Dealing with behaviour or any kind of issue that interferes with learning in children can quickly become overwhelming and frustrating for everyone involved. A significant contributing factor of this frustration is the ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ attitude I have witnessed in educational settings. It negates any forward progress a child will have. Only a team approach, where every member (including the child) is respected and valued actually helps. If there is any adversarial emotions or feelings of superiority the well intentioned desire to help the child will be “like fart gas in the wind”.
Parents want to raise children to be good citizens and productive stewards in their communities. Teachers are charged with creating safe environments in which children can learn, grow and excel academically. Children want to do well and Counsellors or Mental health workers work to help these children do well. There are specific responsibilities all these people have and these responsibilities do overlap.
Teachers spend time preparing children to learn academic skills by creating lesson plans, classwork and homework assignments. Parents try to make sure their children complete homework assignments and turn them in on time. Children are responsible for learning the material. Yet all those involved can have a different understanding of who is responsible for ensuring that a child excels at school. The responsibility of a child’s education can vary according to a parent or teacher’s point-of-view. Parents who feel that it’s solely their responsibility to educate a child have a parent-focused outlook, whereas in the school-focused paradigm, the teacher or school feels this is their primary responsibility. Academic achievement is a result of the environment the child finds him or herself in. Simply put; if they feel safe and happy in any of their environments then they will learn, if they don’t then they won’t learn.
Discipline is a touchy subject for parents and teachers yet many do not understand what it is. Discipline is about teaching a child how to act in his or her different environments. It is not about punishment. Part of the responsibility of any teacher is to maintain class discipline or control by making sure students respect the rules so learning can flourish. Parents take on the responsibility of teaching children morals and values such as respect for others and self, and appropriate social skills. Conflict arises when a teacher lacks classroom management skills or has to take over the dual roles as parent and instructor because a parent has a permissive style of discipline. In some cases, a parent may be hypersensitive to a teacher frequently “correcting” his or her child because they may feel this goes beyond the teacher’s role. A happy medium occurs when both teacher and parent work together to ensure the child respects rules inside and outside the classroom.
Teacher conferences, notes sent home, open houses and phone calls are all traditional ways teachers use to connect with parents. In the parent-focused paradigm, parents take an active role by attending school meetings and making sure they are up-to-date with their child’s progress. A parent may have work responsibilities and errands, however, which prevent him or her from staying in touch with the child’s teacher. This lack of engagement can often frustrate a teacher who tries to keep the lines of communication open with a parent, thereby causing conflict in the teacher-parent relationship. Additionally, parental involvement in a lower societal-economic communities may be sporadic due to the stress of providing for the family. Parental involvement can increase a child’s success at school and more parents are taking an active role in their children’s education.
When a child has developmental and mental health issues, all those involved need to take on special responsibilities. If a teacher suspects that a child has a condition which affects his or her ability to function in the classroom, such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or depression, he or she must first contact the parent to ask for their feedback. If an issue is identified, then a team needs to be created with the sole purpose of helping the child. The team will need to provide additional supports through an instructional education program offered at school and with counselling and adaptive technology to reinforce learning and social skills.
The key to any child’s success in school is a positive relationship between all members of the child’s team.
Working with problematic children is close to my heart because I was one myself. All children need to be helped so they can have a happy and healthy life. No child should suffer.
Seldom have I known a period of time when I was not dealing with abuse in one form or another. I lived through the horror of my childhood feeling isolated and lonely because of the violence I witnessed at home and chose a profession that has brought me face to face with abusive situations and behavioural issues at school. As a mother, I have encountered firsthand the distress and frustration of parents whose child is suffering from “unacceptable” school behaviour.
In Grade 12 there were days when it was impossible to get out of bed. Severely depressed, my shame and my pain were like a lead blanket covering my head. I wanted to do well in school and I definitely wanted to graduate, so I gathered the courage to tell my teacher what was happening at home, hoping she would help me.
I paid a high price for confiding in this teacher. As I was talking, I watched the disdain come over her face. She told me I was “lying” and was only missing school because I was “lazy”. “There is absolutely no reason for you to miss school!” she claimed. She then called my parents and told them what I had said to her.
When I got home from school I was thrown across the kitchen and landed against the refrigerator. I was stunned, frozen and filled with intense fear. The teacher I had confided in refused to talk to me for the rest of the school year…. and my feelings of shame, isolation and loneliness increased.
Determined to help other children survive the quagmire of school, I entered a profession where I thought I could help children dealing with issues most people don’t have to think about each day. Optimistic, I worked many long hours in an effort to aid children ‘misbehaving’ at school.
After 10 years as a student counsellor, I recognized that violence, aggression and anxiety in children were steadily increasing – not just in the number of incidences I was dealing with, but in the severity of those incidences. After 25 years in this profession I had seen and heard things in our schools that stopped me from sleeping at night. I no longer felt safe at work.
In 2004, there were four documented school shootings in North America, with one person killed and six people injured. Ten years later, there were 43 shootings causing nine deaths with five people injured. In 2009 a U.S. Government survey showed more than 60 percent of children were exposed to violence either directly or indirectly in their homes, schools and communities. This percentage was much higher than the number of adults during the same time frame.
Exposure to violence leads to long-term physical, psychological and emotional harm. These children were more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; suffer depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder; fail or encounter difficulties in school; and become delinquent or engage in criminal behaviour.
All of us are on a journey of discovery, which can be enriching, destructive or both, depending on how we view and then incorporate what we learn along the way – and by now, I was both an educational professional and a mother of school-aged children.
I slowly sank into the realization that the established educational setting was not helping and was perhaps doing harm to some children. At the same time, one of my own children began exhibiting anxiety, and I experienced as a parent, how the school dealt with his ‘misbehavior’.
During his middle years, attending school was often preceded by a fight. He wanted to stay home from school because he was feeling sick; because someone was bugging or bullying him; because there was nothing going on at school, etc. At school, he suffered from social anxiety, but we did not know this at the time. In Grade 1 he was caught skipping classes and, for most of his elementary education, he would complain of being sick. When we talked to his teachers, they recommended we force him to go. When he threw up at school they would chastise my husband and I for sending him there.
A couple of years after he graduated, my son explained that he got through high school by getting the assignments from his teachers when he could, working on them alone in the library, and then handing them in at the end of the class. Even though he is gifted in many ways, he still feels intense fear around numerous people, and this can become so strong that he will be physically ill.
I found myself in a peculiar situation, surrounded by conflicting viewpoints and hostility, feeling both astonished and isolated. I realized the trouble my son was having at school and the troubles most of my student ‘clients’ were experiencing seemed to bear many similarities, so I started asking parents, children and teachers questions and really listening to what they had to tell me. I stopped feeling isolated, because these people felt many of the same things I was feeling.
One parent described to me the interaction they had with the school concerning their behaviourally challenged child saying, “Our education is made for a certain type of child, who learns in a certain type of way, and my child just didn’t fit.”
Educational curriculum delivery is much the same today as when it was first developed some 150 years ago. I understand and acknowledge that the focus of our current school system is on learning a wide range of subjects; and research in education goes toward finding better ways to teach the average student. It is programmed to meet the needs of the larger population, and the methodology for dealing with children manifesting ‘abnormal’ behaviour in our schools is still largely about ‘discipline’ in the form of punishment. The business of education refuses to use science and the science is clear when it comes to learning.
The group of students that I was dealing with (including my son) was a small percentage of the total student population, and there were no alternative strategies available for the group of students who “just didn’t fit”.
The methods used by schools to control unwanted behaviour did not seem to help in decreasing a child’s ‘at risk’ behaviour, and I began to wonder if they were actually contributing to the increase in self-destructive behaviour I was witnessing. I started regarding the behaviour itself as a strong indication that something was going wrong.
I found consistent emotions – anger and a desire for revenge – went hand in hand with these ‘at risk’ behaviours. Whatever was going wrong, it was causing these children to act out in anger and their attitude was actually a desperate cry for help.
Recent research into school shootings suggest that child killers are primarily motivated by anger and revenge. This research also suggested that killing was the final coping strategy – a way of making themselves feel better. Sometimes it was about video games; sometimes animals; sometimes it was about adults or peers.
At work, I had many students exhibiting fear-based reactions in the forms of anxiety, eating disorders and school refusal. I was forced to take off my rose-colored glasses and felt dismayed at the emotional stress our children were dealing with. I could see the link between a child’s ‘abnormal’ behaviour and a serious school issue, and I became convinced that the tried and true methods of school discipline were not working with these students. In some cases, the discipline procedures of punishing these children – who were already suffering – made their behaviour worse.
Punishment forces the child to change his or her mannerisms …to become quieter and more manipulative. Punishment only changes outward behaviour…. it doesn’t get to the motivating factor.
When I looked at our communities and our country, I realized the use of punishment to control abnormal behaviour was epidemic – and it was concentrated in the education system.
But it wasn’t all bad, a promising result of my investigation was finding isolated pockets of areas, schools and educators who were paying attention to the latest scientific results. These bright lights were trying alternative methods with behaviourally challenged students.
Dr. Geoffrey Canada at Harlem Children’s Zone in Los Angeles has a 100 percent graduation rate and a 100 percent acceptance to college. Another outspoken advocate for change in our school system is Dr. Ken Robinson who was knighted in 2003 for his work in education. Finland comes out on top in math, science and reading, yet this country educates it children with a model that is virtually the anti-thesis of what is done in North America. As well, many teachers are using the Ross Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving method, which is a way to help children instead of punishing them. My boss at the time gave me The Lost Child, Greene’s latest book, and I realized this approach worked much better for all who were struggling – but I had no evaluative information on why or how it worked.
I decided I needed to further investigate by undertaking Ross Greene’s approach of teaching the deficient skills behind behaviour, and then ask clients if it helped them. The most frequent response I received from children was, “I don’t know how to tell you about what you’re doing. All I know is that it’s helping because I can be myself with you”. Most of the children told me they could not put it (my help) into words. Parents said, “It helped to have a person at the school who has my child’s back”, and some teachers commented on the child being more relaxed after seeing me. The feedback I got seemed to tell me that the change from the traditional punishment method of discipline to that of a teaching one was worthwhile for all those involved, but I still felt there was more to discover.
The ‘abnormal’ behaviour fascinated me and it became a puzzle I wanted to piece together. I felt compelled to answer the unsolved mystery of why these children acted the way they did. However, I was still wearing those tinted eyeglasses, so I was trying to solve a puzzle seen in one colour – and my ‘glasses’ were the rhetoric of the North American education system. After I developed further theories and incorporated the Ross Greene CPS model, I could finally see the many different coloured pieces that made up the puzzle.
In order to make the picture complete, I interviewed adults who had manifested these ‘abnormal’ behaviours when they were children, and also the parents of these former children.
I found a number of common threads and common methods that helped and some that made their problems worse. A surprisingly high amount of students did not get the help they needed until they were out of the education system.
Parents knew the problems their children were having at school, and they knew the impact on their child’s education, as well as the impact the education system was having on their families. Yet, many parents and children said they felt powerless, because the school system is so deeply and rigidly entrenched in the business of education. The vast majority of parents said they didn’t want to say anything to the school about what their child was going through because they didn’t want to “make it worse” for their son or daughter. The children (now adults) I interviewed all talked about feelings of isolation, shame and loneliness. Most of them admitted trying many different ways of getting help and when none of them worked, they resorted to various methods of avoiding school.
I have not worked at any school that didn’t have to deal with attendance issues. By the time I became involved as a student counsellor, the teacher was often so overwhelmed with the child’s behaviour that he or she commented on how nice it was not to have the child in class. They did not want me to press the situation too hard – some even asked if I could delay contacting the parents so they could have a couple of days without having to deal with the student’s behaviour.
Just like my old school days, teachers and administrators today still feel there are few legitimate reasons for a child to miss school, and in their frustration they blame the parent for not “supporting” the program. The teacher part of me used to agree with this but, as a parent, I became agitated when this situation occurred within my own family.
As a parent and a counsellor I know there are many reasons why children miss school. I also know that poor attendance due to a mental health issue is unacceptable to school staff. This needs to change.
By opening our minds and sharing our stories, we can make the lives of children healthier and more meaningful while they are at school. This book is dedicated to offering a new perspective from which to build that foundation. Some conclusions are drawn from my own research, others are drawn from mental health organizations and I suggest further study and verification is still needed.
May these pages give insight into what can be done, and why it should be done. My hope is they will offer you the key to opening a door to a spacious understanding of the behaviour of children in our care and how we can help them.
Cynthia Rodgers, B.Sc., B.Ed., M.Ed.