You know that feeling you get when you sit in a meeting with a parent and it all becomes clear as to why your student/their child behaves the way they do? Or when after meeting with the family, you would like to recommend the parents for parenting courses, or worse, you feel you may need to call for the support of CAS? We know we must do everything we can to protect our students from abuse by reporting when we have reason to believe that they are in harmful situations, but what do you do when the behaviour is inappropriate or harmful to the child in more subtle ways? The chaos, the disfunction, the stress in certain homes is out of our reach but it is what is ‘normal’ in the child’s life, and it will present itself in some way in our classroom.
We have such a student. Doctors are inconclusive in their diagnosis of Tara (not her real name), although ADHD and spectrum disorder are part of her treatment profile. In her home, there is discord between her parents which may or may not have been present before Tara was born, but which currently translates into a push-me-pull-you situation with regard to the way she is being brought up. To expect this child to easily switch gears as she enters our classroom and leave any emotional baggage at the door is a huge expectation. All we can do is offer the opposite of her homelife – a calm, safe, predictable environment. But the physical environment is not enough to bring Tara around and we are constantly trying new ways to ‘keep the lid on’ because what worked last week may not work this week. Usually we know within the first 15 minutes of our outdoor learning what kind of a day she is bringing with her, although, a good start does not necessarily mean a good end to the day. At the age of only 5 years, diagnosis of behavioural problems is still unclear, although a series of potent medications have been tried to help her bridge the turbulent episodes with the beautiful, calm, smart, kind child that she is most of the time, without too much success. Tara’s home life is inconsistent and so is her behaviour, to the point where aggression is surfacing. Thankfully, there is a big support system for her at school and good communication with one of her parents. It takes a lot of human power to help Tara manage each day – but it is worth it. If she is having an off day – we ALL have an off day.
One of our strategies that hasn’t changed is to have a quiet conversation with her every morning to remind her of how valued she is, see how she is feeling inside, and ask her what she’s looking forward to in her day. I recently saw an inspirational video of a teacher who does just that, making a point of connecting with each of his students in his behavioural class each day for about 5 – 10 minutes. It may seem like a lot of time directed away from instruction, but if you think about it, the learning environment is so much richer when our students feel comfortable and safe. For students who are riding through stormy seas, whether behaviourally or developmentally, a calm and caring voice can be an anchor for them. Rather than feeling lost and out of control, they can feel connected to something bigger than the storm, because, as we have seen with Tara, when she is lost in the storm, it is nearly impossible reaching her. So the only time to make that connection is sometimes a small window of opportunity when she is calm.
Tara’s awareness of her situation is heartbreaking because, after the fact, she knows when she has gone too far and she is not proud or happy about it. While the event is tumultuous and we need to ensure her safety, evacuate the classroom to ensure the safety of the other 25 students, and try to contact the administration for back-up, our approach is consistent, nonjudgmental, and calm. We try to help her and the rest of the class by remaining calm during an episode of throwing chairs, emptying shelves, and yelling.
Of course the parents love their child, but we cannot underestimate how stressful it must be on them to hear, almost daily, that their child is causing serious problems at school, as well as continuing this behaviour at home. Tara needs to feel the consistency of attention and love in a calm and caring environment, as well as a unified approach to behaviour so that school and home are synchronized. This may not help her through everything in her troubled life, but it would help her brave her stormy times. It seems so easy for us because we only see Tara at school, but it is what we would love to be able to say to her parents.