What does it take for a child to learn? To truly absorb knowledge and apply it… either on a test or in life?
They need an accepting and empowering classroom community.
Without community, many of our young learners will be held back by individual circumstances that overpower their ability to learn.
This crisis in my classroom illustrated this reality, and reminded me why I’m so committed to creating a tight-knit classroom team every year.
The children that I'll described are no different from those you’ll find in nearly any public school elementary classroom. This story dramatically illustrates the need for teachers who can bring insight and empathy to their classroom leadership roles.
Every class is unique
The key player in this classroom drama was Kristine, a young girl with a very engaging personality but severe ADHD who was only intermittently medicated.
When Kristine took her meds, she was a fairly well-behaved child. When she didn't, she was absolutely unable to contain her impulses to move constantly about the room, defy nearly all instruction and (most problematically) hug and touch other children including on their bottoms. Romero was one of her many targets.
As it turned out, Romero had a little secret of his own.
As you might imagine, Kristine's impulses were quite stressful to other children. When she was in my room, I was able to manage them; not always with complete effectiveness, but enough to protect the personal space of my other students.
This was not the case when Kristine was at a specialist, and that's where the problems began.
The seeds of discontent
When my children came back from fitness, the reports of Kristine's unwanted touching caused me to bring this situation (again) to my principal.
It’s always a struggle to balance the needs of our exceptional children with the needs of all the other kids in the classroom. On one hand, we have Kristine, a fetal-alcohol syndrome child who was sexually abused a few years prior and was being raised by her grandparents… because neither her mother nor her father wanted her in their homes, even though they lived in the same part of town.
On the other hand, every other child in my room had a right to personal privacy and safety, both emotional and physical.
My principal and I had been working hard with Kristine and her family to help moderate her behavior, so this was just one more step in that process… or so I thought.
Communicating with home
Romero often played the victim in my classroom, constantly bringing to my attention almost-unnoticeable slights or imagined insults. He had managed to alienate several other children since almost any interaction with him could result in being tattled upon.
By the end of the day, I had received a call from Romero's mom insisting upon a meeting.
Of course, any experienced teacher spends a fair amount of time talking to concerned parents. While I was not thrilled with the prospect of another discussion, I certainly was not overly concerned and our conference went as well as could be expected.
All in all, it was not a great day and I went home thinking. “Could it get any worse?”
In short, the answer was “yes.” What transpired next raised this incident from “just another day” to a classroom community crisis.
Brain chemicals and behavior
Anyone who has read this website will see that I place a huge amount of emphasis on setting expectations, modeling them, then holding children accountable to them. After the building of a very close-knit classroom community, it really is my primary approach to classroom management.
Still, I’ll be the first to admit that setting expectations is not a magic cure for much of the behavior that we can experience as elementary classroom teachers. Why?
Because the approach of setting expectations assumes that all children are capable of thinking logically about situations and understanding what will occur if they do not meet those expectations.
This is true in the case of most children (although many of them take quite a few lessons to learn it). It is absolutely not true in a small minority of children who we find in our rooms every year.
For these kids, setting and enforcing expectations will help moderate behavior, but it may not be as effective as we'd like.
The reason is because physiologically, some of our children simply cannot moderate their own behavior. Their inability to control their impulses is not driven primarily by their home environment, but by a chemical imbalance in their brains. The reasons for this can vary widely, and Kristine's background (fetal alcohol, sexual abuse) is but one example.
This is critical for new teachers to understand.
So many teachers enter the classroom expecting that the standard management techniques they have learned will apply to all children. Establish consequences and good behavior naturally follows… right?
Kristine's situation illustrates the potential challenges. My community-based response provides the solution when setting expectations doesn't… well… live up to expectations!
I arrived out on the blacktop the next morning to find that Romero had recruited other children as “bodyguards” to surround him and protect him from Kristine.
Suddenly, a behavior incident had transformed into a group-bullying incident, with children choosing sides and the target being a girl with an impulse-control disorder who was suddenly being placed in the position of being bullied rather than being the aggressor.
As I like to say, children are often best viewed as small versions of adults, and the tribalism (as in “my tribe vs. your tribe”) of the situation was striking… and completely embedded in our human psychology.
Of course, I broke up the bodyguard contingent and we headed upstairs for our morning routine – which fell apart as soon as we got to the classroom.
Kristine – pushed to her limit by this unwanted attention from her peers – started to unload in ways that only she was capable of: Screaming at the top of her voice that her “touching” behavior (which she openly acknowledged occurred) was “not her fault” because she forgot to take her medication.
I could see the tribes immediately starting to form up again and I knew it was time for a full-scale teacher intervention.
“Put your pencils down!”
Once I had every child’s attention and speaking in my most attention-getting, quiet-but-firm teacher voice, I began the discussion by asking, “What is a disability?”
The answers came readily from my kids:
- “When someone can't help how they walk.”
- “A problem with seeing or hearing – or even speaking.”
- “Not being able to remember things very well.”
This led into a discussion of disabilities and the fact that everyone has a disability of some sort, and it was up to our classroom community to understand the challenges that some children face every single day when they come to school. School is simply not as easy for some as it is for others.
So far, it was a helpful, but typical class meeting. The breakthrough came when I asked my children to share the disabilities they experienced in their own lives.
A class picture, with kids dressed up in their cutest clothes, seems to paint a picture of happiness and order. That image is very easy to believe. However, we don't have to scratch very far below the surface to find trauma, raw emotions and turmoil even in our youngest learners.
The stories my innocent little ten-year-olds shared brought tears to all our eyes… and a little bit of healing to our hearts.
The class meeting
Whenever I conduct a class meeting, I always make sure that if children need to share something, they have an opportunity to do so. Our discussion of personal challenges prompted two of my girls to share their frustrations with the way disabled children can be treated in our society.
Keandra shared that she had a severely disabled twin sister who had to be constantly cared for and pushed about in a wheelchair. Most upsetting to her was that she had to endure other children and adults staring at her sister when she was out in public and wondering aloud how they could be twins.
“I feel so bad – she can't help it!”
Sandi shared that her brother (in 6th grade in our own school) was often ridiculed for his dwarfism and malformed body.
I knew these siblings and my heart ached to hear of their humiliation at the hands of other humans.
Eleana, a young, Hispanic girl in my class, shared her embarrassment over her father and cousins being laughed at because they didn't speak English.
Everyone has a challenge
Others shared their personal frustrations:
- “I'm not good at reading. It's so hard for me.”
- “I have asthma and can't play outside when it's cold.”
- “I have to wear glasses. I hate it and I hide them in my desk.”
This was not just “look at me” show-and-tell. These were heartfelt, tearful stories of ugly adult realities from which ten-year-old kids should not have to suffer.
My students were deeply touched and empathetic. Most-affected was Romero, the victim of Kristine's unwanted touching.
Romero, for the first time, felt safe enough to share with his peers that he had ADHD – something that he had been too embarrassed to share with anyone at school. In my supportive classroom community, he was able to explain that although his condition was under control, he really, really, did not like to be touched.
My children applauded his bravery in sharing his condition and helping them understand his own motivations and fears.
A family meeting
This was more than a classroom community meeting. It was a family meeting. It was a crucial breakthrough in our relationship as a group of learners and one more step toward creating an environment where children were free to be themselves without fear of judgment.
Classroom community is not just about getting along; the impact goes much deeper than that and gets to the very reason we have school in the first place.
The fact of the matter is that if we do not care for the hearts and minds of the children in our classrooms, they simply will not be able to learn as effectively as we hope.
Consider the adult perspective. What is your receptivity to learning when you are carrying a heavy emotional burden into a training class? What happens at home follows our kids to school, and if their minds are troubled, they cannot be free to absorb the knowledge that we are imparting.
If you do not address these issues in your room, you will never achieve the hoped-for academic success with your children.
Supporting every learner
Just as “it takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a classroom community to raise young learners.
This is teaching in the modern world, and this is part of our role in fulfilling the promise of public education.
We must take every child no matter their ability, disability or where they're coming from in life, and enable them to be academically successful to create their best possible future. This takes non-traditional skills, and teacher leadership in the process is critical.
Community is job one in my room, so important that it can't be constrained to a single daily meeting. It is embedded into every aspect of our schedule, from my insistence on manners to our protocols for math mini-lessons.
Our class meeting occurred on a Friday. It was my tradition that during the last three minutes of every week, my kids danced to a popular song. It was fitting that when we held our dance session at the end of the day, the children were truly celebrating that we came together as a family to resolve this incident.