Behavioral issues

By: Kendra Bragg Harding, ArtistCorps Member

When you serve high need populations you sometimes run into behavioral issues. Some kids don't listen, or act out, or cheat, or, or, or. Sometimes we want to label these kids as troublemakers, but if we do we'd miss out on the world beneath that thin surface of turmoil.

I have had experiences with one student, whom we'll call Maggie. Maggie is the queen bee, and has a knack for disobeying. As you can imagine, this can get frustrating at times. I didn't want to bark at her or call her out constantly for the disruptions, but I felt at my wits' end. She hated me (obviously), and I was powerless to ever be anything to her but another lame, fun-squashing adult.

I mentioned my general frustrations to a veteran teacher, and a mentor of mine, who shared a story with me that has shaped how I view my learners, especially my little queen bee Maggie.

She talked about an elementary schooler who was labelled as a troublemaker and low-achiever. She talked about the constant bullying from teachers and students, how she was marginalized due to her socioeconomic status, and how she was "a little ball of rage." She said that no one ever thought that maybe the little girl had a lot more going on than just poor behavior. No one explored the root. It was 1966 and education was very different. So no teacher ever had the thought that this little "troublemaker" was not eating a proper diet most days, not sleeping well, and living in high stress. They just thought she was a bad kid.

That troublemaker went on to become the teacher who shared that story. She's helped hundreds of children reach their potential, and we integral to my academic success. She told me not to get discouraged and remember that the kids I'm serving have a lot more going on in their lives than what I see or hear. She encouraged me to keep growing and improving and that things would begin to change as I did. She told me that compassion and empathy go farther than the greatest lesson plans (though a great lesson plan to boot doesn't hurt!).

A few weeks later I bumped into Maggie between programs. Sarcastic, witty, sharp Maggie. I was nervous because I knew she disliked me, but I tried to start a conversation. Pretty soon she and I were talking about everything from family to fashion. I found out she wanted to be a designer, but feels insecure in her ability to do so because of challenges in math. I was able to help her find a book in the center's library about a girl with the same struggles.

The next time I saw Maggie, things were different. She hugged me when she got off the bus and asked how I was doing. She's been more polite and respectful to me, and it's not because she's had some huge shift in her attitude. It's because my attitude changed. I let go of feeling like she was shut off to me and didn't want to listen, and realized that I'm responsible for being engaging. I showed genuine interest in her life, and gained some small portion of her trust.

The reality is that none of my learners are or ever were troublemakers. They have troubles beyond their control, but I'm in charge of our time together. I'm in charge of making it fun and interesting. I'm in charge of letting my students know they're appreciated for their effort. I'm in charge of keeping things fair. I've got a long way to go, but I'm glad that I've learned that if there's trouble in the group, there's a good chance that the troublemaker is me, and I can do something about it.

February 4, 2016