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The most difficult child in the room

A few years back my philosophy for difficult children was: If there is a child who is affecting the learning of others then they don’t deserve to be in my classroom. It is so easy to take the actions of that one child who is disrupting your lesson personally. Who does that child think s/he is? Why does s/he think it is ok to interrupt the learning of every other child in the class? Notice how I would say “my classroom” as if it were mine.

I never stopped to take into consideration the child’s home life. I would deal with the behaviour at that present time and expect the child to understand that is was completely unacceptable. I never stopped to see if the child was actually ok. The objective in this class was for children to learn, and that was what was going to happen, and nothing else.

I look back on my old self and cringe. Of course, it was all part of my personal learning process as a teacher. I had to go through it. As Oprah says “when you know better, you do better!”. I can’t help but think about how we were never taught at teachers’ college that there is a reason for all behaviour. If a child is acting out, it isn’t because s/he wants to disrupt the learning of the other kids. There is something else going on. Sending that child out of the class is never going to get to the source of the problem, nor fix it.

Maybe it was also because of the fact that I never got to know the family situations of the children. When I was a specialist music teacher, I never met the parents. Each age group would come into my class for an hour per week. Before that I was a supply teacher, so on any given week, I could be in 5 different schools.

At Food for Thought, I know of all of the home situations of the children. It couldn’t be more obvious the direct link between problems at home and problematic behaviours that they are demonstrating in the project. In fact, we know when something happens at home because we see a change in the behaviour of the child. It’s like a hidden language. A child often comes into the project dragging a suitcase full of baggage leftover from the traumatic events of the weekend.

We carry with us our physical, mental, or emotional wounds of childhood. We all store childhood trauma. It may be stored away in our subconscious but it is there in each and every one of us. We learn to cover them up because we want to fit in with those around us. This comes very high on the priority list of most children or adolescents. How do we fit in? By behaving like those around us. Often problems get left behind without being dealt with. We aren’t taught to ask for help.

I’ll give an example from my own life. It wasn’t a childhood trauma as I was 19 years old, but it is an example of how when I experienced trauma, I had to suck it up and get on with it. It wasn’t even an option for me to receive any type of support. It is also an example of the ‘toughen up’ or ‘be a man’ culture that existed in New Zealand at the time.

I was on a road trip with the rugby team that I was playing for. We travelled away for the weekend. As I did when I was younger, I consumed a lot of alcohol. At the end of the night, I took a taxi back to where the rugby team was staying. I asked the taxi driver to stop at a cash machine on the way. My card declined with insufficient funds. I won’t go into the details of what followed but after that night I charged the taxi driver with robbery, which was a combination of assault and theft.

The excess alcohol that I consumed led to A. me being in a drunken state and B. me not having sufficient funds in my account to pay for the taxi. What followed was a court case and the taxi driver was found guilty for robbery. Even though I was responsible for putting myself in that situation, the events that occurred that night were traumatic. Being assaulted, threatened with a knife, and robbed of possessions is not something that can be forgotten easily.

At no stage from after the incident to when the court case was presented, was I offered any help or support. What made it worse was the fact that our rugby coaches who were on the trip were police officers. I find it difficult to understand that teachers aren’t taught about the psychological or emotional needs of students. I find it even harder to believe that police officers are not trained in similar areas. You would think, in dealing with people who experience traumatic events that a police officer might at least offer a phone number to call so that a victim could have someone to talk to.

I'm sure that this experience hasn’t had any lasting impact on my life. I would probably say that because of the safe and loving home environment that I grew up in, I had the tools and confidence to deal with what had happened. Not all people are lucky enough to grow up within such loving households. My traumatic experience was at an age where I could understand the risks and problems in the world. I also had a healthy upbringing as a solid base for dealing with difficult emotional circumstances.  

Unlike my experience growing up, the children in Food for Thought are growing up in extremely traumatic environments. What are the effects of repeated traumatic experiences on young children whose brains are still growing and are trying to understand how the world works? What is the image of the world that they create and normalise? Does that mean that their view of the world becomes completely distorted? What does that mean for their daily interactions within it?

When the kids present certain types of behaviour, I can see that it is their indirect way of asking for assistance. Them getting frustrated, verbally abusive, or violent is actually them saying “help me, I am having these difficult traumatic experiences at home and I don’t know how to express them.”

I now see those behaviours with different eyes. The old me would remove the child from the class. The new me insists on maintaining that child in the activity and afterwards giving that kid extra emotional support. It is bullshit that the child is affecting the learning of the other kids. In fact, the other kids are learning from the experience. It is a real-world experience. Being tolerant of another person who is having problems is an amazing skill to learn. Supporting others is gratifying and excellent for confidence building. Working together and involving everybody is the essence of any team environment or community.

Any classroom is the perfect small sample of society. They are perfect little learning laboratories where students and teachers alike can learn about how everyone can best get along. If children have trouble getting along with other students in their classroom, you can be certain that the same thing is going to happen outside of that learning environment within the community! I believe that it is a teacher’s responsibility to support children in understanding and thinking critically about the world, and to help them build solid relationships with those around them.

Sometimes it is important for a child to have a break and maybe take some fresh air, but it is also important for that child to feel like s/he belongs. Feeling like you belong is greatly important to any person’s emotional health. These kids who are the outliers are on the fringes of not only the education system but also society. When they get chucked out of a classroom, they are literally being told that they don’t belong. When you feel like you don’t belong, it is a slippery slope.

Here is something to think about parents and educators. The next time you see a child acting out, before you take it personally, take a stand, and tell them off, stop and think not about the recent action of the child, but what might have happened to the child so that they are behaving in that way.