Helping disruptive kids at school

The author of a parenting book says parents and teachers need to help these kids define the problem and then find solutions.

It doesn’t take long for children to start talking about the so-called “troublemakers” in their class — the youngsters who are constantly being reprimanded for talking too loudly or out of turn, being disruptive or throwing things and hitting classmates. It’s easy for parents to pass judgment and wish that these kids were anywhere but in their child’s class, directing attention away from the learning that should be going on. And for parents of kids who have been labeled, the frustration, fear and anger can be overwhelming.

But what if teachers, administrators and indeed the entire school community, were to take a different point of view about these kids? Instead of being labeled “disruptive,” “defiant” or just “bad,” they might be diagnosed as lacking some key skills (such as difficulty handling ambiguity) that contribute to their undesirable behaviour. This is the thought-provoking idea explored in a new book called Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behaviour Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Dr. Ross W. Greene, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Through the compelling story of Joey, a sixth-grader at risk for suspension because of his emotional outbursts in school, Dr. Greene explores how a teacher uses a technique called Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) to help her young student. As the name suggests, the technique encourages adults and children to brainstorm together to find solutions to problematic behaviour.

Dr. Greene has explored these ideas in an earlier book entitled The Explosive Child and his basic message is the same: kids do well if they can. It’s a radical notion in a society where misbehaving children are often viewed as seeking attention or being manipulative. Greene disagrees and argues persuasively that children with behaviour problems lack specific skills such as the ability to handle frustration or to adapt to changes in plans or routines. Rather than punishing these children, Greene suggests parents and educators can actually help them develop needed skills through the CPS approach.

In both The Explosive Child and Lost at School, Greene carefully outlines what is involved in this approach (namely empathy, defining the problem and then inviting the participants to find solutions) and provides plenty of examples to illustrate the technique.

For Joey, the problem is his profound sense of embarrassment when he doesn’t understand something the teacher says and his feeling that the other kids are laughing at him. When that happens, he either gets verbally aggressive or refuses to do his work. So together, Joey and his teacher come up with a plan to help Joey signal that he doesn’t understand something but in a way that doesn’t draw attention to his confusion.

While the plan seems simple enough — Joey gently scratches his nose when he is feeling confused so the teacher can quietly go help him — going through the CPS process helps Joey articulate his feelings and helps his teacher see that Joey needs more precise and clear instructions about what is required for each assignment.

Lost at School also shows how the CPS approach can help teachers and students address the issue of bullying. In the book, a teacher has the students talk about how bullying makes everyone feel and the steps they can take (making it a rule that people speak kindly in class and talking to a teacher when someone says hurtful things) to make their classroom a more peaceful, friendly place.

While Lost at School is clearly aimed at teachers and administrators, it is a valuable resource for anyone involved with the school system. In many public schools, a class may have three, four or even more students with significant behavioural challenges. Many of these kids and their families are discouraged and disheartened. Teachers are tired and frustrated while the other students may feel afraid or mad that so much time is being spent dealing with “difficult” kids. It’s in everyone’s interests to help all children become part of a cohesive, peaceful classroom where learning can take place.

Find out more about Collaborative Problem Solving

www.thinkkids.org
A site devoted to the topic of “challenging kids” and how parents, educators and health care providers can help them using the CPS approach. An entire section of the site is for parents and includes information about CPS as well as online videos showing how CPS works in real life.

www.lostatschool.org
The companion website for the book, Lost at School, includes questions and answers about the CPS process in schools as well as excerpts from the book.

www.ccps.info
The website for Dr. Greene’s Centre for Collaborative Problem Solving, it includes information about his work, speaking engagements and books.