Guest Commentary | Reactive behavior

Guest Commentary | Reactive behavior


My 7-year-old son was punched in the mouth at recess on his second day of school. That day at recess, some of his classmates were playing too roughly. Before he could say anything at all, one of the students punched him.

I found him with a bloody face, sobbing in the nurse's office. As his mother, I felt many emotions — anger, disappointment, fear, and sadness — but I didn't once wish for the child who punched him to be punished.

You see, I am also a teacher at my son's school, and I know just how discipline for physical aggression is often handled. Too many times in my 16 years of teaching, I have seen teachers and administrators yell at students, call them out in front of their peers, and shame them for their behavior. I've also seen what happens when there are no consequences at all. Neither choice reduces disruptive or violent behaviors or teaches children how to reflect on their choices and repair relationships with their peers or teachers.

Ask any teacher about that one child who keeps them up at night. We've all had at least one. Mine is a student who is angry and violent towards his peers and the adults at school. He has physically and emotionally bullied children in his classes since starting kindergarten. Even now, as a 7-year-old in the second grade, his mother told me, "He's just going to have to do some time in juvy and maybe they can straighten him out."

I know that we still have more work to do. In 2015, the Illinois Legislature passed Senate Bill 100 to create more effective student discipline practices across the state. Since the bill's passage, the number of suspensions in my district have been drastically reduced, but this has not eliminated the behaviors that caused them.

Even with our focus on restorative justice, my school had not yet found a way to reach the child who punched my son. This student had developed a reputation around the school. Every teacher knew his name, and many have had conversations with him about something they caught him doing that he wasn't supposed to. There are children like him in every school, at every grade level, and in almost every classroom. They have been in trouble since the day they walked in the school doors. But if you look deeper, the students who present this way are not "naughty" — they are reactive. For reasons outside of the school's control, they are constantly in fight or flight mode.

Students who are reactive cannot learn. So while it might be tempting to focus on how certain behaviors are "not what we do at school," teachers need spend time trying to figure out what's going on with this child. Here are a few things all teachers should be on the lookout for:

Reflect — are you pushing buttons? What do you know about that child? Think about learning styles, struggles with peers, friends and other teachers. What do you need to learn in order to reach these children? What changes can you make in your classroom to support them? How will you reach out to families to make a connection? It is my job to foster social skills in every child. Rather than seeing a problem, I now see opportunities to teach these.

Build a relationship with the student. Listen to them and don't interrupt. Let them tell you what they want without fear of judgment or commentary. If you do this, they are more likely to share with you what's going on in their lives. Recently, an over-excited fourth grader came into my classroom. He showed me a picture of a small white house from a real estate book. "Look," he said, "This is the house my mom is buying today. It's the first house we've ever owned, and today is the closing!" All he needed was a moment — one small moment where someone could listen.

Advocate for developmentally appropriate practices in schools. As an elementary teacher, I had to learn how to incorporate play back into my teaching, and to advocate fiercely for the time to do it. I use song experience games to create a safe and nurturing environment where children can sing and play. The play itself is powerful because it reduces stress and anxiety, breaks down barriers, teaches social skills, forms strong relationships, and stabilizes reactivity in children.

I believe that the focus on the whole child and their social emotional-learning is the appropriate path to reducing undesired behaviors in our schools. Teachers often ask themselves, "Is this practice good enough for my own children?" when determining how to proceed in each situation. Our children and our students deserve the opportunity to learn and grow, not be shamed or punished — and it's up to us to teach them.

Amber Owens teaches K-fifth grade general music and choir at Bottenfield Elementary School in Champaign. She is a nationally board certified teacher in Early/Middle Childhood Music and a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.

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Citizen1 wrote on March 25, 2018 at 9:03 am

To a certain level you have a point.  But after my son was threatened by a violent classmate for years, I requested a different home room to get my son away from said child.  The response I got was “but Xxxx is doing so much better”.  I said “my son isn’t”.   I received the transfer.  

This supportive attitude has been taken too far.  It is this behavior, along with the fear  of discrimination legal action, that allowed the Florida student who killed 17 people to remain free and unreported.  

champaignteacher wrote on March 25, 2018 at 11:03 am

As a teacher in a local District this commentary infuriates me. How dare you share details from your students' home life and parent conversations to somehow illustrate your adept relationship building skills. These situations are the very reason many parents and families do not trust the public school system. Perhaps some self reflection about dealing with troubled students and their families is in order. Go back to the drawing board, your white privilege is showing.

rsp wrote on March 25, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Mine is a student who is angry and violent towards his peers and the adults at school.

So he has been crying out for help since at least 2015 and hasn't been helped? Just his family gets shamed in the local paper?

Jason K wrote on March 28, 2018 at 8:03 am

Wow. Where were teachers like Mrs. Owens when I was a kid? Though it is unfair to burden teachers with the varied tragedies of their students, I'm almost absolutely certain that a teacher with Mrs. Owens' approach would have drastically improved the trajectory of my life. 

My example is an extreme case but it is seems similar to the case provided. I would even bet that my mother said something similar to one of my teachers in an unguarded moment of frustrated defeat. 

A bit of background to help you understand where I'm coming from: my family life growing up was pretty seriously broken. My mom, bless her soul, did the best she could but she is as human as the next person and it's impossible for one parent to play the role of both. This problem is compounded when the other parent is equal parts absent and abusive. Remember, abuse doesn't have to be leave physical marks in order to create permanent scars. Abuse like this is incredibly insidious because it's incredibly difficult for the various protective mechanisms to spot. The abusers are often charming and the family seemingly normal in the presence of outsiders.

This kind of home life leads to reactivity at school. Uncertainty, fear of authority figures, insecurity... all common traits. Some children from abusive households even internalize the chaos, accept it as normal and attempt to recreate that false normality elsewhere. If they aren't emulating the bullying behavior of their abusers then they often have the gain on their emotional antennas cranked up to 11, often causing them to react to threats only they can see.

Punishing students exhibiting these behaviors is highly counter-productive. Doing so only reinforces the flawed lessons they learned at home. It teaches them that this type of behavior from adults isn't just the act of their abuser but normal and accepted in society. It alienates the troubled student from one of biggest sources of salvation left to them. The "carrot-and-stick" model fails here because it's a solution to a completely different problem. 

Of course, children of abusive households aren't the only reactive kids. There are a number of developmental, physical and neurological differences that can cause kids to be reactive without being labeled "special needs". I don't how to fix issues like these but I trust educational experts like Mrs. Owens when they identify something that clearly isn't working and suggest workable solutions. 

Thank you for writing this, Mrs. Owens. You have given me reason to hope for all of the kids currently struggling down difficult paths like the one I walked decades ago.