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Challenging Behavior in Elementary and Middle School
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Excerpts from Challenging Behavior in Elementary and Middle School

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Risk Factors
  • Chapter 4: Behavior and the Brain
  • Chapter 6: Opening the Culture Door
  • Chapter 9: Guidance and Other Discipline Strategies
  • Chapter 14: Bullying
  • From the Introduction

    Our job is to teach

    Whether a school district is rich or poor, rural, suburban, or urban, it is likely to enroll its fair share of students with challenging behavior. Just one child can turn even the most experienced teacher’s classroom upside down—and present an overwhelming challenge to a novice.

    A class with a large number of students, legislation such as No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing, too much material to cover in too short a time—all of these factors play a role in the way teachers react when a child with challenging behavior enters their classroom.

    In the primary grades, teachers may feel ill equipped to handle challenging behavior, but they aren’t ready to give up. They’re committed to the whole child and the belief that if they nurture as they teach, they can help him (or her) to succeed. However, as children grow older, we hear more teachers say that it’s too late to change students’ behavior. Since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and the introduction of zero tolerance policies, it has become more and more tempting to address disruptive or aggressive behavior by sending students to the principal’s office, handing them a detention, or even suspending them. In fact, once these children have departed, the room feels calmer and safer, and both teaching and learning seem almost stress-free, leading teachers to conclude that they’ve done the right thing.

    We, the authors of this book (Barbara is a teacher and consultant with 30 years experience; Judy is a writer specializing in education), strongly believe that this attitude on the part of teachers betrays children who find it difficult to fit in, who don’t believe in themselves, and who are heading down a path that no one deserves to tread. For over a decade, we have focused our attention on finding ways to support children with challenging behavior. It is indeed the case that it is harder to guide and assist them as the years pass and their challenging behavior becomes more entrenched; but they are still children, and it remains possible to help them succeed if you have the will, the patience, and the skills the job requires. Students with challenging behavior are dealing with difficult lives in the best way they know how. As a teacher or future teacher, you have two choices. Either you can create an environment that welcomes them and teaches them how to become the best people they can possibly be, or you can reinforce their growing suspicion that they will never belong, have nothing to offer, and cannot learn or cope with the demands of school….

    Throughout this book we follow two children, Andrew and Jazmine, who come from very different backgrounds and cultures. Neither has a formal diagnosis, but both experience common academic and behavior problems at school. Their reputations precede them as they move from class to class, and teachers dread finding them on their roster when school opens each fall.

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    From Chapter 2: Risk Factors

    Peer influences

    As children grow older, they spend less time with their parents and more with their peers. During what Erik Erikson (1980) called the competence versus inferiority stage of psychosocial development, ages 6 to 12 years, children are learning to work and cooperate with others and beginning to see themselves through the eyes of their peers. Being liked and accepted is a crucial developmental task for this age. During Erikson’s next developmental period, which begins at puberty and continues through age 18, children are working on identity versus role confusion. As they struggle to figure out who they are, explore relationships with the opposite sex, try to set boundaries, and gain autonomy, their agemates play an increasingly important role. When they’re confused about their identity, their insecurity rises and their self-esteem becomes dependent on the approval of their peers.

    According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once a person’s basic physiological and safety needs have been met, she will feel the need to have friends and belong. Children with challenging behavior are often rejected by their peers, and in order to be accepted, they seek out other children who’ve been rejected or who think and behave the way they do. The result is that they limit their chances to learn social skills from their more competent peers and instead refine their aggressive, coercive behaviors (Snyder, 2002). By banding together, they provide role models for one another; reinforce one another’s antisocial values, attitudes, and behavior; pressure one another to take part in antisocial activities; and create opportunities to try out new, more serious delinquent behavior (Dodge and Pettit, 2003; Rutter et al., 1998; Snyder, 2002). In short, a deviant peer group is a training ground for antisocial and delinquent behavior (Snyder, 2002).

    Children with challenging and antisocial behavior tend to form friendships with children they meet outside of school in unsupervised settings, but ability tracking in school can also bring them together (Dishion, Andrews, and Crosby, 1995; Kellam, Ling, Merisca, Brown, and Ialongo, 1998).

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    From Chapter 4: Behavior and the Brain

    The adolescent brain

    One research team that focuses on adolescence defines it as “that awkward period between sexual maturation and the attainment of adult roles and responsibilities” (p. 9, Dahl, 2004). Investigators are beginning to suspect that this “awkward period” may itself be a critical period in brain development (Dahl, 2004). With so much growth and restructuring taking place, the brain is extra sensitive and plastic, making this a time when trajectories into adulthood are set or altered, when potential problems with relationships, careers, smoking, substance abuse, and the like can take root—or not. Adolescence, scientists suggest, offers not only great risks but also great opportunities. Perhaps the most crucial learning occurs in the area of emotional and behavioral regulation, which is associated with aggression (Steinberg, 2005b). Indeed, researchers are asking whether having the right experiences during this period enables children to achieve social and emotional control, and whether it is much more difficult to learn to regulate emotions later in life (Dahl, 2004)….

    What happens when emotion and cognition are out of sync?

    When the cognitive abilities of school-age children and young adolescents are just beginning to mature, their emotions are already going full blast. The result is an enormous disconnect—and plenty of risk for challenging behavior and serious emotional and behavioral problems. Researchers in the field liken this situation to putting an unskilled driver at the wheel of a car with a turbo-charged engine (Dahl, 2004).

    When children and teens take tests under laboratory conditions or in “cool” situations where they have the opportunity to think, they can make rational decisions. But in the real world, where their peers and their own violent feelings often heat things up, thinking and acting rationally present a greater challenge. Psychologists Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg (2005) used a video driving game to compare risk taking in adolescents, young adults, and adults. All three groups drove carefully when they played the game alone. But when friends came along to watch and give advice, the teens took much bigger risks.

    Children acquire the beginnings of many skills in infancy and polish them up throughout childhood and early adolescence as they practice navigating more and more complex situations. By studying control of eye movements, researchers have watched children develop the skill of response inhibition, that is, the ability to choose some ideas and suppress others, which is a key piece of executive control based in the prefrontal cortex. Because selecting one response always means rejecting others, this capacity is present in all voluntary behavior, from paying attention in class to resisting peer pressure (Luna and Sweeney, 2004).

    It turns out that younger children can inhibit a response, but they make many more errors than adults. Their performance becomes more and more consistent over time until it stabilizes in mid-adolescence (Luna and Sweeney, 2004).

    Acquiring the ability to self-regulate and behave rationally isn’t just a matter of waiting until the prefrontal cortex catches up with the emotional circuits of the brain. In fact, the prefrontal cortex needs the collaboration of many widely distributed brain regions and a fully integrated support and communications network in order to function well (Luna and Sweeney, 2004). Adolescents haven’t yet established this widely based circuitry—which is why their self-control often breaks down under “hot” conditions (Luna and Sweeney, 2004).

    The transition to efficient brain collaboration during adolescence may mark what neuroscientists Beatriz Luna and John A. Sweeney characterize as “the beginning of a new stage in the brain-behavior relationship where newly established distributed brain function, in preference to more regional control, governs behavior” (2004, p. 306).

    What makes this integration possible? It is probably the individual child’s experience, driving the continued pruning of gray matter and thickening of white matter (Kupfer and Woodward, 2004). As youngsters use and refine their skills in their everyday lives, deal with the consequences of their bad decisions, and enjoy the fruits of their good decisions, their brains gradually develop smooth, fast, integrated neural pathways (Paus, 2005) and a full “executive suite” of capabilities (Steinberg, 2005b). 

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    From Chapter 6: Opening the Culture Door

    The culture of school

    “Schools are more than institutions where teachers impart skills and lessons; they are places where teachers transmit cultural knowledge,” says sociologist Prudence L. Carter. “Education is as much about being inculcated with the ways of the ‘culture of power’ as it is about learning to read, count, and think critically” (2005, p. 47). Our schools naturally teach the European American values of individualism and independence, self-direction, initiative, and competitiveness (among others), using European American methods of communication and learning.

    But as we have seen, these values and methods are not universal. Other cultures in the world—including several with deep roots in the United States—bring up their children according to different beliefs and values. And when the children of these cultures enter the European American education system, teachers, children, and families all face new challenges.

    The hardest part is that we don’t really know how out of touch we are. Locked in our own cultures, we can see only the most obvious differences, such as those in dress, speech, and food. But everything in school reflects the assumptions and values of the dominant culture, whether we’re aware of it or not. Here are some examples….

    • Passive-receptive posture. Interaction in the classroom follows the mainstream model: Students listen quietly while the teacher talks, and when they’re called on, they respond one at a time by asking or answering questions. To show they’re paying attention, they are supposed to sit still and maintain eye contact (Gay, 2000; Kochman, 1985). But in many interdependent cultures, direct eye contact is considered rude, and children may be reluctant to speak in public—instead, they are expected not to share their views but to watch and listen, because adults are regarded as the source of knowledge (Trumbull et al., 2001). Other cultures have different problems with these mainstream expectations. For example, African American children learn primarily through intense social interaction, which is a collaborative process. In their culture, a speaker is a performer who’s making a statement, and while she’s speaking, listeners join in and respond with gestures, movement, and words. No one needs permission to enter the conversation, and the discourse is fluid, creative, and emotional (Gay, 2000; Kochman, 1985). In fact, African American families encourage children to assert themselves and display their energy, exuberance, and enthusiasm (Gay, 2000)….
    • Decontextualized learning. In European American schools, teachers focus on abstract ideas and concepts, isolating problems and attributes (such as the shell, white, and yolk of an egg) and seeking technical solutions through the use of books, computers, and other materials. They emphasize words and facts (Delpit, 1995) and expect students to explain their work. But in collectivist cultures, it is the context—the relationship between speaker and listeners, the situation, history, tone of voice, and body language—that matters most. The context is continually shifting, and to understand meaning, children learn to focus on the whole situation, not isolated pieces of it, and connect what’s happening to their own experience by telling stories, playing with words, and drawing complex analogies (Heath, 1983)….
    • Standard English. Using Standard English signals intelligence in the European American classroom (Carter, 2005), and the dominant culture assumes that its own way is the only correct way to speak and write English. However, linguists have established that there is an equally legitimate English with full-fledged status as a language: African American Vernacular English, also known as Black English or Ebonics (from “ebony” and “phonics”), which is the everyday spoken language of a great many African Americans and is known and used selectively by a great many others (Willis, 1998). Rooted in the Bantu languages of West Africa and the African oral tradition, Black English often sounds like Standard English, but it has different syntax, grammar, meanings, usage, and so on (Smitherman, 1998)—for example, a plural doesn’t require an “s” at the end of a word (Meier, 1998). For young African Americans, speaking Black English promotes cultural solidarity, authenticity, and legitimacy (Carter, 2005). But as Delpit (1995) points out, it also puts them at risk in school. Mainstream teachers often view students who speak Ebonics as wrong or ignorant, lower expectations for them, and fail to provide appropriately engaging and challenging instruction (Carter, 2005). In addition, the teachers’ suggestion that something is wrong with the student and her family takes a psychological toll and creates resistance to mainstream learning and teachers (Delpit, 2002)….

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    From Chapter 9: Guidance and Other Discipline Strategies

    What makes a strategy work?

    Although the experts have their philosophical differences, they agree that several key factors will increase the effectiveness of any strategy.

    Since no behavior exists in a vacuum, the first step is to structure the classroom environment to prevent challenging behavior. As we saw in Chapters 7 and 8, a safe, caring, cooperative, inclusive social context and physical space; clear rules, procedures, and classroom management; and interesting, relevant, differentiated instruction maximize learning, minimize behavior problems, and lay a solid foundation for any guidance strategy.

    The essential—and perhaps even more important—partner of a carefully structured environment is a positive, responsive, trusting teacher-student relationship. Where children with challenging behavior are concerned, such a relationship may be difficult and time-consuming to establish, but it is vital to guiding behavior successfully. (Chapter 5 is devoted to the subject of relationships.)

    A crucial part of a positive teacher-student relationship is having high expectations. Just as it’s important to believe in a student’s capacity to learn and consistently demand his best work, so it is critical to believe in his ability to behave appropriately and help him to do so.

    A willingness to spend time working with students on behavior problems, rather than referring them to the principal or the dean of discipline, is also important. The Classroom Strategy Study (Brophy 1996; Brophy and McCaslin, 1992) found that teachers who didn’t rely on quick fixes but directed their efforts at reaching long-term solutions were more effective.

    The way you behave during a challenging situation also plays a key role in the effectiveness of a strategy. Remaining calm, especially in a crisis, makes it much easier for you to think clearly, stay in control of yourself, solve problems, and prevent the situation from escalating. When you keep your composure and refuse to let a child push your buttons, you are modeling and encouraging emotional control, a vital skill that many students with challenging behavior lack. Keep your voice low and steady, your body language relaxed (your arms at your sides, for example, not crossed or akimbo) (Kottler, 2002), and your distance from the student carefully calculated for his cultural comfort….

    Above all, remember that you’re a teacher and challenging behavior is an opportunity to teach (Kohn, 1996). More often than not, when a child engages in challenging behavior, he is telling you that he must learn new skills in order to meet his needs and behave appropriately at the same time.

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    From Chapter 14: Bullying

    Who are the bystanders?

    Bullying is a group activity, situated in a social context that influences both the emergence of bullying and the response to it. The hard evidence of Craig and Pepler’s cameras (1997) showed that peers were involved in 85 percent of bullying incidents, and even though the bullying usually stopped right away when students stood up for the child being bullied, they did so just 19 percent of the time (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig, 2001). Bullying lasts longer when more peers are present (O’Connell, Pepler, and Craig, 1999), and when they don’t intervene—sending the unmistakable message that they condone the behavior—bullying becomes increasingly acceptable. The result is a harsher, less empathetic social climate that fosters more bullying.

    An audience is the lifeblood of a student who bullies. The bystanders’ reactions—their active assistance, comments, and laughter—reinforce and incite her behavior (Slaby, 1997), spread word of her power, and raise her status with her schoolmates (Sutton et al., 1999). Psychologist Christina Salmivalli and her colleagues in Finland (1999, 2001) have shown that during bullying episodes students take on different roles, depending on their individual dispositions and the group’s expectations. In addition to bullying and being victimized, they play the following parts:

    • Assistants help and join the child who is doing the bullying. Salmivalli (1999) found that about 7 percent of grade 6 students acted as assistants.
    • Reinforcers come to see what’s going on and encourage bullying behavior by laughing and commenting on the action. According to Salmivalli (1999), 19.5 percent of grade 6 students took on this role.
    • Outsiders stay away and don’t take sides, but their silence permits bullying. Almost 24 percent of sixth graders fit this description (Salmivalli, 1999).
    • Defenders side with the targeted child, comfort her, and try to stop the bullying. In Salmivalli’s study (1999), 17.3 percent of students in grade 6 came to the defense of the child under attack. Defenders are more likely to be self-confident, popular, and well liked by their peers.

    In other words, about 58 percent of the children, including those who were doing the bullying, took a pro-bullying stance. Among older children these numbers are higher (Salmivalli, 2001).

    Paradoxically, 83 percent of the students in a large Canadian survey reported that bullying made them feel uncomfortable (O’Connell et al., 1999), and many felt they should step in to help a person who’s being bullied (Hawkins et al., 2001). Witnessing an attack can even traumatize some children (Garbarino and deLara, 2002). Clearly, there is a gap between students’ attitudes and their behavior.

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