You see, schools like Weston in Montreal, or my current school, KGMS in North Vancouver are not populated with what society or the system would call "ideal students". These schools were, and are, filled with children who have been unsuccessful somewhere else. They arrive carrying a burden and have usually not found school to be an inviting place for them. Some arrive incredibly frustrated or feeling defeated by barriers to their learning that have stood in their way; others come through the doors with more life experience and emotional baggage than I could ever bear. But all of them are there for the same reason - not to be difficult, but to be successful. Over the past forty years of working with a wide variety of students, parents, and teachers, there are two basic understandings that have guided me on my personal journey.
1. Kids are not deliberately or inherently "bad". When students are feeling unsuccessful at school, they develop coping mechanisms to help them to survive what feels like daily torture. They can become distracted and unfocused; or, disruptive and resistant to redirection; or, prone to taking long breaks - "hall walking" or visiting a counsellor or enjoying prolonged bathroom visits - anything to get them out of the classroom. They are not being intentionally disrespectful or defiant. They are just surviving. If our response as educators is to isolate, or punish, or berate, it is akin to sending a patient home from the hospital because they are too sick to treat! Sometimes we can clinically identify what is going on (ADHD, OCD, ODD, etc.) but more often then not it is more a reflection of past failures and frustrations, rather than current diagnoses that tell the story.
2. Most interventions are band-aids, real change takes time and planning. As schools we often tend to be more reactive than proactive. If things are going well with a student on a given day, we hold our collective breath and hope for the best. If things fall apart, we leap in and react. We send in extra staff, provide a safe haven, visit the farm - calm everyone down and then try again. In that way, most schools and educators are constantly playing catch-up. Far too frequently, the only proactive action that a school chooses to take is to "demit" a student, asking her or him to leave before the next "problem" arises. My own hands are not clean on this score, over the years there has always been the occasional student whose needs are just too great for us to handle. We try our best to support the family in finding the appropriate alternative placement, but at the end of the day, it is an admission of defeat. Without question, our real success stories are the students that we didn't give up on. They are the long term lights at the end of the tunnel, and new faculty coming the school are invariably stunned to hear their colleagues' "war stories" about someone that they have found to be delightful in their own class.
When a child is having difficulty in coping with the day to day routines and expectations in class. and is reacting in an anti-social fashion, everyone (teachers, classmates, administrators) wants a "quick fix". In some systems it is the assignment of a Special Education Assistant; in others it is putting the student into an intensive "intervention" programme to get them on track; and, in ours it tends to be a combination of counselling, SLP and BI support to implement a plan of attack. While all of these strategies can have a positive impact on the classroom environment, they tend to err more on the side of managing the problem rather than solving it.
In my next post, we'll take the long view on how we can help students to learn to self-regulate and overcome the barriers that prevent them from being happy and successful at school.