Beyond Coping

When Corey joined my fourth grade class, he already had a history of school struggles and had spent part of third grade in a self-contained room for children with behavior problems. When he was mainstreamed into my class in fourth grade, Corey had trouble making good choices, interacting with others, and following directions. He was often angry, and managing his unpredictable outbursts required a great deal of attention from me and other adults at school.

Our strategies for that year focused primarily on controlling Corey’s behavior in order to preserve a safe, calm learning environment. Often the quickest way to achieve this involved removing Corey. For example, rather than risk having Corey line up with the other children after recess (when someone always “looked at him wrong”), I’d have him deliver a note to the office and then meet us back at the classroom.

This way of coping averted many meltdowns, but it was a lot of work for the adults involved, emphasized differences between Corey and the other children, and did little to help Corey develop the self-management skills he lacked. So when I learned I’d be teaching the same children as fifth graders again the next year, I decided that a new approach was in order.

Getting ready

Before school started, I read books, talked to colleagues, and reflected on my beliefs about children and teaching to see what I might do differently this time around. One result of this process was that I set two specific goals for the coming year: to make the classroom a safer and more rewarding place of learning for all the children, and to help Corey begin learning to manage his own behavior. With those goals in mind and the support of the school community, I found many opportunities to change my approach. This article describes just a few of these strategies.

Beginning with belonging

The first change was a deliberate shift in how we viewed Corey as a member of the class. When I reflected on the previous year, I saw that belonging to our classroom community had been considered a privilege for Corey, something he could lose by misbehaving. In fact, if he lost control too many times, he’d be removed from the class permanently, as he had been in third grade. As a result, going to time-out or the reflection room had a different meaning for Corey than for the other children in the class. The others could use disciplinary time away from the class as it was intended—as a chance to regain their self-control, knowing they would be welcomed back when they were ready. For Corey, every incident felt as if he’d earned another strike in a game where he didn’t know how many strikes he got before he struck out.

This system was particularly unfair to Corey because he lacked the skills he needed to control his behavior. So failure was all he knew, when what he needed was to experience success and gradual improvement. We had to find ways to teach him positive behavior skills, build up his confidence, and show him that although there were consequences for unacceptable behavior, he’d be forgiven for his mistakes.

Therefore, Corey’s fifth grade year began with a clear statement to him, his family, and all the adults who worked with him at school: Corey belonged in our class, not on a trial basis, and not only if he controlled himself. If he lost control, he still might need to leave the room for a while. The difference now, however, was that we’d expect him to return and allow him to start over with a clean slate. This was a crucial first step. Corey, like all children, needed to feel he belonged before he could feel motivated to learn and grow.

Revising Corey’s behavior contract

We also revised the behavior contract that had been developed for Corey by his teachers, the school psychologist, and a social worker. One important change was that we related goals Corey named for himself to behavior that would help him achieve them. We also clarified how we would respond to misbehavior by defining what would happen and in what order. First, we’d try one of our agreed-upon ways to help Corey stay in control—such as reminding him to count to ten. Consequences would follow if the misbehavior continued. The consequences depended on how disruptive Corey’s behavior was. For example, if he was sent to the reflection room it was because he had become too angry to behave safely in a regular classroom. The consistency and logic of this approach helped Corey feel more secure, another key condition for learning.

Working one-on-one

With Corey, I focused on building his repertoire of anger management skills. For example, in his behavior contract he agreed that “if I am angry I will go to the person in charge.” That way, an adult could remind him of the techniques he’d learned for calming himself down and possibly avert an explosion. Since this was a new behavior for Corey, he needed support while he learned. One way I helped was to check in with him regularly, often at the beginning of the day. During these brief meetings, we’d rehearse appropriate ways he could let me know he needed my attention, such as using eye contact, gestures, and calm words. We also practiced similar signals that I would use to show him that I was aware he was upset and wanted to help.

Involving the class

Meanwhile, the whole class worked on dealing with anger, a skill I believe is important for all children to develop. We talked about what anger felt like to each of us, and how we could tell when someone else was starting to feel angry. We practiced strategies such as counting to ten and “taking a quiet moment” to collect our thoughts when things weren’t going well. We also considered what we could do to help someone who was feeling angry, including moving quietly and calmly away from a tense situation. We practiced all these skills in non-crisis situations so we’d be comfortable using them when things heated up.

This work helped the class feel more competent. It also helped the children feel more confident in the face of Corey’s anger. Some were even able to help. When Corey would clench his fists or set his jaw, some boys discovered that they could be his champions, calmly reminding him of ways he might regain control by asking “Hey man, do you need to cool down?” or suggesting that he “take five.” Other children helped by getting out of the way so I could reach Corey quickly when he started to tense up. As we learned to recognize signs of problems brewing and started intervening more quickly, the number of full-blown incidents decreased.

Reflecting on my own

One of the most powerful strategies I tried was making reflection a part of my routine. One technique that worked well was keeping a journal. During an incident, I’d focus on defusing the situation, but afterwards, as soon as I could be alone (usually when the class was at lunch or a special), I’d get out my notebook and pour all that I remembered onto the pages. I didn’t worry about whether my words made sense. I just jotted down as much as I could, put the journal away, and went on with the day.

Although it was sometimes hard to take the time to do this writing, I usually felt better afterwards. After school, when I was feeling calm, I’d sit with a cup of cocoa and review what I’d written. That’s when things would begin to make sense. Re-reading helped me see what was really happening and plan ways to follow up. For instance, I began to see a pattern in Corey’s behavior: When he began complaining about physical aches and pains, the next few days would be difficult. I used this knowledge to alert Corey’s other teachers and also made sure to check in with him on those days.

I also rehearsed ways to stay calm and focused on my goals in those heated moments. When I re-read what I wrote about my reactions to Corey’s actions, I saw how responding angrily only made things worse. In my journal I reminded myself that I didn’t need to take Corey’s behavior personally and encouraged myself to take a few moments to think before acting. In those few seconds, I could make choices, including the choice to remove my anger from the situation and respond calmly. Over time, although my buttons still got pushed, there were fewer instances when I lost my temper.

A more peaceable community

With the help of many others in our school community, Corey, his classmates, and I made some real progress during that school year. Slowly, Corey became more skillful at managing his anger, all the children learned techniques that made them more caring and competent, and I worked out some new ways to help children like Corey. Best of all, I enjoyed this class as fifth graders so much! I could never have guessed how far we’d travel on our two-year journey toward becoming a more peaceable community.

For more information about topics discussed in this article, see:

Carolyn Bush has taught fourth and fifth graders at K.T. Murphy Elementary School in Stamford, Connecticut. She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher and a certified teacher mentor with the Stamford public schools.

Tags: Challenging Behaviors

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