Monday, July 16, 2007

Mind Set

Part of the reason why I've met with some success as a teacher is because of the mind set I have. I don't think that the following is the only way to think about about work with students with diffficult behavior (SWDB) but it's been useful for me to do so.

Teaching generally, and students with difficult behavior specifically, require a lot of patience.
SWDB test limits again and again for various reasons. Some want to see if you can set limits and stick to them. When you do so you're creating a safe place for students and that helps many students avoid acting out. On the other hand, if you make a rule and then allow students to violate the rule, the implicit message is that there are no rules. Additionally, if you have a short fuse and blow easily students feel unsafe because an angry adult is often an unsafe adult. It seems reasonable for students to think that if you can't keep your own emotions in order how can you maintain order in the classroom?

SWDB also want to be in control. This is a typical characteristic of students labeled emotionally disturbed in particular. One way of being in charge is by being able to make the teacher upset. This provides these students with a feeling of power. There's nothing wrong with this impulse- we all want to be in charge at times and we all like to feel powerful. As an educator it's my job to provide these students with authentic opportunities to make decisions and feel empowered. This often cuts down on the number of times a students will try to gain control over the class- the need for control has been met elsewhere.

How to be patient with these students? It must be acknowledged that it is extremely difficult to be patient with SWDB because their behavior, by definition, is challenging. We can't let this be our excuse though because I would argue that it's more important to be patient with these students than with typical, unlabelled students. These students are more fragile and often more prone to even more extreme behavior when confronted with a power struggle with an adult. In some ways I find it easier to be patient with SWDB because these students are difficult for good reason and often without choosing to be so.

Without fail, the SWDB have baggage. As the social worker at my first school liked to say, these students come to our classrooms with heavy baggage that they set down next to their desks and start pulling stuff out of when class starts. It's been important to me to find out what their lives have been like before they get to my classroom. This is so because it turns my students into real people rather than a mere warm body and it's much more difficult to mistreat people whose history you know because you can't help but feel some compassion for them. This is why dehumanization is an integral part of sexism, ableism, racism, slavery, genocide and all other forms of discrimination and prejudice. You can't perpetrate these sorts of horrors on those that you know and accept as human. So when I know that Math Major's father is extremely grumpy and mean all the time, I can have a lot more patience for his need to have my attention all the time. When I know that C's house is absolutely vile and his mother does nothing resembling parenting, I can easily understand why behaves in seemingly bizarre ways.

So the mind set is that I must have patience with these students. I know them as people and I have compassion for them. Patience flows naturally from that position.