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Three Approaches to Difficult Children
by Sr. Patricia McCarthy, CND
Dealing with difficult children is an age-old classroom problem. The author describes how three simple changes in the teacher's approach to student behavior can make a world of difference.
Andrea seems to be in trouble day after day, year after year.

The principal hesitates to put Colin in the new teacher’s class. But experienced teachers will try to keep him out of their classes, too.

Jacob’s mother avoids teachers and principals because she has heard the same negative report too many times.

Sheila is never absent, but her teachers would like a day away from her.

These situations lead to frustration, anger, or disappointment for the adults involved. But for the child, they lead to the tragedy of living an existence absent of success or happiness. The child sees himself or herself as “a trouble” whom adults endure but don’t really enjoy or want to have around.

Imagine one child you have had to deal with in the past year who stretched you past your limit of patience. Think of this child as you listen to these words of St. Paul:

        It is all God’s work. It was God who reconciled us through Christ and gave us the work of
        handing on this reconciliation. In other words, God in Christ was reconciling the world, not
        holding our faults against us, and entrusting to us the news that we are reconciled. So we
        are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal
        that we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God.
                                                                                                    —2 Cor. 5:18-20

Since Christ’s Ascension into heaven, he has chosen to express his mission and his work through ordinary human people like us. We are Christ’s body for this day and in this time. The work of reconciling the world is in our hands by virtue of our baptism. Just as the world is not an abstract mass floating in space, neither is the theology of reconciliation and redemption an abstract concept for scholars and students. That child in front of you Monday through Friday from September to June deserves the fullness of reconciliation. That child needs to know the infinite love of Christ by being loved, cared for, and nurtured into growth by you in a patient, disciplined, and accepting atmosphere.

If you are speed-reading to get to the hands-on stuff where I tell you how to deal with the children, slow down. Reminding you of the wealth of blessings and hope available to us from Christ is the most practical thing I can begin with. The deeper you are immersed in this reality, the greater will be your ability to deal effectively with hostile and negative behavior on a daily basis. The more you are conscious of being Christ’s body on earth, the less defensive you become about succeeding and being right.

Coming from this reality of being the embodied presence of Jesus, the first message that you want to convey to the children you teach—especially those who are acting out—is that they are special, unique, and valuable. The message is written in every action of the day. Let’s consider three aspects: your language, the classroom environment, and the teaching of appropriate behavior.

Watch Your Language

The language you use is the clearest expression to the child of what you think of him or her. Look briefly at language itself with regard to instructing and correcting children. All you have to do is listen to how adults speak to their children in a supermarket to realize the alarming amount of verbal abuse being directed towards children today. Studies abound on the disastrous effect of derogatory language on the child. Children grow up thinking they are bad, a problem to have around, and a cause for everything that goes wrong in their parents’ lives. They think this way because they are told this over and over.

For many children being quiet is the only thing that satisfies the adults who care for them. Questions, wonder, and talking are discouraged; their opinions don’t count and aren’t encouraged. In addition, verbal abuse often deteriorates into physical and sexual abuse. These children either withdraw into loneliness and an unhealthy solitude or fight back wherever they can without getting beaten for it. More often than not, school is the place where the backlash is directed. They come in hostile and belligerent, hurt and frightened.

Teachers and administrators can react in anger or frustration, and harmful things may be said to a child. How often have we heard such outbursts as “I have had it with you, Joey. That’s it, Mary, you’re going to the principal. No matter what we do, José, you ruin it for the rest of the class. Get out of this class until you’re ready to act like a human being.”

We isolate verbally and often physically the very children who are already feeling separated. The first step in controlling our language and using it to build up a child is to focus the attention on the behavior, both appropriate and inappropriate. If the behavior is acceptable, compliment the child on the behavior: “That was a kind thing you did, Lindsey, in sharing your lunch with Jenny.” The same procedure is followed with unacceptable actions. “Your work isn’t finished, Charles. We’re going to have to do something about that,” is a better start to dealing with a child that doesn’t do homework than “I can see you don’t care about your work.”

These differences in speaking are not subtle, and they will not be lost on the children no matter how little they appear to be listening. It is critical for a child to be treated with respect, especially when he has done something inappropriate. The child’s integrity must be protected at all times. The action might be bad, but the child isn’t. In essence, the proper use of the language is a step toward disarming the hostility. It gives the child an out because the attention is on an act outside of self. It gives the teacher an out because any action or behavior is capable of change or adjustment.

A corollary to this is the caution to be extremely careful in saying anything when you’re angry. A situation may call for immediate action. But you can wait until you are calm before you discuss it with the child. When a child is yelling or swearing at you, you can yell back, “How dare you talk to me that way!” or you can say nothing. Wait out the rage. That means not getting the last word in; the child will see to that! It is not a sign of poor discipline or lack of control to walk away from hostile behavior as long as there is no safety issue involved. Intervene after tempers have cooled.

As the teacher models positive and supportive language, the other children in the classroom can be taught and led to speak the same way to each other. I heard a third grader tell his mother, “Nobody in this school can make fun of anyone else.” That is a school that is working hard on creating an emotionally safe environment.

Set a Consistent Classroom Environment

It is important at the beginning of every school year to establish your expectations of the children while they are in your class. Usually I refer to these expectations as class rules. You can work these out with the students, or you can begin by suggesting rules. One year when all my students were adolescent boys with criminal records for assault, I had one rule: Respect one another. Everything we did in the class was negotiable except that. There was no quibbling over anything that hinted at insult or violence. There was no need to spell things out for this crew; they knew what was intended. We had a great year; no one was injured or miserable while in the class. And I survived.

With younger children, you would have to be a great deal more specific. Class rules should always be simple and written in positive language. If you want a rule about no swearing, then it should be worded as “Speak in an appropriate manner.” If you want a rule about no fighting, then something like this says it: “Allow everyone his or her own space.” The students will know what the message is. In addition to being simple, the class rules should be posted in a prominent place and used. Sometimes just pointing to them gets the message across. Referring to them when a child misbehaves takes away some of the personal insult involved in correction.

Along with the rules, rewards and consequences should be clearly stated and followed. The order is important. Usually consequences are not found wanting for breaking the rules, but following the rules can go by unnoticed. Children who are consistently following rules should be consistently rewarded. A reward can be a kind word, a trip to the school library, a sticker—something simple. Affirmation is crucial in developing a child’s self-esteem. It is good to have the rewards posted so the children can remind you to reward them.

Defining consequences for inappropriate behavior ahead of time takes away the possibility of acting too harshly out of anger or not being fair with each student. This doesn’t mean the children will be happy about the consequences, but at least they will see the consistency.

Safety and security must be integrated into the classroom, and that includes both physical and emotional safety. It is probably the greatest need of each child and the basis for anything else you hope to accomplish. Your students have to know they are beyond danger and beyond ridicule. This is one area in which teachers must be uncompromising. If there is a fight, deal with the issue of fighting, not with who started it. It doesn’t matter who starts it; what matters is the children’s ability to stop it or walk away from it.

For years I taught adolescents with criminal records. They can learn not to fight, even when provoked. Our school went from having serious fights every recess to rarely having a fight, and this was a school for behaviorally disordered children. There was no magic involved; the staff simply agreed unequivocally not to accept any physical violence. The hardest part for the adults involved was dealing with the situation when bullies “got what they deserved.” But there can be no exceptions. When a fight occurs, everyone involved in it is responsible. There are no just causes for fighting.

The positive side of not fighting is teaching students to resolve conflicts in other ways. Depending upon the age of the children, many models are available. Set up a peace corner, a peace circle, a peace tree, or a peace table. Basically, you need a method and a place where children can learn to resolve things for themselves with some adult supervision. You provide the opportunity for the students to present their sides of the story and to then propose a possible solution. The key to success here is that only one person talks at a time, and the students can say only what they did or said. No one can tell what anyone else did. Limit the time to about ten minutes. Even with older students, it can be very useful to have some physical object that is passed around to each person who is talking, including adults. You can’t talk unless you are holding the object. It could be a peace pipe, a dove, an olive branch, or any meaningful symbol.

Teach Alternate Behavior

The third phase of working with troubled children is the actual teaching of appropriate behavior. This is where teachers have to be extremely patient and loving. Children don’t need to hear “You should know better. How many times do I have to tell you?” or “You have a bad attitude.” Teach and re-teach acceptable behavior repetitively, just like the multiplication tables.

How you teach will depend upon the age and ability of the children in front of you. Your attitude should not be one of disgust or exasperation. And don’t presume that a child knows how to behave. I had a 14-year-old boy one year who never sat down to a meal in his home. The children just took food from the refrigerator to eat when they were hungry. They never had a meal as a family. This boy’s poor behavior in the lunchroom was a combination of nervousness and ignorance. I’m sure he had gotten into trouble in lunchrooms long before I had him, but I doubt if anyone ever took the time to understand his predicament. I gave him a job in the lunchroom so he didn’t have to sit for very long.

Teaching acceptable behavior follows all the rules of teaching any subject. The objectives should be specific, understood by the student and the teacher, and continually evaluated for progress. Students must be encouraged and given credit for progress, not perfection. A boy who advances to doing half his homework from doing none has made great progress. A smart teacher capitalizes so much on the half he did that the student soon does it all. A first grader who progresses to being able to sit for half a day from half an hour has made great strides. That still leaves half a day of wandering, but you have to focus on the accomplishment, not the need for more.

What happens when a teacher moves into this kind of tolerant and disciplined approach to behavior problems? Usually the first one to benefit is the teacher because the stress level lowers. Equal attention is given to the quiet student and the disruptive one. The general disposition of the class will perk up. The amount of laughter in the classroom will increase. That is always a good measure of how you are doing with the children.

Children are essentially responsible for their own behavior, but they are tremendously influenced by the teacher for good or ill. Children want to be liked and respected; they are unhappy when they act inappropriately. Teachers who help them act better will form strong and trusting relationships with the children. From those relationships will come the real fruit of education: growth in self-worth and value. The children will know reconciliation within the self and within the community. They will know that they are special and form that perspective they can make their choices for life. Our children deserve that opportunity, and we should consider ourselves privileged to be the stewards of that reconciliation. They are God’s children first and always; we share in God’s care for them. 

Sr. Patricia McCarthy is provincial of the Congregation of Notre Dame. She has worked with abused children, administered a school for emotionally disturbed children, and taught elementary and high school in inner city and poor rural areas in both Catholic and public schools.

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