November is a time when many of us pause to ‘count our blessings’ and openly share the many things we are thankful for. Typical responses are family, friends, freedoms…and so on.
I’m thankful for all of those things as well, but today I realized how thankful I am for what educators label as “bad” behavior by students. You all can imagine the behavior I’m referring to:
- Harming others
- Self Harm
You’re probably thinking right now that I’ve lost my marbles, or that I’m eager to suspend students, or maybe that we are the school that sees “bad” behavior so infrequently that it is the spark in our day. I don’t think schools like that actually exist, but that’s another topic.
Why then, when I should be in classrooms focused on instructional practices, am I excited to get a call that I’m needed for behavior? The answer is simple: all behavior is communicating something. Sometimes, undesirable behavior is the only glimpse we get into what students are feeling and what struggles they are battling.
All behavior is communicating something. Are you listening?
I want to share the story of a student I was blessed to work with this week. For our purposes, let’s call him Eric. Eric hadn’t struggled all year with behavior, but the past two weeks I saw him almost every day. Was he to the point of suspension? Probably. He was refusing to work, distracting his peers while they were working, and being very disrespectful to staff. Every day, Eric was in the office at least once. He wouldn’t open up to me, but finally we learned that the week prior a family friend had committed suicide. Later that week, Eric’s dad cut off all ties from him. That’s a lot to process, all by yourself.
I also want to share the story of Mark (name changed). Mark would completely shut down to the point of not speaking or moving. Frequently he would even refuse to come inside, and we would sit in the hall or on the sidewalk not speaking. Finally, he opened up and shared the struggles at home. You see, Mark lived with grandpa and grandma, but recently they had also let dad move back in. Not only did this disrupt Mark’s sense of security, but it also changed every routine that he was used to.
I could share countless other stories, as I’m touched by them weekly. I’m sure just reading this you are thinking of students who have experienced things like this as well.
I am also thankful for the staff I work with everyday, who understand that it takes a village to make a difference for a child. You see, without every adult being willing to show every student that they matter to us and we care about them, our work would not be possible. I am one person, and almost daily I have to ask others for help. The more adults who send the same message to a child, the easier it is for them to believe:
“You matter to us. We love you. We are here for you, and we want to help you.”
Battles to Overcome
The first battle we must overcome is the belief that students enjoy getting in trouble. It might appear that way, but if you take the time to dig deeper, the adults are always rewarding the behavior.
- A student misbehaves and they are asked to leave class. You just gave students a free pass to avoid learning and work!
- A student misbehaves and they are sent to the counselor. You just gave that student coveted one on one time with an adult.
- A student misbehaves and they are sent to the principal. You just gave that student an extended break from the learning in your room.
- A student misbehaves and they are asked to sit out from recess. You just gave that student an excuse to not develop relationships with peers.
The second battle is to accept that any behavior that is repeated is being rewarded in some way. Put that on a post it somewhere as a reminder. If it’s happening repeatedly, you (or someone) is rewarding it. We must accept that.
The third battle to overcome is the belief that behavior will change with consequences. In my twelve years in education, I’m not sure that any student who has been suspended every miraculously stopped the undesirable behavior. I also can’t recall an instance where a consequence stopped the undesirable behavior. Why? Because students don’t want to be “bad.” They don’t come to school thinking about ways they are going to misbehave. However, they are struggling with some very heavy topics, and until we process those, behavior won’t change.
Blessings in Disguise
It’s so easy to become frustrated with student behavior. My hope is that we remember that behavior is often how students communicate with us that something more is going on. Do we listen?