Thursday, March 01, 2012

Rudeness in the classroom

Yesterday Ben (9), in a fit of melancholy induced by many dramas, announced that, on top of it all, his teacher had taken his handball off him. Ever one to leap to my children's defence, I asked him what he'd done to get her to confiscate it. He'd been tossing it in his hands while the teacher was talking. Well, no freaking wonder, thinks I. I explain to him that pretty much all teachers are going to think that tossing a ball around in the classroom is extremely rude. Ben has some difficulty understanding why, since he was listening more carefully than usual while he's tossing the ball around.

This kinda throws up a red flag. Lots of kids listen and think better when they've got something to occupy their hands - particularly kids with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. This doesn't apply to Ben, but it's a perfect example of why considering the needs of kids (or indeed adults) with disabilities is actually about accepting diversity generally. It's not some grand gesture made out of the goodness of the heart, it makes the world a better place for everyone, regardless of whether or not they currently fit the category of having a disability.

What this teacher should have done, was ask Ben why he was playing with the ball. She should have considered that he may listen better if his hands are occupied, and offered more appropriate options that don't distract the other kids (because tossing a ball in the classroom is always a Bad Idea)*. She should have considered that not everyone is the same. Of course, almost no teachers would do that. Most think of accommodations for kids with special needs as a separate category, that they only need think about when someone hands them a file explaining a child's diagnosed situation. We really need to change this.

This was no big deal for Ben, we discussed it, we discussed other options for keeping his hands busy, and today he apologised to his teacher and asked for his ball, which was returned. However, if Ben had been a child with undiagnosed ADHD or Aspergers, or a kid who doesn't fit any boxes so doesn't get the "protection" of a diagnosis, this could have been a Very Big Deal Indeed. Teachers (and all of us) need to consider diversity all the time, not just when a kid is stamped and approved for special assistance.

Last year, I did an assignment about what I'd learned about teaching, as a result of having a child diagnosed with Aspergers. In the assignment, I quoted the blog post I wrote the day after he was diagnosed. To bring the whole incestuous thing full circle, the video that constituted the "physical" part of the assignment is below. The take home message, though, is that what I learned is that we need to understand kids, not just manage their behaviour, and that this is true of all kids, not just ones with labels. And, perhaps more importantly, this is actually the easier path. Working with a kid is a lot easier than working against them, even if it involves a steep learning curve when you first meet them in your class.

It needs to be said that I understand teachers already have too much to do, and I think some serious changes need to be made to give teachers more time to do all the things they need to do, but that's a rant for another day. In the meantime, any steps we can take in this direction will help.

This conversation need not have happened at the time she took the ball, it could have happened in a quiet moment later.


  1. Oh, *sigh*, I am very glad that there are people like you becoming teachers, y'know! I really loved your presentation, btw...

    1. Thanks. When I gave the presentation, one of the questions from the group was "So, you're saying we should just throw away everything we've learned about behaviour management?". Amid much laughter, I said, largely, yes. The behaviour management stuff we learned really only works with kids who don't represent much of a behaviour problem. For most of us old farts in the course (a huge percentage of it), that stuff came naturally to us. We could have skipped all of that, and benefitted much more from an in depth analysis of a broad range of personality types to broaden our ideas on where kids might be coming from.

  2. You know, it makes my wonder why in a corporate training setting, we know this stuff, yet there are teachers who don't? The first thing we do in "train the trainer" is teach the class about the different types of learners. When I walk into a room, within 15 minutes of starting I can pick most people around the room's needs for absorbing the days information. Of course you always get those few who don't fit, but you can usually wing it with those folks too.

    I know that I'm a problem child in a class myself. I know that to a trainer that doesn't know their stuff, I'm the annoying one. But good trainers spot me on walking in the room - the one fiddling with everything on the desk, the building stationery sculptures, the one drawing all over everything, the one who vocalises every point she learns. I've learnt to recognise these behaviours in groups I'm training and work towards driving that person in the right direction. Crap trainers always try to shut it down, rather than feed it to the point where the trainee is absorbing and productive and ceases to become a distraction to the others.

    I get that teaching kids is more complex, but instead of trying to mold the kids to a very narrow band of learning, how about we recognise right from that early age that learning happens in a myriad of different ways.

    1. There's a few reasons why adult trainers are more likely to get it (although plenty still don't). One is that as an adult trainer, you're extremely unlikely to default to standard classroom management techniques - at least beyond sending non-verbal signals and asking for quiet. Therefore, you really have to think a bit more if you're going to reach people who are drawing, fiddling, or playing on their iPhones (not that I would EVER play on my iPhone whilst attending a lecture or class. Ahem).

      Further, while different learning styles are explicitly taught to teachers, different social styles are ignored. It's only discussed in terms of "special needs", or assuming that the class is relatively homogenous.

      But ultimately, the complete obsession with classroom management is probably the biggest issue. There is just too much focus on the class as a unit, and on the psychology of averages rather than on the differences in psychologies. This is what is pitched at teachers all the time. It's pretty hard to ignore it all and try to meet each kid on their own terms.

  3. I found this really interesting (although couldn't watch your presentation). I use the unconditional parenting approach, which is focused on treating children as people with motivations that lead to their behaviours, rather than just managing behaviours, which some other approaches do. I worry that when my children are at school what you described will happen. I know my children will be generally fine as they are even tempered and easy going on the whole but what about children with more complex behaviours and attitudes? And how does this standard treatment affect the classroom environment?

    1. I'm not sure why you couldn't watch the presentation - it's just a YouTube. Odd. Anyway, it might not have really been worth the effort! :)

      A lot of the behaviour management taught to teachers is motivation based, so it might not be so different to your approach. The biggest issue is one of generalisation. If teachers use standard models of motivation, they'll run into the same issues as if they use any other prevailing philosophy, or even a combination of them. How much the generalised approach affects the classroom environment is mostly dependent on how many kids deviate from the assumptions and by how much.