and provide apprenticeship; challenge students cognitively; and help students apply literacy skills and strategies independently
- Consider the books or other texts students read in your class during the past year. Did these texts have the qualities Tatum describes, especially for your black male learners? How did black students respond to these texts?
- Look at Tatum's list of books likely to engage black male students on p. 46. Might any of these texts work in your classroom?
The Role of School Leadership
School leader Laurie Boyd claims that "In no other area of education is the gulf between teachers and administrators wider than in the area of student discipline" ("Five Myths About Student Discipline," p. 62). Teachers and administrators, Boyd says, rarely invest time in developing a schoolwide discipline system together. Discuss whether this statement is true in your experience. Is creating a structure for classroom management left up to each individual teacher in your school? If so, what are some consequences of this method of operating?
- Review the myths about student discipline Boyd lists. Do they ring true for you?
- For teachers: Consider Myth 1 (If your lessons are engaging, you won't have discipline problems). Have you ever had someone imply that you wouldn't have discipline problems if you just created better lessons?
- For administrators: Consider Myth 4 (A school leader's attention needs to be on instruction, not discipline). Have you received the message that you shouldn't focus too much attention on discipline?
- Consider the discipline plan used at Boyd's school (p. 64–65). What are its potential benefits and downsides?