I remember sitting in a kindergarten class when all the children were on the carpet while the teacher read to them. A little girl had asked the teacher something after which the teacher announced in a loud voice, “Did you hear the way Kristen said that! That was so polite. I love polite children.”
Immediately, the five-year-old boy I’d been sent in to work with said in an equally loud voice, “I hatepolite children!” The teacher was livid and I quickly took Jimmy outside the class to sit for a time-out.
Jimmy was a handful. During his first six weeks of kindergarten, all three of the behavior specialists who’d been sent to work with him had quit. He would run away, hit or spit on you when you tried to hold him, he couldn’t sit still for a moment, he always seemed angry, and he could dish out the sarcasm and insults like a road comic. But Jimmy was also tender, articulate and funny—more so than the other children. He could tell when people didn’t like him; he just didn’t understand why. He had a brother who was three years older, well-behaved, better looking, more athletic, polite and clearly his mother’s favorite.
It probably didn’t take Jimmy long to realize that the rules at school weren’t much different than the rules at home. If you were polite, could sit still and keep your hands to yourself and focus on what people told you, then the teachers liked you, you were praised and your skills were applauded. But if you were impulsive, funny, said the first thing that popped into your head and had a hard time concentrating on the thing in front of you, like Jimmy, you were constantly being corrected, the teachers were annoyed by you. You were always in trouble.
If you know you’re in a situation were you’d never win, why not have some fun? Perhaps you can at least leave with your dignity. Jimmy knew he was “the bad kid.” Under these rules, even with his greatest efforts he would only be a below average polite kid. Why not be the best bad kid? At least there’s some pride in that.
Jimmy’s story is one that illustrates that styles of classroom management and communication play a major part in how children view themselves, and therefore how they behave in a classroom. A child who struggles to succeed in school, whether because of attention or learning differences, is much more likely to develop a negative self-identity at school. For instance, a child who has no problem focusing on activities that involve building and moving but has great difficulties focusing on activities that require sitting and listening is likely to get a lot of negative feedback about their performance at school.
Watch these children in the classroom, or in a home, and count how many times they get comments correcting or criticizing vs. how many comments praising or approving of what they are doing. If a child receives ninety correcting or criticizing comments to every ten praising or approving comments, that child will have a negative self-image. Even if the teacher, or parent, is making special efforts to praise, that child will begin to learn that who she is in that classroom is mostly wrong. If this continues for a while the child will begin to feel that, at school, she is a bad boy/girl.
Sometimes the child with the worst attitude is the child with the biggest struggle. It’s important to remember that a child’s attitude toward school is often shaped by the reactions they get from parents and teachers. When we take a deeper look at children with behavior problems we can see the natural and healthy motivation that underlies their disruptive behavior.
The key to turning around the above scenario is to learn how to give consequences that emphasize the child’s choices and power while taking all judgment and emotion out of our language when we give these consequences. And perhaps most importantly, to speak with a tone of understanding and empathy while still setting firm boundaries for behavior in a classroom or at home. In this way a child who is struggling and angry can feel that the adult is more their coach than their adversary while learning to adapt to difficult and challenging situations.