A friend of mine shared with me a huge choice he made at the end of last school year.
He volunteered to teach a remedial grade 6 class with a long history of behavior problems.
Their behavior problems are so bad that many (and I mean many) of their former teachers have moved on to other schools, specifically citing behavior issues as the reason.
Sounds exciting, right?
More like “What was he thinking?”
In this post, I want to reflect on the experiences he shared with me and discuss my take on the solution.
Are the students all bad?
One of the first things my friend noted about his class is that most of the kids actually were not bad at all and wanted to genuinely learn. That being said, a few troubled students often made it easy for him to forget that.
Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler (2008) accurately put this into perspective with their 70-20-10 Principle. The principle is as follows:
- 70% of students rarely cause classroom problems
- 20% cause classroom problems regularly in the absence of good classroom rules and procedures
- 10% are generally out of control most of the time despite any efforts by the teacher to control them
I believe this principle is important to keep in mind, especially in classroom situations such as my friend’s remedial class. We sat and ran the numbers for his class:
- 50% fall in the (70) category
- 28% fall in the (20) category
- 22% fall in the (10) category
Your first reaction may be how far the numbers are off, particularly in the (70) category. But for us, this principle reassured us that half the class, despite their academic deficiencies, really wanted to learn.
That’s exciting and relieving, especially on the “bad days” when my friend found himself leaving the classroom with less hair than when he started.
While the (20) category is a bit high, my friend has good classroom management skills that compensated for that.
What is most concerning is the (10) category, which is double of what a typical classroom contains. These are the ones that disrupt the class on a daily basis, cause some of the (20) category to misbehave, and make the teaching experience rather unpleasant for my friend, and likely for their former teachers who have since said goodbye.
The rest of this post is dedicated to helping them.
Can a Single Teacher Help a (10)?
The short answer: No.
My friend is a great teacher. But I think one of the major revelations he had this year is how little ability he has to help the (10) students.
Here’s what Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler (2008) have to say about helping students in the (10) category:
Most have learning or emotional problems…many such students need professional medical or psychiatric help (p. 33)
While many teachers may go into situations such as this remedial class thinking they can “save” these students, they will find out that the task is insurmountable for one person alone, particularly without extensive training in the field of psychology. I am not suggesting that teachers throw in the towel and stop trying, but I do think a reality check is in order. Teachers should go in every day with hopes of reaching the (10) but know that it isn’t their fault if they can’t.
So What Can Be Done?
From listening to my friend, my initial thoughts were that he is not getting enough support. School leadership needs to take an active role to create an orderly school environment, make available the appropriate professional services, and work toward getting students enrolled in professional help, even when there is resistance.
My friend has many stories about his school. Ones which would make you think, “Is it really a school?” School environment really matters and cannot be overlooked, and it perhaps is a major reason my friend has so many struggles with behavior at his school.
Marzano (2003) offers five action steps to help leaders make sure that their school environment is not to blame for allowing misbehavior. The action steps are:
- Establish rules and procedures for problems caused by school facilities and routines
- Establish clear schoolwide general behavior expectations
- Establish and enforce consequences for violations
- Establish programs that teach self-discipline and responsibility
- Establish systems to detect and track students with potential for extreme behaviors
My friend’s school has room for growth in many of these areas.
Action Step 1
First, the hallways in his school are very wide, inviting students to run and play. Unfortunately, the play in the hallway spills into the classroom. A couple things could prevent this. Elementary students should not be allowed to escort themselves anywhere alone. Teachers should lead them at all times during the day, even to recess. In addition, the administration should be posted in set positions throughout the school during passing periods to ensure the hallways are for walking, not for playing.
The school is also stacked up 6+ floors. Teachers should implement a policy of walking in the middle of the line on stairways rather than the front so that they can monitor the curves. In addition, classes should stop on each floor so that the line does not get too spread out.
These, among other procedures, could prevent students from having the opportunity to misbehave.
Action Step 2
The school lacks a code of conduct, or at least my friend is unaware of one existing. The administration needs to have a vision on paper of what students act like in the school. Teachers need to be trained on it. Students need to be trained on it. And parents need to be aware as well. It is important that everyone is on the same page about behavior expectations.
Action Step 3
As was discussed in my post about positive and negative reinforcement, doing nothing about behavior is the worst option. But unfortunately, that is the reality in many schools such as my friend’s. Once again, it is advisable for administration to think through consequence on paper and train both teachers and students on them.
Action Step 4
Honestly, I am not very knowledgeable in this area so I will refrain from comment other than to say it would be interesting to know how great schools do this.
Action Step 5
Many schools have referral systems to track behavior, but unfortunately for my friend, his does not. He does have the option to send students to the Student Affairs Office in extreme cases, but he isn’t sure if any of that is tracked.
It is important for schools to know who his struggling so interventions can be implemented early. The longer you wait, the harder it will be.
Even the most organized and well thought-out school will still have major problems. This is where school counselors come in. Campuses must have well-trained and licensed counselors who are available to work regularly with (10) students both one-on-one and in groups.
I feel school counselors may be one of the most underfunded and underutilized resources in education. Counselors do not need to be doing school schedules and other administrative work as they often do, rather they need to be helping students. While to do this right would take an incredible amount of resources and manpower, I believe school counselors, more than anyone, have the power to truly change the lives of our (10) students.
getting Students Help
Just because the professional services are available and easily accessible does not mean students will automatically take part in them.
Particularly when working with different cultures, the stigma attached to getting such help may be viewed as too great by some families, and parents may rather ignore the problem than lose face.
This is where the leader must be strong and compassionate. They need to sit down with reluctant parents, explain the situation, tell them it’s ok, offer a shoulder to cry on, and reassure them they are not alone and together everything will be ok.
When Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler (2008) first published their book, the principle was 80-15-5. The numbers have changed as new editions have come out to 70-20-10. For me, that is a signal of danger ahead.
We could talk about how it is not the school’s fault. We could talk about the changes in society and parenting and how these are making it harder for schools.
And we wouldn’t be wrong.
But those aspects of our changing world are out of our control.
What we are in control of is what happens within our school walls. While strong classroom management skills are a vital skill for teachers, some students can be too much even for the best classroom managers.
I believe my friend’s school is not alone in the opportunity to do more for our (10) students. Teachers cannot do it alone. They need strong school leaders to create environments and provide services to support them with the most troubled students.
While teachers work every day to change children’s lives, they can only do so much.
It takes a school to change a child.
Curwin, R. L., Mendler, A. N., & Mendler, B. D. (2008). Discipline with dignity: new challenges, new solutions. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.