Home‎ > ‎Newsletters‎ > ‎January 2013‎ > ‎

Education Corner

The Dark Issues:  Where to Turn when a Student does not Respond to Behavioral Expectations

by Ilana Lipman

It doesn’t happen in every classroom or even during every school year, but it is inevitable that at some point in their careers, educators will interact with students who are not willing or even capable of conforming to behavioral expectations. Educators need to be prepared to cope with these issues for the sake of all students in the classroom.

It is important for educators to recognize that they are not alone in dealing with any particular student. Educators should not see themselves as working in an isolated classroom; rather they should view themselves as part of a larger picture. This means that it is often beneficial for educators to turn to other professionals within the school community in order to learn more about a particular student, his/her needs and ultimately what it is that is keeping the student from succeeding in the classroom.

Joan Vander Walde, Middle School Director of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, has experience dealing with ‘dark issues’ both as a guidance counselor and as a school administrator. She recommends turning to administrators, other classroom teachers who currently teach the student, guidance counselors and/or the school social worker, parents and former teachers of the student. Vander Walde explains, “It is crucial that the teachers, parents, administrators and guidance counselors work together as a team for the benefit of both the student and the class as a whole. Educators can learn from one another by observing the student’s behavior throughout all of his/her classes. If the student is more successful in a particular class, we can learn what is working for him/her in that class and then repeat similar procedures in the student’s other classes.” Turning to others within a school community for collaboration and support regarding a particular student is by no means a sign of weakness in an educator; on the contrary, it demonstrates that the educator is aware of the challenges that a particular student faces and is taking initiative to help the student succeed.

Once you have involved other school professionals, it is helpful to create an individual behavior plan for your student. This plan should not contradict the expectations that you have for other students in your class; rather, it should highlight those behaviors that are most difficult for that particular student to follow. For example, I once had a student who found it very difficult not to touch other students and their property. On his behavior chart, I placed a check mark every day next to a column that said, “I kept my hands on my own property throughout all of class today.” His other teachers also used this behavior chart, and his guidance counselor was responsible for overseeing the chart on a weekly basis. It is best that the behavior chart have no more than four specific behaviors to monitor; too many behaviors to modify will become overwhelming for the student. Vander Walde notes that behavior charts work best when there is consistency and accountability; that is, the chart must be maintained on a regular basis, and the student must be held accountable for violations with clear and consistent consequences. Vander Walde also remarks that behavior charts are most successful in modifying a student’s behavior when everyone – teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, parents and the student him/herself – are involved in their creation and maintenance.

What about the other students in your classroom who are affected by one student’s behavioral issues? It is possible that the teacher may choose to share with the class the challenges that a particular student faces, but this must be done with the utmost sensitivity and appropriate confidentiality. Vander Walde says, “The teacher must maintain the balance between confidentiality and what other students need to know to support a respectful, inclusive classroom community.”  

Vander Walde gives an example of a student who was unable to filter out any outside noise, and as a result found it very difficult to concentrate. He would voice his frustration to his classmates.  In that case, the teacher conducted an exercise where he played loud background music and asked all of the students to focus carefully on the lesson. As the students processed the exercise and expressed how difficult it was to concentrate, the teacher explained to the students that this is the feeling that their peer experiences every day, in every class. As a result of this exercise, the students were able to behave more empathically towards their peer.  It is most important that if a teacher chooses to share an individual student’s behavioral or academic struggles with the class, the teacher should first seek permission from administrators, counselors/social workers, parents, and most importantly, the student.

Sometimes it is necessary to adjust expectations for a particular student. For example, I once taught a student, Shelly, who had not yet developed the social and emotional flexibility necessary to participate in the give and take of Havruta learning. After months of failed attempts to engage her in Havruta learning, I decided (with the input of the guidance counselor, administrator, parents and Shelly herself) that she could work independently during most Havruta sessions. I did not make a public announcement to the class about this plan; rather, I discussed with Shelly  in advance that I expected her to work quietly and not make a ‘big deal’ of the fact that she did not participate in Havruta learning. In this case, the plan worked well; both Shelly and the other students were so relieved not to have her participate in Havruta that I heard not a word of complaint from anyone in the class.

All of the above information assumes that the educator works with a supportive and involved administration. How is it possible to implement these strategies when the administrator is not interested in everyday classroom routines? Vander Walde provides a step-by-step guide to implementing change:

“I recommend that teachers who think they are working in a school in which administrators seem reluctant to help address difficult classroom situations set themselves three initial tasks to complete:
  1. To the best of their ability, objectively describe (initially for their own reflection) in writing the difficult situation in the classroom from three perspectives: that of the student or students involved, that of the teacher, and that of the students in the classroom community. Include actions, verbal communications and setting information in the description.
  2. Read over the description and enter problem solving mode:   
    1. State the problem in a few ways, and then determine which ways allow for development of problem solving plans.  
    2. Determine what the teacher can do to affect a change in him/herself, in the classroom environment and in the actions/comments of the said student.   
    3. Determine what resources/help/knowledge/advice are needed.  Identify roadblocks to solving the problem.
    4. List what has already been done and what the results were.
    5. In the best of all possible educational scenarios, identify who can best help solve the problem or determine that the problem cannot be solved in the current school setting.  Are there colleagues who teach the same (or similar groupings of) students and who are experiencing similar difficult situations?  If the answer to the former part of this question is yes and to the latter part of the question is no, figure out why.
  3. Develop a compelling reason(s)  why it is in the child’s, the school’s, the administration’s,  the parents’, the teacher’s and the other students’ best interests to address the situation.
  4. The caveat in all of this is that teachers have to be brutally honest with themselves about their own challenges, strengths, perceptions and attitudes that are pertinent to the difficult situation.  The teacher has to be prepared not to be defensive if an administrator or counselor wants to address those aspects of the difficult situation.

After all of these initial tasks are tackled,  teachers ultimately will need to go to an administrator, school psychologist, educational support specialist or school counselor to seek help in best addressing the situation if they have not been able to successfully do so on their own or with peer colleagues.  It is often a good idea for a teacher to speak confidentially with a person who plays a mentor/reflective friend role in his or her life after completing the tasks above and prior to reaching out to the administrator.  This person can help the teacher know if the description(s) of the issue and compelling reason(s) to involve administration are stated in ways that will be most helpful toward reaching the desired outcomes.”

Most importantly, educators must recognize that they are not alone. Regardless of how supportive or non-supportive the professionals in a school community may be, there are resources available. As educators work to identify and use the skills of their colleagues and administrators, they will find that it is indeed possible to instill behavioral changes in difficult students.

*Name has been changed.