Jake arrived at school after the school year was already underway. It should have come as no real surprise that he showed up at our door, since he has been enrolled in several schools -- including ours once before -- in the past two years. The word was out that, while enrolled in his last school, Jake had accumulated an impressive record of poor academics and behavior. In one incident, he threw a chair at his teacher.
Soon after arriving at our school, Jake was assessed by the school support team and introduced to our class. He entered our classroom with his low-slung pants, exaggerated "gangsta" walk and mannerisms, a lousy attitude, and an enormous chip on his shoulder.
Six weeks later, he announced to our class, "At first Miss S was my worst enemy; today she is my best friend."
REACHING OUT TO JAKE’S MOTHER—
Miss Stevens used a variety of strategies to reach out to Jake and bring about the transformation described. Her first purposeful move was to reach out to Jake’s mother and make her an ally.
Jake’s mother, for a variety of reasons, had a lot of antagonism toward schools in general and toward our school in particular. For that reason, Miss Stevens had to focus on separating herself from the problems Jake’s mother perceived. It was important for Jake’s mother to know that Jake was his teacher’s primary concern, not previous issues with other teachers, children, or the school.
Miss Stevens’ years of teaching experience had taught her that no youngster is “all bad,” and that all parents need and deserve to hear positive things about the kids they love. She provided Jake’s mother with a regular flow of information. Whenever possible, that information celebrated news of good behavior and positive effort.
It wasn’t long before Jake’s mother began to respond to the conversations Miss Stevens initiated. Many people were surprised when Jake’s mother showed up at school for a scheduled conference -- after a string of no-shows for previous conferences. Miss Stevens’ effort to keep Jake’s mother informed -- always done with respect and courtesy -- had paid off, it seemed. She showed up at the conference because she felt “safe,” confident that she would not be attacked or blamed or put on the spot.
FROM CLASS TROUBLEMAKER TO TEACHER’S ASSISTANT!
With help from the school’s support staff, Jake soon had a chart on which his behavior was recorded at regular intervals during the day. Like all the other children in Miss Stevens’ class, Jake also had a "goal card;" punches on his goal card provided quick reinforcement of good decisions and behaviors throughout the day. Special attention was paid to Jake’s behavior during recess, lunch, and such special classes as art, music, and PE; historically, those less structured parts of the day had been problem times for Jake.
In Miss Stevens’ classroom, a completed goal card carries a reward. Jake usually chooses one particular reward -- the one that allows him to be Miss Stevens’ “teacher’s assistant” (TA) for a day. All the children understand the importance of that job. They know how Miss Stevens relies on her TAs. TAs wear special nametags and sit in a place of importance by her desk. They perform important tasks, including some simple discipline tasks such as rewarding "reading pillows" to those who are on task during literacy time.
When Jake chooses to be a TA, he takes pride in handling the job seriously. Most importantly, he seems to identify with the teacher’s role in helping children learn and behave responsibly. As a TA, Jake has come to understand that he and his peers bring problems on themselves when they make poor choices.
Miss Stevens uses another intervention with children that I call "heart-to-heart talks.” During her heart-to-hearts with Jake, she always makes certain he understands that she likes him very much -- even though she might not always like his behavior. She lets him know that her responses to his behavior are part of her job. It is her responsibility to make him a better student and help him learn. He might be angry about what she has to do, and he might even be angry at her for doing it, but she always takes time to remind him that she is not angry at him and that she cares about him. She tells him this even when he seems to be tuned out or is having a bad day.
From time to time, Stevens announces to Jake, “I'm so glad you're in my class.” And she means it! Now I'm willing to bet that's something he's never heard before!
This is not to say that Jake doesn't still test Miss Stevens by acting out occasionally, but he is learning that she does not give up on him. She holds high expectations for him, and she lets him know that she thinks he is capable of living up to those expectations.
Miss Stevens works on the premise that all kids need and deserve physical affection too. She makes sure Jake receives his share of shoulder-to-shoulder hugs, back and shoulder pats, and plenty of high-fives and smiles. In the beginning, Jake seemed a bit uncomfortable with that kind of attention and would stiffen his body. Miss Stevens didn’t react to that rejection, however. She knew his reaction might be caused by pent-up anger. Perhaps he reacted that way because accepting such attention was counter to the “tough guy” image he attempted to put up. Or maybe he just didn’t know how to respond. But it wasn’t long before Jake relaxed. Maybe other students’ responses to Miss Stevens’ physical attention modeled the appropriate behavior for Jake. In any case, now Jake even initiates high-fives!
AN ATMOSPHERE OF UNDERSTANDING—
In the classroom, Miss Stevens teaches all children to understand the behavior of their peers, especially those who might regularly exhibit poor behavior. She even enlists students’ help in applauding one another’s successes and mentoring each other to make the best choices.
Recently, during reading time, Jake and a group of his peers were discussing a passage about learning from mistakes. In the group, Jake volunteered that he has had to learn things "the hard way." Miss Stevens didn’t just let that revelation pass. She picked up on Jake’s comment. She was frank with the class about how difficult his student record had been and how hard he was working to improve it. The children picked up on the pride in her voice, and they echoed it to him. In addition, Miss Stevens regularly has Jake stand on his chair to receive special recognition from the class for a job well done.
Jake still makes mistakes. He still makes bad choices sometimes. But he is shedding his "bad boy" label as Miss Stevens continues to search for and refine ways to reach him and other troublesome children in her class.
* ODD Support Group for Parents and Teachers