Building Empathy for a “Trouble-Maker”

Chris was a student who struggled socially. He was in Sarah Fiarman’s mixed-grade class for two years, first as a fifth grader and then as a sixth. Of all the points working against Chris, the biggest was probably his reputation as a trouble maker. By the time Chris came into Sarah’s classroom as a fifth grader, most students in the school knew him as “mean” or “a bad kid” and were scared of him or disliked him. Sarah knew that if Chris was to become part of the classroom community, she would have to help the class and herself develop empathy for him and discover what Chris was really like behind the reputation.

“Building empathy for Chris was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve had as a teacher, but also one of the most rewarding,” the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public school teacher says. Here are some strategies she found effective for working with Chris. Teachers may consider adapting these for use in similar teaching situations.

Avoid connecting the student’s name with negatives

Sarah and her student teacher noticed that almost as a rule, Chris’s name was uttered, by children as well as teachers, in the same breath as a chastisement. “Chris, stop that!” “Chris, you’re always cheating!” “You’re doing it wrong, Chris!” It wasn’t hard to imagine the damage to his image and self-image.

The teachers therefore made a conscious effort to avoid linking Chris’s name with negatives. When they needed to redirect him, they would make general statements such as “Everyone needs to be looking at the board right now.” “The other students wouldn’t know whom I was speaking to, but Chris responded,” says Sarah.

Know the child before drawing conclusions

One day there arose a ruckus around the cricket cage. Chris was gripping the cage with both hands, shaking it hard. A crowd of classmates was screaming, “Stop it, Chris! Don’t hurt the crickets!” After a moment, Chris calmly put the cage down and walked with a self-satisfied smirk through the crowd, much to his classmates’ horror.

Sarah hurried over and asked, “What happened?” Accusations and defenses flew.

“Chris was trying to hurt the crickets!”

“I wasn’t trying to hurt the crickets!”

“Yes, you were!”

“No, I wasn’t!”

Seeing that this was going nowhere, Sarah calmed the children and brought the class together for a more structured conversation. However, Chris was shut down and refused to respond when classmates expressed their concerns about the crickets.

The next day, Sarah called Chris to a private meeting with herself and the student teacher, Jons. In this less heated atmosphere, Chris admitted to shaking the crickets, but when Jons calmly asked why, it came out that the reason was not what everyone had assumed. “Yeah, I thought they were dead,” Chris answered. “They weren’t moving. I was trying to see if they were still alive.”

Indeed, as part of their science experiment, the children had put the crickets in the freezer to slow them down. Any child could easily have made the mistake of thinking they were dead.

“Looking back,” says Sarah, “I realize that if I had observed Chris more closely during the times we worked with the crickets, I might have discovered for myself his genuine concern for the crickets and guessed his motivation for shaking them.”

As for that smirk he wore as he walked through the crowd, Sarah learned later, after two years of observing Chris, that the look was his mechanism for protecting himself. “Chris was not a child who could articulate in the midst of conflict,” she says. “His smirk and shut-down demeanor didn’t mean he was cold or cruel. It meant he was trying to save face in the moment.”

Use real classroom moments to build compassion

Rather than talking with students about compassion in the abstract, Sarah believes it’s more effective to use moments of conflict or awkwardness that naturally occur in the course of the day. In Sarah’s class, snack time offered frequent opportunities for such real-life learning.

Each table of four students in the class shared a tray of snacks and had to decide how to divide up the food. “I knew this would bring Chris’s social interaction issues to the forefront,” says Sarah. “I knew it would provide opportunities for him and the other students to talk and listen to each other’s feelings around sharing and being considerate of others.”

To avoid setting Chris up for failure, however, Sarah had the class talk before starting the tray system. The children brainstormed ways in which tables could share the food, what might be hard, and possible ways to solve those problems.

But even with proactive work like this, students may still make mistakes, and Chris did. On the first day the class tried the tray system, Chris took a lot more than his share. The table erupted. “Chris! That’s not fair! Put it back!” Chris responded just as sharply and continued taking.

Recognizing that Chris’s mistake—any child’s mistake—is an opportunity to learn, Sarah called Chris’s table together. She told them they had to work out a better method for distributing the food. With some teacher guidance, the students were able to agree on an improved method. “I think this helped Chris realize that he had to be accountable to the group, even for a seemingly small thing like snack,” Sarah says.

Later, the learning continued when Sarah brought the whole class together to talk about snack sharing, being careful not to use Chris’s name, but to talk in general terms.

“Why do you think somebody might take more than their share?” she asked.

“Because they’re selfish,” students immediately answered.

“Okay. What are some other possible reasons?” Without  discounting the “selfish” explanation, Sarah wanted to push the children to broaden their thinking.

After a pause, a few students offered other ideas:

“Maybe they’re hungry.”

“Maybe that’s the way it worked in their old class.”

“Maybe they’re afraid someone else might take more than their share, so they want to take a lot first.”

Chris was silent through this conversation, but he was listening. He heard these motivations that he himself might have felt but couldn’t articulate. He took in the way his peers showed compassion for someone in his situation, and therefore for him. “It was a powerful moment,” says Sarah. “I could see the tension lift from him and sense his bad-boy reputation beginning to melt in the other children.”

Give the student responsibilities publicly

Sarah recognized that giving Chris public responsibilities would be a way to improve his image and self-image. For example, passing out the snack food to each table is a student job in Sarah’s classroom. When she saw how much Chris enjoyed this job, she made him the “Snack Man” for the whole year.

Sarah also made Chris a public expert at things whenever possible. Chris happened to be a good speller. When a student asked, “How do I spell _______?” she’d often say, “Ask Chris. He’s a walking dictionary.”

Several things made this method successful. First, Sarah only gave Chris responsibilities he was ready for. That let him experience success and let his peers see him succeeding. Giving him responsibilities that were too big a stretch would have set him up for failure and risked reinforcing his negative image.

Second, Sarah used a matter-of-fact voice when referring other children to Chris. “If my tone had been gushy or even a bit over-enthusiastic, students would have felt manipulated,” she explains.

Finally, when other students asked to help with a job of Chris’s, such as passing out the food, Sarah always turned the question over to Chris. “Can Susan help out today?” This gave Chris the opportunity to welcome his peers and maintain real ownership of his responsibility. “Chris always—without exception—said yes, the classmate could help,” Sarah recalls. “I think he appreciated being given the choice. He was learning the habit of including others and, I think, even took pride in it.”

In conclusion: The power of creating a safe space

Sarah had high expectations for Chris’s behavior and he responded. But just as important as the teacher’s expectations was how Chris’s peers perceived him. By sending the other students a message early on that Chris was a valuable member of the class, the teacher helped shape their interactions and expectations of him. “Together, we created a space where Chris could gradually let down his guard and be the great kid he really is,” says Sarah.

Tags: Challenging Behaviors, Misbehavior

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