Teaching is a calling. Many teachers take up the challenge every day to do whatever it takes to..
Turning around challenging student behaviour is about approaching any such situation with empathy and constructive attitudes. If you’ve taught in a classroom, you know this behaviour when you see it.
In such instances, we need to read our learners' actions as a cry for help. What such behaviour is saying is the child knows no other way, or has not mastered the skills needed to adapt satisfactorily to a challenging situation.
Many students can verbalize in no uncertain terms why they dislike school. That said, they can’t and shouldn’t try to find solutions on their own. To succeed at turning around challenging student behaviour, we've got to see the warning signs. We’ve got to know what to do when we see a student about to give up, or react in the other extreme by acting erratically.
On top of having a contingency plan when these feelings arise, teachers need the skills to make learning relevant and meaningful. It's true that technology plays a role in meeting kids where they are and utilizing that interest for their benefit. However, sometimes the problem lies deeper.
Dr. Ross Greene’s work in figuring out children’s behavioural problems is groundbreaking, influential, and compassionate. He outlines his methods in his Lives in the Balance website. His book Lost at School also profiles ways of turning around challenging student behaviour. Here’s a summary of what he says.
1. Kids do well if they can
This is a paradigm shift from “kids do well if they want to.” When you subscribe to do well if they want to, the only solution is to make them want to. That usually is through coercion or punishment, or some kind of reward-and-consequence scenario.
When you approach the child with kids do well if they can, then you can begin to address the “why” of the matter. It brings you to lagging skills and unsolved problems.
Many students can verbalize in no uncertain terms why they dislike school. That said, they can’t and shouldn’t try to find solutions on their own.
2. Unsolved problems are specific and often predictable
Taking out all judgmental comments like “he’s disrespectful” or “a problem kid”, Greene reminds us that labels don’t help solve the problem. Identifying the problem gets you closer to turning around challenging student behaviour using Solution Fluency.
For example, “he gets upset in the morning when he needs to dress for school” is more helpful and informative than “he threw a tantrum in the morning.”
A problem is solved only when the child can act adaptively and consistently in a situation that was challenging before. Because there might be many unsolved problems, it’s important to prioritize and address the top concerns.
3. Lagging skills
Kids often lack skills to cope in situations that are challenging for them. When a child finds themselves in situations where they have difficulty coping, that’s when they can present challenging behaviour. Consequently, we must help them develop coping mechanisms which they can call upon independently.
Going to Plan B
Plan A is when adults impose their will: “Do this, or else…” It’s usually not effective and often makes things worse.
Skipping ahead to Plan C means we “let the behaviour go for now.” This may be preferable, if the unsolved problem is not as critical as another you are trying to address. In other words, pick your battles.
As plan C is seen to be permissive for some, the key to Plan C is to address the problem when the time comes using Plan B.
Plan B is the problem-solving piece, the most desirable approach—the “ounce of prevention” step. The worst time to try to use Plan B is in the heat of the moment, when the child is not ready to learn or talk things through.
Basically it involves sitting down with the child when they are calm and really talking. It includes empathy with the child, putting adult concerns on the table, collaborating for solutions, and revisiting the agreed-upon solution for effectiveness.
Step 1: Empathy
This step helps us figure out the root causes and might take a long time, especially for kids who have difficulty talking. However, it’s the most important part of turning around challenging student behaviour because it involves information gathering. It's about mining for nuggets that would shed light on the root causes of such behaviour. This step cannot be overlooked.
It might take several sessions without ever getting to the problem-solving step. Nevertheless, it's important to stay in this step until you really have a handle on the underlying cause of a particular challenging behaviour.
Step 2: Adult Concerns
This is the next step of Plan B. While empathy with the child is the first step, getting the child to acknowledge both sides honours their own capacity for empathy. This sounds like “As the adult, I’m concerned about the safety of …” or “I find it difficult to concentrate on teaching when …”
Step 3: Invitation
When both sides are put forth and understood by both parties, an invitation to collaborate on a solution is offered. This means that the child and adult come up with solutions together. Because it is collaborative and not adult-imposed will, the child has more buy-in. “Together, can we come up with a way that we can …”
Step 4: Review/Debrief
When a solution is agreed upon, it must be tried and documented. If it didn’t work, then coming back to the table and tweaking would be in order. If it did, we are looking for consistency. So if the child can act adaptively in the same situation over many occurrences, we can say that the problem is solved. Then on to the next one in priority.
The first thing that we learned about turning around challenging student behaviour is to figure out how the child learns. If that involves technology, then it’s a viable strategy worth pursuing. Where technology is not an option, at the very least there is an imperative paradigm shift from kids do well if they want to to kids do well if they can.
In other words, changing from punishing and coercion to bend students to our adult will, to teaching enduring skills that are lasting, life-changing, and more importantly self-imposed.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Dec 9, 2018, updated October 18, 2021