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February 2010 | Volume 67 | Number 5

Meeting Students Where They ArePages 65-67

Teaching Children with


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

Caltha Crowe
It was the second day of school, and the 3rd graders were sitting in a
February 2010
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 heand the rest of the classcould 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 relationshipa 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 workedor failedwith 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 schoolclassroom routines, assignments, schedules, and physical
room arrangementsfits 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
414 1 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 7year-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 7year-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 themselvesa 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 communityand to whom I become the most attached as the year
progresses.

Endnote
1

Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the classroom ages 414 (3rd ed.). Turners Falls,
MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Caltha Crowe, a Responsive Classroom practitioner, has taught a range of elementary grades in her 37 years
in education. She is the author of Solving Thorny Behavior Problems: How Teachers and Students Can Work
Together (Northeast Foundation for Children, 2009) and Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and
Strategies from a Teacher's Year (Northeast Foundation for Children, 2010); 800-360-6332;
info@responsiveclassroom.org.
Copyright 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

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