Our school has just started reading “Lost at School” by Ross Greene. I am only a couple of chapters into the book and while it has not changed my thinking, it has challenged some of my assumptions and is beginning to shape my practice in the way I deal with the most challenging students at school.
We cannot keep doing things the way we always have and continue losing kids on a scale that is truly astounding. The way we discipline kids often does not address the actual factors that set the stage for kids’ social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
The underlying premise of the book is that “kids do well if they can”. He argues that our most challenging students know right from wrong, but are lacking thinking skills to respond to life’s many challenges. Going further, systems of punishment and reward do nothing, but further ingrain already challenging behavior. What we as educators need to do is find out the skills the student is lacking and then invest in teaching.
Greene uses a number of examples to illustrate his point, but I will just share one. When students are disruptive in class we often say that they crave attention. Well, everyone wants attention, so the argument is not useful in helping us understand why the kid is struggling. Students who seek attention in a maladaptive way, lack the skill to get attention in an adaptive way. We need to teach them the missing skill.
What I am really enjoying about Greene’s work is that it challenges the mindset or how we deal with difficult students. It suggests that students understand that their behaviour is inappropriate, but lack the skills to change it, however given the proper skill set would be able to flourish. Punitive measures and punishments only further ostracize the students from their peers and alienates them in school.
All that said, the work is messy, time-consuming and complex. When dealing with the most challenging students it is often an emotional affair. They test the patience of everyone around them and they can wear teachers, administrators and students down. We lose patience and in some cases even avoid and have anxiety over interactions with these kids. Trying to figure out which skills students are missing and then proactively teaching the skills is (in my opinion) beyond the scope of a classroom teacher…which brings me to my next point.
I work at an elementary school and I know the amount of time and energy we (particularly the teachers) invest in these students, but it is not enough. We do not have the expertise or resources to diagnose and counsel/teach students the thinking skills they lack. On top of that we do not have anywhere near the counselling time that middle and high schools have. That is my frustration. I am not suggesting a decrease in the counselling at other levels. However, if the most challenging students do not get the support they need at a young age, but instead are punished, ostracized and alienated, we are hard wiring these behaviours and almost guaranteeing their failure. Every year that students struggle with maladaptive behaviour makes it increasingly difficult to change it…the cycle of failure disenfranchises the student. What I am saying is that we need to invest in our most vulnerable kids at a much younger age.
However, for a couple of reasons I am optimistic. First, over half of our staff are reading the book and my guess is now that word is getting out, even more will want to. I am looking forward to the rich discussions we are going to have our first meeting…oops, I mean discussion, next Tuesday. Second, I have spent a significant amount of time reading the new BCed Plan and the discussions it has spawned. The more I read, the more optimistic I am. There is a mandate to invest in early learning and have interventions at an earlier age. Does that mean more money? I’m not holding my breath, but at the very least it speaks to a re-allocation of money where it is most needed.
I want to thank Betty-Ann Xenis (@Betty-Ann11) for bringing this book to our attention, organizing the book club and modelling learning on a daily and ongoing basis.
I am really excited about the learning we are going to embark on!