Thoughts from the classroom – Part 1

Behaviour and Bullying

This term, while on leave from my position as an Education Officer, I have gone back to the classroom as a casual relief teacher. I have worked at a wide variety of schools in and around Darwin, NT. This experience has been interesting in so many ways and in both the personal and professional spheres. I think it is important to reflect on some of these experiences and how they might help me be a better EO, and perhaps even a better person.

I had initially started another blog entry on discipline and respect, which I have yet to finish. Yet today, after a particularly difficult day, I felt compelled to reflect on the issues of behaviour and bullying. They are definitely related topics, but this entry is focussed more on questioning the student experience, from the teacher’s perspective. Rather than questioning the teacher’s experience. Also, both entries are about behaviour and relationships, rather than curriculum and content. This is mainly due to the role of a causal teacher, which, whether you like it or not, is inevitably heavily focussed on behaviour management.

One of the things I still really hope to do in the few weeks I have left is teach a lesson plan from one of the Education Resources I have written, so I can assess the strengths and weaknesses of my writing. But I have yet to have the opportunity to do that.

So, behaviour and bullying…

Today I taught a Year 2/3 class at a pretty standard public primary school. From what I could tell, most of the students were Caucasian and from middle-class families. The staff made a big point of telling me what a lovely class they were. However, for me, much of the day it was chaos. I had a lot of difficulty managing the dynamics of the class and challenging individual behaviours from many students. The students were not calculating and their behaviours were directed at me. But it was chaos. There was constant throwing, shouting, teasing, swearing, name-calling, tears, tantrums, kicking and a complete disregard when I asked for quiet.

None of the strategies I had used with other classes were effective: appealing to their desire to please, applauding good behaviour, stickers, stern directions, standard school punishment (time-out), being kept in at play, and more stickers! There were a number of students that were clearly distressed, and I was at a loss. A girl even quietly said to me “we’re never normally like this.” There was one student in particular that had serious behaviour problems that seemed to clearly stem from psychological issues (undiagnosed). He was completely disruptive. After a few hours in the class I also began to realise how much the other students were provoking him, often intentionally.

At recess I spoke in desperation to the head of the area. I must have sounded serious because she thought I was leaving! But I just needed some strategies, ones that would work. It was the first time I had, in a sideways manner, made a call for help since I started casual teaching. After recess the Assistant Principal came in a spoke to the students. I felt pretty awful. I don’t like asking other teachers to intervene because I see that as the opposite to the role of the CRT: we are meant to be helping alleviate the workload, not add to it.

During the AP’s talk, the students acknowledged that their behaviour was disruptive, uncaring and making the classroom environment difficult. They also offered good ideas on how to correct their behaviour. And it helped. A bit.

Afterwards they were quieter and definitely making an effort to do the right thing. They seemed much more aware of appropriate behaviour and confident in their ability to behave appropriately. It made surviving the day as a CRT much easier, but I was still unsettled by the dynamics in the classroom. The undercurrent of problems was still there. Speaking to the class teacher at the end of the day she was really shocked by their behaviour and the only thing we could deduce was that, as I was their first relief teacher for the year, they were completely unsettled and stressed by the lack of familiarity and an alteration to their very established routine.

After lunch there was an incident with some vicious shoe-throwing and the particularly challenging student was removed. This did calm things down a bit and it gave me some time to address other issues. One student, when put in timeout for talking back, said vehemently while kicking the wall “just another reason why I want to kill myself”. So I sat down and had a chat to him and while there seemed to be some attention seeking behaviour going on (he told me he didn’t really mean what he said, he was just angry), he was also clearly upset. He cried continuously while he told me about things that were bad in his life, his main problem being bullying in the yard.

This got me thinking. If I was at a loss on how to manage the behaviour of these students, how must the students feel? How can they stop their friends that are hurting, upsetting or bullying them? At this age, students are very much living in a self-focussed world where they struggle with empathy and often only remember the way they were wronged, and not what they may have done to cause it, or how they retaliated. I’m not trying to suggest bullying is the victims’ fault. But that the behaviour of the victim ideally should be monitored and changed in order to help them prevent future incidents.

On one off behaviours though, I have frequently had students tell me they were hurt/insulted, when I have in fact witnessed them (intentionally or not) provoke the person they are accusing. I am sure I was guilty of this as a school child. I was very self-focussed as a child and convinced my class, and the world at large, had it in for me for absolutely no reason. The truth was, as I can see now with the benefit of hindsight, I was a challenging person to be around. I was so unaware of the affects of what I said that I would often upset, offend or annoy people without any realisation. I also couldn’t let go. Because I was convinced people where in for me I was so hypersensitive to anything anyone said or did, however small, trivial or unintentional. I have seen similar behaviour in many children since becoming a teacher. Yet I still have very few ideas on how to help them. Particularly as they get older and their behaviours become habitual.

Most adults can recall in detail a time, or many times, when there were unjustly treated by a child or their teacher. I also fear at times I have said something that has been that ‘unjust moment’ for a child. But my comments have always been well meaning and aimed at improving the safety, happiness or learning environment of the children. I wonder, could I have managed the situation differently?

Earlier in my teaching career I was so focussed on the learning experiences of the students, I sometimes let the relationship experiences fall by the wayside. I cared about individual students and took time to listen to their stories and try to help. But when the class was together I focussed on order and quiet at the expense of getting to the crux of the issue.

However, as I have discovered, there is so often a reason behind disruptive behaviour that is based on passed experiences, feelings, health or state of mind, and is rarely malicious. This is particularly true in early primary and when considering behaviour directed at a teacher. But children can be cruel to each other. How can a teacher had the ability to manage and mend this complex interactions in a meaningful way, while still maintaining classroom order so learning can in fact take place? (This will likely carry on into my next post).

As a mature adult, I am able to go home, let the bad experiences go – they don’t stick (not very often anyway). For children though, they stick. They can be so consuming they affect so many facets of their behaviour. How do we teach children positive and helpful behaviours? How do we teach them to have empathy, resilience, self-confidence, and use positive defence strategies?

As this post is becoming quite mammoth, I will close here, but I am sure it will be something that I continue to consider. Relating it back to the experience of the EO, I wonder how this relationship experience plays out for the students we encounter so briefly? Is a one or two hour session different from a day with a CRT? Can students let the ‘unjust moment’ go, without letting it stick, because EO’s are not in the role of a trusted adult or friend? Does the new environment offer them sanctuary or stress?

So many questions that I don’t think there are definitive answers for. I would be very interested to know about other peoples’ experiences and thoughts on this issue? Please comment.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Thoughts from the classroom – Part 1

  1. Caroline

    Hey, I didn’t know you had a blog! Interesting stuff.

  2. “As a mature adult, I am able to go home, let the bad experiences go – they don’t stick (not very often anyway). For children though, they stick.”

    Dear Stephanie,
    I enjoyed this post. Your writing style is attractively clear and concrete. Thanks for sharing it.
    The above exerpt contains the answer to your question. Children are immature, unable to know what to do about social pain. Yet we plunge them into daily doses of it without thinking. Almost universally, we consider glomming kids together a good thing. It is a bad thing.
    Oh, sure, some do better than others, but if you look deeper, you probably will see, the more resilient ones have had TRAINING in how to socialize. This has helped them overcome their natural tendencies, to the point that one child even was able to think of your feelings and say something to ease YOUR social pain in that difficult situation.
    Also, you may think you can shuck all your social pain, although you admit that is not always the case, but perhaps you should think of yourself in the children’s places. If you were surrounded with anti-social, even anti-stephanie behavior on an hourly and daily basis, could you then drop it all at the door of your home? No, of course not. And no one would expect it of you. Your friends would confort and advise you.
    The children’s friends are in the same boat with them. Most of them have little social energy left for consolling friends, or even for being friends. They go home to sibling and parents who do not understand, and in some cases, do not believe what they say. That this torture is required by law makes escape impossible. No wonder they joke (which is never JUST a joke) about suicide.
    The solution? Children need to be in homes. You may not believe in anything more animate than evolution, but obviously, if, if, if there exists any type of divine design, then for argument’s sake, we must investigate the idea that maybe children were put into homes for a reason. But even if that idea is too advanced for us, then we must consider why all creatures seem to have evolved to higher and higher plains while passing through a home- or family-type stage, and the higher the plain, the longer the prerequisite familial stage. It is worth a thought.
    Here in The Land of the Free, those who have thought on this idea for any length of time have withdrawn their children from the bedlam you have described. Then–surprise!–their children begin auto-correcting their psyches, learning more, retaining more, doing more with it, and growing up to be more productive. It is heavily-researched scientific fact that no thinking person should ignore, especially if that person cares about children.
    Of course, I refer to homeschooling.
    And before I continue, let us define a home: a set of parents who function adequately, with each other and with their children, as mom and dad. We are not discussing bad homes, here. Bad homes are just that and do not equate an argument.
    Let us think about your questions in the homeschool light for just a moment.
    How to instill empathy, resilience, and confidence? Give them moment-by-moment instruction about how to socialize. With EVERY mis-behavior should come correction. With EVERY good deed should come praise. Then children can learn HOW to socialize, instead of failing the test on a moment-by-moment basis, before ever having a chance to study the subject.
    Sink-or-swim is often a great way to drown a kid. The typical classroom is sink-or-swim. In such a situation, it is natural to attempt survival by pushing down on other swimmers. Just natural.
    In a home, empathy is natural. Each older child who cherishes the home’s newest infant will later have patience with that same child doing wrong, will care if that sibling falls down, will laugh with–not at– that little one. (Contrast with the stereotypical behavior of the only child.)
    In a home, resilience is natural. Encouraging, even requiring social resilience, causes practice in resilience. The old “get back on the horse” motto prevails and in time, becomes, as you said, instilled.
    In a home, confidence is natural, and is born of hope. A child who is dumped at the door of an antagonistic institution has no hope. A child who has a mommy who will keep everyone on a good social plane while they learn, just because she loves them, has hope, learns confidence. It is elementary science, proven in understaffed orphanages worldwide: there is nothing like a warm lap to build a child’s confidence, and even his physical health.
    Most classrooms simply have far too many children in them. Instead, each classroom should have no more than five children per adult. Most homes have that.
    Most classrooms have all same-age children in them. Instead, each child should receive the gift of relationships with vastly-different-aged children. Most homes have that.
    Most classrooms labor under the false assumption that touch, being sexual and subject to lawsuit, should be prohibited. Instead, we all should acknowledge what we instinctively know, that hugs and pats and other touch are part of socializing and leaving then out is wrong. Most homes have touch.
    This could become a mammoth response, but I trust you have the gist of it and can extrapolate it yourself with a little more research and a lot more thought.
    I welcome your reply.

    • Dear Katherine,
      Thank you for reading my post and I’m glad you found it interesting.

      In response to your comment…
      I must say that I disagree that homeschooling is the solution to these issues. Personally, I have found that homeschooling can cause as many social problems as it solves, and just like conventional schools can be a disaster for some kids. I know that my older sibling (who I now have a wonderful relationship with and love dearly) would not have provided the best support or modeling for me had I been home-schooled, as her strongest point was definitely not patience with me, nor I with her. This is despite our parents support to try and correct our negative behaviours.

      But more relevant to this discussion, I disagree that homeschooling is a solution because it cannot possibly solve the issues for all children, nor even the majority. This is for many reasons. Firstly, many children do NOT come from functional, supportive home environments (and I do not categorise this necessarily as a Mum and Dad, because supportive families come in many shapes and sizes.) There are many families that are dysfunctional, parents who have social issues of there own, children who are abused or parents that are simply too young themselves. For children of dysfunctional families the home environment can be the CAUSE of their social problems and definitely not the solution.
      Secondly, many families simply cannot offer the opportunity of homeschooling. Whether they are single-parent families, low-income or uneducated – they are not in a position to have one parent home and devoted entirely to the educational needs on their children.
      Thirdly, it may not provide students with all the facets of an educational experience. Some home-schooled children grow up to be withdrawn and not confident in social situations. The homeschool environment, often being supportive and loving, does not always provide the opportunity for students to learn how to interact in mainstream society (there are not many environments in mainstream society where children and surrounded by the ideal environment of 6 loving and supportive people that you describe as what homeschooling can provide). Also, while some homeschool environments can provide a superior social learning environment, they rarely provide trained educational professionals who develop the learning program. Teachers are, on the whole, well trained and have extensive resources to support children’s academic learning.
      Now I am not suggesting that all homeschool experiences are negative, in fact for some students it may be the perfect solution. You are obviously a dedicated Mum and homeschooler and for your children it may be the best environment. However, it is not possibly a solution for all children and will therefore not solve the issues of behaviour and bullying. And while I agree that drastically small class sizes would help greatly, until our society is prepared to pay much higher tax, that is not really feasible and very unlikely. I also agree that children’s well-being may suffer from the legally cautious school environment that scares teachers away from physically consoling children. But this rigidness may well have saved the well-being of many children.
      My post was really aimed at discussing some immediate solutions and effective teaching strategies. I do not see homeschooling as a solution.

  3. So sorry we are not on the same wavelength.
    You asked for others’ experience. Experience is one thing I can claim.
    It cannot be helped that with a good home, research proves homeschooling provides excellent education, excellent socialization, and an excellent future. With a bad home, what really helps?

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