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February 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 5

Teaching Children with Challenging Behavior

Helping students gain control of their emotions starts with getting to know them.

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It was the second day of school, and the 3rd graders were sitting in a circle on the floor, intrigued by the colorful manipulative rods I had just unveiled. I asked the children what they knew about the rods, how they had used them in the past, and what ideas they had for using them now. Paulina suggested building a tower. Juan recalled making staircases in 2nd grade. Other classmates offered ideas, and the students listened intently. Then I walked around the circle, carefully giving each child a small handful of rods so they could try out one another's ideas.
When I handed his assortment to Sammy, he darted his hands into the bin, pulling out a double handful. I held out my hand for Sammy to return the rods. "Just a few each, Sammy," I reminded him calmly. As quickly as he had grabbed the rods, Sammy threw them at my face. His classmates and I were stunned, but the look on Sammy's face showed that he was just as surprised as we were.
That was Sammy's first major display of defiance toward a teacher that year. There would be many more. As the year went on, I came to see that Sammy's behavior largely grew out of his impulsiveness combined with deep passions and a gripping need to put his ideas into action. Helping Sammy gain control of his behavior so that he—and the rest of the class—could learn made that year both challenging and rewarding.
We all have students like Sammy, students who present challenges to their classmates, themselves, and us. Their behavior can stem from a range of issues, from high-spirited personalities to traumatic home lives to neurobiological disorders. Many will need an array of extra supports, including individualized interventions from specialists.
Yet these are the children who need a trusting student-teacher relationship the most. Getting to know them gives us concrete information about what helps them learn best and also forms the basis for a strong student-teacher relationship—a top factor in students doing well in school.
For all of these students, the key to teaching them well is to make the effort to know them, to enable them to unlock their learning and social growth. Below are some strategies that are important in teaching all students, but doubly important in teaching the ones who struggle with behavior or academics.

Find Out About Students Before School Starts

Before school even starts, I read over students' records and talk with their former teachers to learn which strategies worked—or failed—with students with behavior challenges. Chloe needed a brisk walk around the classroom before the day began. Pete stayed focused if he got to record comments on the whiteboard during lessons.
Families are a rich source of information. Before school opens, I send home a questionnaire asking simple questions like, What does your child like to do at home? What does your child struggle with at home? and What are your hopes for your child this year? This tells me who loves to play outside, whose parents are not home much, and which families report trouble with routines. Knowing all this helps with problem solving when a student has difficulty at school.

Pay Attention to Triggers

Students with behavioral challenges often lose control when certain "triggers" occur. Melanie had tantrums when she was asked to do academic work that felt too hard. Frankie ran out of the room when someone disagreed with him.
If we are aware of a student's triggers, we can prepare that learner for an upcoming challenge. I helped Melanie feel calm and prepared for a writing assignment by saying, "We're going to be writing about our hopes for school this year. I remember you told me that you like recess. What do you hope to play at during recess?" Private coaching and role-playing of potentially difficult social situations gave Frankie some strategies for dealing with his frustration when others disagreed with him.

Understand Children's Developmental Stages

So often, students misbehave because we are asking them to do something beyond their developmental stage. A colleague of mine, a kindergarten teacher, described some boys in her class who threw themselves on the floor, kicking and screaming, during wholegroup lessons. "I know it would be different if they had more time to play," she said.
Five-year-olds need time for physical, imaginative play. They also have trouble sweeping their vision across a page. It is hard for them to sit still. After considering these developmental needs, my colleague put out storybook character puppets as a literacy activity choice so some of her students could play at reviewing story elements. She made similar changes during the rest of the day to allow them to practice skills while meeting their need to play.
Students of all ages, not just 5-year-olds, need teachers to understand their developmental stage and to make sure school—classroom routines, assignments, schedules, and physical room arrangements—fits their developmental capabilities and needs. This is especially true for children who have behavior challenges, because a mismatch between our expectations and their developmental needs will only compound their other struggles.
To ensure a developmental fit, each year I reread Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14 to review the typical developmental characteristics of the age group I will be teaching. I plan accordingly, creating, for example, plenty of low-stress activities if the class has many 7-year-olds, because sevens are so easily stressed. I design exciting projects with clear limits if the class has many 8-year-olds, who tend to have big ideas but need their teacher to help keep their ideas from overwhelming them.
If a student in the class is having behavior problems, I ask myself, Are my expectations for this student developmentally appropriate? For example, Laurel began to race around the room every time she was asked to work as part of a small group. When I considered her age, I realized she was one of the youngest in our class. Group work was a stretch for her because 7-year-olds typically prefer to work alone. I adjusted my expectations by assigning her to one partner and coaching her in how to listen and respond to her partner. Although this did not solve all of Laurel's problems, it helped. Her out-of-control behaviors happened less frequently, and she slowly learned to collaborate with one partner.

Observe Individual Learning Styles

To teach students effectively, we also need to understand their individual learning styles and their academic strengths and weaknesses. A common cause of students' misbehavior is that they do not feel academically successful.
Careful attention is vital here. When I observed that Margaret, a 1st grader, remembered things she had seen but not things she had heard, I realized I needed to change my approach for her reading instruction. As Margaret's skill and confidence in reading grew, she became outgoing and friendly, and her misbehaviors decreased.

Notice Relationship-Building Skills

Misbehavior and lack of academic success often grow from an unmet need to belong, so I pay attention to students' skills in forming relationships, making a place for themselves in the group. The first day of school, students do an activity in which they look for classmates who fit questions like, Who likes pizza? and Who has a pet? I notice who easily approaches other children and who hangs back.
During my weekly recess duty, I pay attention to who plays with whom and who is usually alone. I noticed that Alyssa often sat on the bench chatting with a recess teacher, a clue that she was perhaps more comfortable with adults than peers. When she later struggled with asking someone to play, my memory of her bench-sitting provided important context as she and I looked for solutions to the problem.
Once we identify students' social strengths and weaknesses, we can help them become more connected with their group. We can help the shy students approach classmates and the aggressive ones use gentler forms of interaction. We can build on strengths by assigning a nurturing student to help a younger "buddy" or allowing a student with a gift for organization to shine as the classroom "secretary."

Learn Some Details of Students' Daily Lives

Each morning, I stand at the classroom door to greet the students as they come in and chat about some fact I know about each of them. "How's your dog today?" or "Did you play outside yesterday after school?" Forming meaningful relationships with students requires teachers to know something of their interests and lives outside of school. When we mention these details in conversation, students get the message that we care about them.
At the beginning of the year, I have the children bring in life boxes, shoe boxes containing a few items to teach the class about themselves—a blue crayon to show blue is their favorite color, a map to show they just moved to the state. Each morning we hold a meeting, 25 minutes filled with activities that let students discover how they are alike and different while reviewing skills through lively engagement. As the students learn about one another, I learn about them.

Find What's Likeable in Each Student

There is something to like in every student, and making the effort to recognize that gem is a key to building a good relationship. This is important for all students, but especially for those who may be hard to like immediately. It is not about pretending to like them, which they would surely see through, but about genuinely liking them.
"Ms. Crowe, Ms. Crowe, what's purple and 5,000 miles long?" Sammy the rod-thrower bounced up and down on his toes while he waited for me to answer. "I don't know," I answered, "What?" "The grape wall of China," he crowed with excitement. Although Sammy was often a challenge for me and his fellow students to work with, he had a zeal for history and a wacky sense of humor. Our shared laughter helped us begin to bond.
Teachers are busy. In our rush, it is easy to think of students with behavioral or academic challenges as unwanted irritations. But it is important to remember that the energy we put into getting to know all our students will ultimately make the year go more smoothly. Often it is the initially hard-to-like student, the one who requires extra effort from me, who contributes unexpectedly to our community—and to whom I become the most attached as the year progresses.
End Notes

1 Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the classroom ages 4–14 (3rd ed.). Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Author bio coming soon.

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