Growing up we all knew “that kid”, or perhaps you were “that kid”. The one the teachers and other students talked about. The one that made things difficult and caused problems. They were the tough students that rarely made it to graduation unless one teacher stepped in and made the connections needed to change their path. We now know so much more about childhood trauma, anxiety and special needs. We need to do better, especially for “that kid”.
“Don’t call me “that kid” – Why every student deserves a fresh start and how to give them one
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Have you ever heard teachers talking about “that one student”? The one child whom teachers have tried and tried to work with but just can’t get through to? Have you ever been the teacher talking about that one student, joining in and commiserating with your colleagues?
I don’t think I have met a single teacher or adult that works with kids and hasn’t had an experience with a tough student. Whether the student has a “reason” for being hard to work with or is “just making bad choices”, do we really understand what our biases do to our interactions with that student? Are we aware of what our assumptions are reinforcing within the mind of this student?
As we move through our careers, there will be students who are thinking ”Don’t call me ‘that’ kid.” Here’s why every student deserves a fresh start, and how you can give them one.
The Power of Bias
Consciously or unconsciously, we all have biases. This is not a judgment, and by no means are all those biases negative. It is a fact of the human brain that we “label” and “group” others in our environment. It is what we choose to do with those labels and groupings that we have control over.
Ted Talks has some great talks on this subject. Here is one list of talks on bias and assumptions that I enjoyed.
The PREVALENCE OF TRAUMA AT THE ROOT OF BEHAVIoUR
Trauma is sneaky and can cause many adults to make the wrong assumptions about a student.
A student who has experienced trauma may not show the outward recognizable signs that teachers expect. Debilitating trauma can be physical, emotional or mental. It can also be recent, or happened many years ago, yet still have a profound impact on a child. Trauma also does not turn a child into a meek, compliant introvert. In fact, most times the opposite is true.
When we allow our biases or preconceived notions to guide our thinking, we might be inclined to think of a tough student as “naughty” or “making poor choices”. A child with trauma in their background, however, can show behaviors and make choices in an attempt to control a situation. Their trauma experiences were moments of extreme loss of control. So often children who have experienced trauma will go to extreme lengths to feel in control of a situation or relationship.
A child with trauma history, may make decisions and do things they know to be wrong in the hopes that they will not be required to show any emotion or create any kind of bond with an adult.
When They push you away
I do not know any teacher who actively works to push students away, and most I know work as hard as possible to create trusting relationships with their students. Perpetually labeling any one student as “tough” or “difficult”, coupled with a student who actively pushes adults away, can mean a hard situation made worse unintentionally. Without the growth mindset belief that students can and do change, teachers may simply continue to label students.
Without asking students directly (which is not advised), teachers may never know the full extent of trauma affecting a child. In fact, you may never know for sure that a child has experienced trauma. It could be special needs or anxiety at the root of their behaviours. However, there are some universally helpful steps that teachers can take to improve the situation for these kids. These actions will help all of the students in the classroom, and maybe even the teacher as well.
HERE ARE FIVE IDEAS TO FOSTER CONNECTIONS WITH “THAT KID”
Eat lunch with your student(s)
Eating with someone is a wonderful chance to get to know them. Invite a group of students to eat with you in your room. Make sure you “spread the wealth” and invite everyone in your class at some point.
Throughout these interactions, you will learn so much about the students, how they interact, and what is going on in their lives. This can also extend outside of the lunch block as well.
Play with groups of students at recess.
Meet students in the hall before class.
Learn about and with your students, they will appreciate it and you will gain insight into how to better reach them at their level, where-ever that happens to be.
Don’t buy in
If you are working with a student who has experienced trauma, they may be actively trying to push you away through actions or words. Know that sometimes, any adult might seem like a threat. Don’t let their raised anxiety or frustration levels affect you. Help them through the situation gently by not letting them push you away.
Phrases that let them know you care even when they are causing a disruption are key. “I can see that you’re having a hard time right now; would you like a break in the reading nook?” Or “I would love to help you solve this problem; how can we work on it together?” Both are wonderful ways to get the conversation started. These may be able to happen right away or may need to wait until a better time when you do not have 25+ other students in the room. Whenever you begin the conversation, remaining calm, consistent, and focused on the problem at hand is the best way to go.
What you say has power.
How you act as power.
When you talk about a student, there is often a prophetic result. If you are talking in the staff lounge about how “so-and-so is having such a hard day”, realize that you are confirming to yourself that the rest of their day will continue to be hard.
Our thoughts become our words, and our words become our actions. This is one of the reasons teaching is such an emotionally and physically draining profession.
Every morning before your students come in, tell yourself how wonderful of a day it is going to be, for you and your students. You can do this verbally, by writing it down, or by saying it as part of a mantra during meditation, mindfulness or yoga practice.
This might seem silly at first, but imagine if this self-talk produces real results? Imagine your toughest student walking out of your room with a huge smile on his or her face because they just had the best day at school ever. Pretty powerful, right?
The power of one positive role model and connection
One positive interaction with one teacher can be mean a different life trajectory for your students.
To do this successfully, you have to be aware of yourself enough to know what to do about the assumptions you make. Human brains are hardwired to look for connections, patterns, and reinforcements. Knowing that, you may need to actively work to give students a fresh start each and every day.
DISRUPTING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
If the first four days of the week have been hard, your brain wants to think that the fifth day will be hard as well. Children often find themselves trapped in these negative thought ruts. Teachers can and should be the disruptor in that thought process.
Start by disrupting your own negative thoughts. Work with your fellow teachers to do this for each other. Once you and your colleagues can do that for yourselves, you can start doing that for your students.
You might be working with a student that has been conditioned through 10 years of schooling that school is worthless, and they just have to ‘make it through’.
You may be working with a 6-year old who has been conditioned through trauma to fear adults.
Or, more likely, you will never know the traumas your students have faced.
By going out of our way to create and strengthen relationships, remaining calm and consistent, and watching our negative self-talk, we can go a long way towards disrupting the negative thoughts in our student’s head as well. By doing these things and keeping aware of our preconceived notions, we really can give every student a fresh start, day after day, and year after year.
With work and diligence on your part, never again will a child in your circle of influence bear the label of “that kid”.