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Not My Problem

I watched the events unfold. I should have seen it coming. I knew the signs, the triggers, and yet it still took me by surprise. The stomping feet, screaming, throwing, and refusal. There it was...AGAIN. I had watched this same event take place over and over again. It was like living in Groundhog's Day. Each day I looked for ways to change the events, the triggers, hoping the story would somehow change. Sometimes it did, but it was a gradual change. The kind of change where you have to stand perfectly still and quiet for it to be noticeable. The little changes eventually added up to big changes so that by the end of the year they were obvious. It was a triumphant feeling of victory. It was a victory that I knew came with a lot of heartache, defeat, melt-downs, and sweat...lots of sweat and tears!

Extreme behavior is unpredictable, tiresome, and overwhelming. It can make you feel like you are jumping hurdles with every step you take. The events you watch unfold every day are exhausting, traumatic, and leave you feeling like it will never get better. This is the story for a lot of educators, students, and their families. How can we help support each of the individuals who are involved in this type of daily experience?

I have been in each of these roles at various times in my life.

As a teacher, I have a certain expectation of support. I want to know that I can call for help and someone will come. I want to be heard. I want someone to listen to me.

As a parent, I have a certain expectation for how my child's teachers will support me and my child. That expectation comes with a need for understanding, compassion, and an offer to be actively looking for ways to create a supportive and safe environment for my child. I want someone to listen to me.

As a student, I had an expectation that my teachers would be respectful, caring, and supportive of my needs both academic and behavioral. I wanted someone to listen to me.

Throughout each role, the common need was for someone to listen to me. I wanted my voice to be heard. I didn't necessarily need any action to be taken. I just wanted to know that my voice was being heard, considered, and validated.

Behavior, of any kind, is telling a story.  There is nothing worse than wanting to communicate something and not being able to do so. It compounds the problem, making a bad situation, worse. WE HAVE TO LISTEN! We can gather so much information by watching our students in the way they express themselves through body language, words, expressions/or lack thereof, and reactions to situations. They are communicating in the only way they know how. If their way of communicating isn't working, then it's our job to help them find other ways to be more effective communicators.

I had a conversation this week with a few educators who share my passion for student voice, restorative practices, and behavior intervention. During one of these conversations, I had an epiphany moment.
Here was how this moment went:

A student comes into a teacher's classroom and struggles with a skill that is taught. The teacher tracks the student's performance through data collection. The struggle continues so the teacher begins to sort through her resources and look for strategies to use with this child as an intervention for the lagging skill. If this process is still unsuccessful then she reaches out to the RTI committee or whatever academic support team she has. There is regular communication between the student, the family, the academic support team, and administration until a solution is found. It is a team effort, in most cases, to do whatever it takes to meet that student's need.

A student enters a teacher's classroom and becomes very upset. She is stomping her feet, yelling at the teacher, and refuses to do any further work. Ultimately, she puts her head down and refuses to even respond to the teacher. The teacher sends the student to the office with her unfinished work and a note explaining the behavior. Later, the teacher sends a note home to the parents informing them that their child was sent to the office.

Do you see the difference in how these two scenarios were approached in such significantly different ways?

So why is it when a student enters a teacher's classroom and struggles with a social-emotional skill or a behavioral skill there is not a familiar tiered process for the teacher to move through? In most cases the student's behavior is determined unacceptable, the teacher communicates that to the student, the student's behavior does not improve and an office referral is made.

We need a tiered system we can use in response to student behavior! A system like that would allow educators to treat lagging social-emotional skills the same way they treat lagging academic skills.

We would never assume a child's inability to grasp an academic skill is their fault, but we do that ALL THE TIME to students who have social-emotional or behavioral struggles.

Where was the communication with this child? The data collection? The teacher's efforts to search through resources for social-emotional and behavioral supports for the student? Why was the RTI team not involved or better yet a behavioral support team not consulted? There was no team effort in the second scenario. Noone's voice was heard. That is a huge problem.

When it is an academic struggle, we naturally take responsibility for the problem. I the teacher, research, look through all my resources, consult my PLN, and visit with my student and their family. When that doesn't work then...AND ONLY THEN...I look to my administration to solve the problem...with me. I am still a part of the team even then.

When it is a social-emotional/behavioral struggle....we naturally point that problem to someone else. It is NOT my problem. Someone else needs to come and fix this problem because I can't teach with this going on.

Wow! It's hard to type that last paragraph, but unfortunately, we have ALL felt it, thought it, or said it outloud!

We have to shift our mindset! WE are the leaders in our classrooms. We are the ones setting the example and if we give up immediately on these students and don't take the time to listen to their voice, their stories, who will? They are watching us. They are looking to see how we are going to react. They want to share their story, but some of them need help in knowing how to do that in an effective way. Help them! Be their advocate! They are calling for help and waiting for someone to come. Be the One!

Liz Savage
A passionate educator who wants to #REdefine the way we approach social-emotional and behavioral struggles.


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