Today I had one of those days with a student. I decided to visit a classroom to observe a kiddo that had been struggling. We had a meeting scheduled with mom, and I wanted to do a little “Time on Task” assessment. I’d seen him “in action” a few times throughout the year, had looked at behavior charts, and talked with the teacher, but there’s nothing that quite compares to being in the room for a chunk of time to witness interactions with peers and the teacher, behaviors, etc. When I first walked in, he wasn’t in the classroom, but when he rejoined, he quickly noticed me. I was sitting far away from where he normally sits, and I was watching the rest of the class and their reading lesson. He seemed to know that I was there to observe him. I could see him watching me, and he then started acting out. I’m not going into a lot of detail about all the behaviors, I don’t believe that is important for this post. While all the behaviors were nothing we hadn’t seen before, there seemed to be no trigger other than my presence. Later, after he calmed down, the student actually said to me “I didn’t like that you were spying on me.”
Smart kid! He knew why I was there, but instead of my presence being a motivator of appropriate behavior, it motivated the exact opposite behavior we would want to see. It reminded me of a quote I saw on Twitter the other day:
We have come to the realization that the student in question needed some help! And trust me, our team is working hard to figure out exactly what that help looks like.
A couple years ago, I wrote a post based on the book Lost At School by Ross W. Greene (you can see that post here). My experience today took me back to that book. Over the course of the past few weeks, I have had several meetings about this student, trying to peel back the layers to even find a starting point. We’ve met as a teacher team, with our student support team, with parents, etc. Initially I was thinking that we were concerned about classroom participation. At this point, based on our most recent conversation, our goal is simply for the student to be present in the room without creating a distraction for the rest of the class.
The problem behaviors that we see in the classroom generally don’t have a lot to do with what the adults in the classroom are doing. And the reality is, even for our most challenging kids, they can typically tell us what they are supposed to be doing, where things went wrong, and how they should act in the future. And even more so, they want to be successful. One of the key tenets in Lost At School is that “kids do well if they can.”
So, if we can agree that kids want to be successful, and that they do well if they can, and that acting out is a sign of unmet needs, then that means there must be something lacking for that child. That brings us to the idea of Lagging Skills. In Lost At School, Greene shares the “Assessment of Lagging Skills & Unsolved Problems” (you can see the ALSUP here). Take a look at the list of lagging skills. As educators, we often reframe the behaviors of challenging kids with phrases like this:
- “He just wants attention.”
- “He just wants his own way.”
- “She’s manipulating us.”
- “She’s not motivated.”
“Behaviors that trigger our automatic thought that a child is “bad” or “lazy” or “slow” are often a sign that his stress level is way too high and there’s no gas left in his tank – no energy left to manage anything else.”Stuart Shanker, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, 2016
I’m sure you have heard phrases like the ones above, and more! But if we see misbehavior as something other than being out to get us, then the most important thing we can understand is that “the kid isn’t testing limits or being manipulative or controlling; rather, he’s lacking an important skill” (Greene, Lost At School, p. 17). By examining the ALSUP, we might be able to identify lagging skills that a student has. Once we’re able to identify those lagging skills, we then need to look at the unsolved problems.
“Challenging behavior occurs when the demands and expectations placed upon a child outstrip the skills he has to respond adaptively.”Greene, Lost At School, p. 27
Understanding a lagging skill helps us to know why a challenging behavior may be happening. Unsolved problems help us identify the when. This is where it gets a little harder for us as adults. According to Greene, when we begin to identifying those unsolved problems, there are a few guidelines we must follow. First of all, this is not the place to identify the challenging behavior. Behavior is what happens when the student is lacking skills, not the problem itself. Next, we have to remove our theories. Typically once we start saying “because” we have moved from the unsolved problem to the theory behind the problem. Then we have to make sure problems are split rather than clumped. Saying something like “difficulty writing” is a clumped problem. We need to split it into the various situations that lead to the maladaptive behavior, so instead we might focus on “the student has difficulty writing when he is unable to make the words look the way he knows they should look.” The final guideline is to be as specific as possible. This about the “w” questions: who, what, where, and when.
The reality is, for most of our struggling kids, there will probably be multiple problems that we can identify. But it’s simply not possible to try to attack everything at once. We have to pick one problem that is our priority.
“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word, we can bend reality.”Greg McKeown, Essentialism, 2014
So with the student I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are several problems that our team can identify. But right now, we have to pick one. When you run into a challenging student, you may be tempted to try to solve all the problems at one time. It’s important to remember that you have to start with just one. Once that problem seems to be solved, then pick the next. Always just one problem at a time!
I’m hopeful that the time we invest trying to solve this initial problem will help make the next steps easier in the long run. We have a lot of work to do for so many of our students that it can be overwhelming. Know that for all of us, the key is to work with a team. If you’re having trouble with a student, ask for support – a fellow teacher, a counselor, an administrator. Oftentimes the solutions someone else sees work much better than we’d ever expect!
Solving problems for kids can sometimes feel like we’re trying to solve a puzzle without knowing what the picture looks like, and with some of the pieces missing. Over time, you eventually get there, but it requires trying a strategy, seeing if it works, and then going back to the drawing board. And one more word of caution – behavior often gets worse before it gets better. Be prepared for some snags as you start with a new plan. Try to stay consistent for a couple of weeks, then reassess. Are we seeing improvements? What is working? What isn’t? And finally, remember that you probably won’t solve all the problems, no matter how hard you try, so be on the lookout for small victories. Celebrate them loudly, both with the student, and with your team!