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November 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 3

Rethinking Challenging Behavior

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A more constructive approach to student behavior emphasizes belonging and expression, as well as ethics and care.

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Credit: Alexandra Ryabichenko / iStock
When Science Genius—a program that uses hip-hop music to teach science to youth—came to New York's Urban Assembly High School in 2013, it changed everything. Coauthor Ian Levy, the school's counselor at the time (who also happens to be an emcee), and one of its science teachers rolled out the program together. Levy came into the teacher's physics classroom once a week, helping students select hip-hop beats and translate their teacher's lessons to lyrics. While Levy volunteered in the classroom primarily because of his interest in hip-hop education, he quickly became aware of the emotions that started to emerge as students wrote.
Levy noticed that students were sharing deeply personal narratives through the science content. For example, in a physics unit, one student rhymed:
Be a man, understand/
You comprehending this is vital,
work = FD/
The equation for survival./
Your only rival is friction don't get caught up in the drag/
So you better prepare cuz obstacles fight back/
When you get knocked down though don't please don't cry/
Just get up and apply more force next time.
In this sample lyric, the student not only described their knowledge of science concepts (work, friction, force, etc.) but used that knowledge to strengthen their own sense of self-efficacy. Due to the cotaught nature of the program, Levy was able to sit down with this student (among others) and inquire about their feelings of being "caught up in the drag" or needing to "prepare [for] obstacles." This allowed the student to dive deeper into their emotions in a science course (Emdin, Adjapong, & Levy, 2016).

Teacher and Counselor Collaboration

A few important lessons emerged from this example of teacher and school counselor collaboration. First, youth are hungry for opportunities to express and process their lived experiences. That is, to bring their whole selves into the classroom. Second, if students use their own language, creativity, and culture as a vehicle for teaching and learning, they will not only demonstrate content-knowledge proficiency but also find ways to share their stories. Third, good teaching and learning often lead to the emergence of emotional experiences, which educators must be ready to acknowledge and help students work through.
For these reasons, having a school counselor coteach, co-plan lessons or units, or at least be readily available to step in when strong emotions arise during lessons is an essential practice. Beyond offering direct support, school counselors can be a valuable resource to teachers by sharing what they know about students' lives (without breaking confidentiality, of course) to help integrate students' assets and interests into the classroom.
Opportunities for teachers and counselors to prep together, teach together, or co-develop programming in classrooms and the community offer youth a range of options to process emotions before they might manifest into behavior that is perceived as "problematic." In the context of student behavior, if students are not afforded chances to acknowledge internal and external obstacles to their development, they might exhibit "bad" behavior simply because educators are dealing with the symptoms of emotional turbulence that should have been addressed earlier.
What we are suggesting is that thoughtful collaborations between teachers and school counselors are one of the most effective preventative and protective measures schools can take to mitigate barriers to students' academic and social-emotional development (Levy & Lemberger-Truelove, 2021).

What Is "Good" Behavior?

First, though, teachers and counselors must be on the same page about what "good" behavior is and isn't. Discussions about behavior in education must account for what society deems "acceptable" or "challenging." This is particularly the case with Black students who are often perceived as well-behaved only when they are compliant, silent, and docile. The attachment of certain behaviors to goodness or acceptability is often rooted in Eurocentric norms of civility and gentility that do not capture the complexity and expressiveness of the human experience.
When educators considering why they perceive certain behavior as "good" or "bad," they will realize that goodness or badness is inherently subjective. Students are either celebrated or punished based on whether they adhere to both the written and unwritten "rules." Appropriate or problematic behavior is sometimes less about how students conduct themselves in relation to others and more about the degree to which they allow themselves to be controlled.
A more thoughtful approach to behavior emphasizes the activation of ethics and care, while recognizing that students (and adults) will have natural reactions or responses to external stimuli. For example, if something externally harms me, it is natural that I have a response. It is the responsibility of those in my environment not to put me in a position where I am harmed or hurt, and it is my responsibility to ensure that I do not harm or hurt others. The people and structures around me must behave in a way that exhibits kindness and care—and I must do the same. To be good is to see the humanity of self and others.

A more thoughtful approach to behavior emphasizes the activation of ethics and care. To be good is to see the humanity of self and others.

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If the school and people within it are good to me—if they value my humanity and trust me to be virtuous in my relationships—I will respond in good ways. If the school and people in it are unkind and unethical to me, I have a right to respond, but I still have a responsibility to do good—to operate with care and not harm. This model differs from the existing conformity-rooted punishment and reward model.
Emdin Levy Image 1Credit: Photo courtesy of Ian Levy

As a school counselor, Ian Levy (on the laptop) facilitated lyric writing activities to help students process their emotions.

The Rights of the Body Framework

Teachers and school counselors alike must recognize the human desire to be seen, valued, and respected. Our work must then be to curate spaces that emphasize care for students and their full selves—this includes welcoming diverse cultural forms of expression, engagement, and communication that may look different from educator norms. As long as students are showing an ethic of care manifested through valuing self and others, their expressions of self cannot be constituted as bad behavior. For example, Black students are often penalized in school for "bad behavior," like being loud or loitering, when they might see such actions as just being themselves.
The spaces we curate in our schools must also address the everyday conditions and systemic issues that do not exhibit care. For example, many schools in New York City and other urban areas require students to walk through metal detectors as they enter the building each morning. This practice has been shown to have a direct effect on students' moods in their early morning classes.
In one school we worked in, on both rainy and snowy days, youth were expected to stand in line outside to wait to be scanned before entry. Students began the day wet and frustrated, and they brought those emotions into their classrooms. The school counselor stepped in and worked with administrators to incorporate a daily greeting and welcoming routine. She would stand by the entrance of the school just beyond the metal detectors and say "Good morning!" to students as they walked in. Teachers soon joined her, greeting students individually and helping diffuse emotions that would otherwise go unaddressed and affect learning in the classroom. When the school safety officers took notice, they changed some of their practices, too. They began greeting students before school, and on days where there was inclement weather, they expedited the scanning process.
By identifying the rights young people deserve (to be welcomed, loved, and seen as students rather than criminals) and ensuring these rights are fought for and offered, the culture of the school and the classroom shifts. Also, responses to not having those rights provided (often mislabeled as bad behavior) are minimized.
One way that teachers and school counselors can approach behavior together is by using the "rights of the body" framework introduced in Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success (Emdin, 2021). The rights of the body are seven conditions that must be in place for an individual to feel fully present, loved, and cared for. When students are fully present, care for self and others becomes ingrained in the school culture, and their behaviors reflect that ethos of care. Teachers and school counselors who anchor their work in the restoration or provision of these rights to young people foster an environment that allows for love and a more democratic learning community.
1. The right to be here is about ensuring that students know they are welcome. For that right to be granted, young people must feel as though their presence in the classroom, in whatever way they choose to express it, is always accepted. Explicitly let students know they are welcome in the classroom as they are as often as possible. Instruction must include affirmations of student identities, reminders of their strengths, and examples from students' lives. The morning greeting in a math class might be, "Good morning math geniuses." The protocol for solving a problem at the board should be, "Everyone is solving this with you. There is no failure, we will all work this out together."
As noted earlier, a counselor should always be available when teachers or students identify moments of struggle or where the student is having a strong emotional or visceral response to instruction. The counselor should work to support the teacher and address the student's needs, while always reminding the student that they have a right to be present and comfortable.

Young people must feel as though their presence in the classroom, in whatever way they choose to express it, is always accepted.

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2. The right to feel is about creating space for students to express their emotions. Youth must be allowed to share how they feel about what is going on in the school and the world without apology or filter. This must be scheduled time that is as privileged as time working on academic content. More specifically, we suggest building emotion-sharing time into lesson plans, course schedules, and assignments weekly. Ideally, emotion-sharing is built around the counselor's schedule and involves the counselor coming into the classroom to be with students. Doing so proactively creates a culture of interrogating and addressing feelings across the school. In addition, a question like, "What did you feel about the lesson today?" as an exit ticket or homework question can further normalize emotion-sharing.
3. The right to act involves creating time and opportunity for the physical expression of emotions. This involves the space to move the body, elevate the voice, dance, and engage in any form of physical movement that feels freeing. Given the research on the ways that physical movement aids learning and attention, there should be spaces carved out for at least one-minute physical movement breaks every 20 minutes of a lesson. Ideally, these breaks would be attached to affirmations or call-and-response statements that reflect both the right to be here and to feel. These can be simple statements like "I belong here" or even the repeating of the ratchetdemic mantra:
I will not hide my ratchet self to make a broken system powerful.
I will not be made to be less than because I choose to be myself.
I will not judge brilliance by how I think it looks or sounds.
I will take up space where I have been previously denied.
I will be genius and I will be free.
I will be equally as ratchet as academic.
I will be ratchetdemic. (Emdin, 2021)
4. The right to love and be loved involves the opportunity for students to express love for the people and things in their world (beyond the classroom) that have significance to them even if they aren't traditionally welcome in schools. Students' love of music, sports, and cultural artifacts and figures must be allowed in the classroom for behaviors of kindness and care to be normalized. While some may argue that these things have always been welcome in schools, subcultures that hold deep emotional significance to students like drill music (a musical form of hip-hop) or cultural movements that address race and racism must also have a place in the curriculum. (The story about the Science Genius program shared in the introduction is a prime example of fostering students' love for music and culture in classrooms.) The right to be loved can be further cultivated by creating spaces for students to share their own cultures, histories, and passions beyond designated dates and holidays. For example, students' music and family histories of resilience and overcoming can be played over the school's loudspeaker or shared at community events, enabling students to feel heard, loved, and understood within the broader school community.
5. The right to speak involves creating the opportunity for students to speak in their own tongue, dialect, or accent and honoring their right to do so even when the discourse and/or language of power is different. This means letting students use slang, for example. The right to speak is also about having opportunities to use that voice to speak truth to those with power—like the teacher, principal, or elected official.
6. The right to see involves the recognition that students have the right to see things from a different perspective than the teacher or the school. The right to see is the right to develop their own rules for the classroom or school and their own vision for how teaching and learning should happen.
7. The right to know is about always having high academic expectations and providing opportunities for children to learn about themselves, their history, their legacy, and the causes of the inequities they live under. The right to know must not be compromised by teachers' low expectations or curricula void of culture and truth. When students feel their teachers are treating them like they cannot understand or know something, they respond with behaviors that are less about being bad or disruptive than about having their intelligence questioned. Allowing the teacher and school counselor (interchangeably or together) to discuss events in the community or controversial topics that affect students showcases a respect for students' intelligence.

In a culture of care, educators and students co-create ecosystems where we all behave in ways that heal us and sustain our well-being.

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The implementation of these rights creates conditions for a culture of care. In such a culture, educators and students co-create ecosystems where we all behave in ways that heal us and sustain our well-being. Young people whose social-emotional needs are addressed by adults in their lives engage with school and each other in positive ways.
When a student feels like their rights are centered and honored, their primary objectives are to do their best to maintain the spaces that center them. If they feel like their rights are being violated, they will respond in protest, pushing back against the structures that harm them.

Shattering the "Social Construct"

Spaces that support students' emotional wellness and allow for free expression interrupt the pattern of imposing school norms that trigger responses from youth that are perceived as challenging behavior. The challenge of "challenging behavior" is rooted in educators' frequent unwillingness to recognize that any behavior is a response to something.
A culture that functions to respond to behavior issues rather than create an environment where students' rights are honored and needs are met will always have new behavior "issues" to address. We believe when leadership and ownership of the school and classroom are shared equally among teachers, counselors, and students, everyone involved will enact roles, attitudes, and behaviors that let every stakeholder thrive.
Challenging behavior is a social construct riddled with flaws in its theoretical formulation and in school practice. When teachers and counselors work together to shatter it, they offer a new possibility for practice.
References

Emdin, C. (2016). For White folks who teach in the hood … and the rest of y'all too: Reality pedagogy and urban education. Beacon Press.

Emdin, C. (2021). Ratchetdemic: Reimagining academic success. Beacon Press.

Emdin, C., Adjapong, E., & Levy, I. (2016). Hip-hop based interventions as pedagogy/therapy in STEM: A model from urban science education. Journal for Multicultural Education10(3), 307–321.

Levy, I. P., & Lemberger-Truelove, M. E. (2021). Educator–counselor: A nondual identity for school counselors. Professional School Counseling24(1b).

Christopher Emdin is the Maxine Greene Professor/Chair for Distinguished Contributions to Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Beacon Press, 2016).

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The Challenge of Challenging Behavior
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