Aha. After many painful hours of searching YouTube for awful teacher-student interactions, I found a clip to illustrate how I might do an observation and consult with the teacher. This is a clip from a mockumentary (fake documentary) in England of a teacher-student interaction gone awry. It isn’t that far off from some teacher-student interactions I’ve observed. And if you are reading my blog from work or around small children, you may want to turn down the volume! I apologize in advance for the cursing. But it’s not that uncommon in these interactions, so it stays.
What would you do if you were the teacher? What would you do if you were the school psychologist?
Of course, in reality, I would collect information from the kid’s cumulative folder to see if this behavior is historical or new, observe him in other classes, interview his teacher to get a sense of the frequency, intensity, and duration of these types of incidents, and obtain information from the family if there are any recent stressors in the student’s life or ongoing disabilities that may be triggering his reaction. For the purpose of this post, let’s assume this is a brand new problem that only occurs with this teacher and there are no other external factors causing the behavior. It’s never that simple, but let’s pretend. It’s fun.
Now here’s what I observed. My framework is a Functional Behavior Analysis—basically that every student’s behavior serves some function. If you look at the reason a student may be acting out, it’s usually to get something or escape something. The way you figure out the function is to observe the sequence of events—the Antecedent (what happens before), the Behavior (what the student does) and the Consequence (what happens? What does the student get or get out of?). It’s often called the A-B-C model among school psychologists.
1) Antecedent: Jonah asks the teacher for help. Behavior: Teacher tells him to be quiet. Consequence: Jonah continues to talk by requesting help two more times in a less polite fashion (gets teacher attention)
2) A: Teacher comes over to help Jonah B: Accuses teacher of farting C: Class laughs (gets peer attention) and he gets a time out (escapes work)
3) A: Teacher gives command to take cap off and he will get it at the end of the day B: Jonah argues, gives hat to teacher, then makes another comment C: Teacher ignores (still escaping work)
4) A: Jonah sneezes loudly B: Teacher yells, “Jonah, Please!” and he continues to argue with her C: Class laughs (gets peer attention, escapes work)
Okay, so one hypothesis is that Jonah doesn’t know how to do the work and is being disruptive to get out of doing the work and/or avoid looking dumb (‘Tis better to look bad than dumb, basically).
The other thing I notice is the desire for peer attention. His misbehavior and subsequent time out actually rewarded him by him gaining further peer attention. Actually, in a later episode, Jonah states to the “camera crew” that when he acts up, it’s providing a service to his classmates—“That’s not disruptive, that’s entertainment!”
So what did work and what can make the teacher-student interaction better? Research on oppositional and defiant behavior provides the following suggestions:
1) Respond to requests for help or redirect him to ask his classmate. One teacher I work with has an “Ask 3 before you ask me” rule to build independence. Responding to the request may not be enough, but it would at least prevent some of the problem.
2) Jonah’s noncompliant behavior may be related to wanting to “save face” when he finds tasks too difficult. Have a private conversation about the task difficulty level and encourage him to seek help when he is struggling, rather than making off-task remarks.
3) Ignore minor infractions. It’s the “Ye Olde Pick Your Battles” concept. This worked when Jonah grabbed his classmates’ heads and she ignored it. He stopped doing it. This one is tricky because as teachers have told me, it is difficult to ignore such rudeness. But figure out which things are non-negotiable and which things can slide. It will make things easier in the long run.
4) Avoid staying in the interaction too long. It is tempting to try and reason or plead with a student who is being oppositional, but as you can see, you will not win. You can’t reason with an oppositional kid, believe me, I’ve tried. You can say the sky is blue and s/he will disagree. This teacher especially wasn’t going to win this battle having the interaction in front of peers. He likes that. Have a private discussion. Reflect back his complaint and tell him what you expect him to do. Be brief and direct. Instead of “shoosh!” she may have tried “Jonah, I see you need some help getting started. Write the topic sentence and I’ll be back to check in on how it’s going in 5 minutes.”
5) If that doesn’t work, try the “Houdini” technique: Deliver the command and walk away. Model calmness. Use a business-like tone with an oppositional student (vs. sarcastic or angry). State what you expect him to do and walk away. Give a moment for the student to comply, too. This worked for the teacher when she asked him to give her the hat and he would get it back at the end of the day. Then she took the hat and walked away, ignoring the other hat comment.
6) If that command doesn’t work, avoid the power struggles by providing the directive again with fixed choices and/or predetermined consequences. This must be brief and direct and not in a threatening manner. “Jonah, I expect you to start your work now. When you finish, you can have some free time. If you choose to talk with your friends or make comments, then (predetermined consequence).
The importance of the predetermined consequence is that it is agree upon before the interaction so it is not a public threat (e.g. “If you don’t start your work, I’m going to call your mom!”). The problem with this is the student usually needs to save face at this point and may say, “fine, do it!” and then there you are in class with your idle threat you can’t follow through on.
If the consequence is predetermined, it’s just a follow through of the agreement. For some reason, students are more accepting of “it’s the rule/agreement” because it feels less like a personal attack (It’s not me, it’s the rule!). Some example predetermined consequences I’ve seen are: negative progress report, detention, classroom service, calls to parent, etc. She may have tried: “Remember our agreement that if you talked with friends in class instead of working, we would call your mom? I’d like to see a positive report instead. It's your choice."
7) Channel Jonah’s energy for good, not evil. Do more group work so he can get what he needs (peer attention) in an appropriate way. I’ve also seen teachers do the “fake task” when they see an antecedent that usually creates a power struggle and they intervene early in the chain of behavio. For example, a bouncy kid with ADHD may be asked to deliver a note/stapler/whatever to the secretary to get some of the energy out. Jonah’s a tricky one, because he may not enjoy positive adult attention, but it’s worth a try to get him in a helping role.
As I type, I am again struck by how difficult of a job teaching is, especially when you have a Jonah in your class. It is my hope that some of these strategies can be experimented with in your particular situation. And teachers…you all get a Purple Heart of Courage for showing up every day to work!