As an educational elder with a lot of experience working with challenging students, I am often asked to consult to school teams.
Recently a dedicated school counselor discussed with me Garrett, an 8th graders, saying, “He’s really depressed, completely shut-down. He does no work. His dad doesn’t follow through on getting him to therapy, or to try medication. Garrett gets nothing done and doesn’t seem to care at all.”
We chatted about ways to support Garrett’s father, and the difficulty of hanging in while witnessing a student who is so shut-down. “It’s hard to see him fail each day. All he wants to do is work with Mr. B, the teacher in the robotics lab.”
Whoa, that’s not a completely shut-down kid!
Our conversation then pivoted to the fact that Garrett had an interest (!) and a person at school whom he wanted to be with. We brainstormed ways the school could alter Garrett’s schedule so that he had more contact with Mr. B. The contact wouldn’t have to be earned, because kids shouldn’t have to earn something that they really need; Garrett needed time with Mr. B and robotics as much as a typical student needed to be in social studies.
Being with Mr. B in the robotics lab wasn’t a cure—it was a way to get traction with Garrett and for Garrett to construct a more positive image of himself in a world which he could barely abide. This is not an uncommon scenario: teachers describe, often with great compassion, all the ways a student struggles, all the things the student cannot do that age-typical peers are doing.
“Spend as much time describing what the child can do as what the child can’t do.”
When I hear these stories I too become shut-down; I am disabled by all the disabilities. It is as if I have been handed a trash bag filled with broken tools and smashed up parts and told to get to work.
Then I remember to request: Please tell me anything and everything this child can do.
The struggles of children who are challenging (often victims of exploited communities, neglect, and abuse) are so heart-breaking and extreme. As professionals we need to share our stories and vent our feelings. Equally important, as teaching professionals, we need to build, and for that we need every possible tool and working part in the child.
To counter our inclination to get overwhelmed by the disabilities and short-comings, I recommend the following steps for establishing a consistent framework anytime your school focuses on challenging students, whether in a case conference, child-study team, IEP meeting, or more informal conversation.
1. Spend as much time describing what the child can do as what the child can’t do.
I suggest literally using a timer. The disability concerns tend to come with troubling stories; the ability side of the ledger tends to be a less-emotional list; e.g. “She likes to draw.” What does she draw? When does she draw? Has anyone talked to her about her drawing? What sort of skills does her drawing demonstrate? Does anyone see anything else the child likes to do or shows an interest in?
2. Get everyone who works with the student into the conversation.
There have been innumerable times when the physical education teacher, or the wood shop teacher, describes a very different child—an engaged child– than the core academic teachers see. This is not a criticism of those teachers; it is more a window into the complexity of human development.
As with the story of Garrett, one of the other teachers may provide an “island of competence” that needs to be expanded, at least temporarily. These are the times we are protecting a child through a very hard time in life, when schools have to do their best to inflict no further harm. The time spent with those other teachers can insure that challenging students don’t experience each day in school as a continual reminder of their failures to thrive.
3. Analyze the student through specific skills embedded in all the multiple intelligences, but not necessarily evoked in the core curriculum.
While there is much discussion about the “debunking” of the “myth” of multiple intelligences, the fact of the matter is that multiple intelligences can provide a kind of framework to diversify and differentiate instruction for all students. For struggling and hesitant learners, differentiation and personalization can make all the difference.
Linguistic—does the child understand puns and word play?
Logical/mathematical—does the child show ability playing board games?
Visual—does the child dress with any personal style?
Physical—does the child move gracefully across the room?
Musical—does the child know popular songs?
Interpersonal—does the child have friends, and if so, how is that initiated? Intrapersonal—does the child have ways to self-soothe?
Natural—how does the child talk about her pet?
The answer to all of these questions can allow the team to see the child through a richer set of lenses, and can lead to: a) very specific choices for engagement: “Tonya, we’ve got some new colorful markers you can use on the book report drawing;” b) opportunities to affirm the child and build connections through very simple observations: “Garrett, you wear the coolest hats. Tell me about them.”
4. Swallow Your Pride
The quicker you can make it about them and not about you or content or grades, the quicker you’ll gain their trust and be able to reach them.
For this to work, however, it has to be authentic–not “I want your trust so you can get good grades and master standards,” or even even “I care about your future.” Rather, start with “I care about you, right here, right now, for no other reason than who you are.”
Students who are challenging–i.e. victims of disruptive childhoods–do not change overnight. They grow. For many of them, that growth is dependent on grasping onto an extremely diminished set of possibilities, interests, and strengths. Ultimately they’ll have the best shot at a stable life by working from the things they are good at and the things they enjoy. We serve them best by spending as much time seeking and discussing their often fragile and submerged interests and capacities as we do their significant needs and disabilities.
Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. Benson’s book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD, 2014), shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections when teaching the students who most need our help. Connect with him on Twitter; edited by Terry Heick; No Student Is Unreachable: 4 Strategies To Reach Students That Don’t Seem To Want To Be Reached; image attribution flickr user vancouverfilmschool and usarmycorpofengineers