Knowing All Our Students: An Interview with Caltha Crowe

In your book Solving Thorny Behavior Problems, you write about teachers getting to know their students. Why is this so important, especially for children with behavior and learning challenges?

Children vary enormously in their concerns and needs. We can help all students feel safe and be successful learners when we understand their concerns and figure out how to meet their needs.

Often children who have behavioral challenges lose control when certain “triggers” occur. Melanie had tantrums when she was asked to do academic work that felt too hard. Frankie ran out of the classroom when someone disagreed with him.

If we’re aware of a child’s triggers, we can prepare the child for an upcoming challenge. I helped Melanie feel prepared and thus calm by saying, for example, “We’re going to be writing about our hopes for school this year. I remember you told me that you like recess. What do you hope to play during recess?” With Frankie, one-on-one coaching and role-playing potentially difficult social situations gave him some strategies for dealing with his frustration when others disagreed with him.

Knowing students is also core to forming a trusting student-teacher relationship with them, which is a major factor in students being engaged in school. The sad fact is that some children, especially those with behavior challenges, go through year after year of school without a positive relationship with a teacher.

We need to find what’s likeable in each student, especially the ones who may be hard to like immediately, because they’re the ones who need a trusting relationship the most. I watch and listen to the child closely so I can see things from that child’s point of view. Relationship-building can pay big dividends in the child’s improved behavior and schoolwork.

What sorts of things should we try to know about students?

All humans have a basic need to belong. So I pay attention to students’ skills in forming relationships, making a place for themselves in the group. The first day of school, my students do the Human Treasure Hunt, which has them mixing and mingling, looking for classmates that fit questions like “Who likes pizza?” and “Who has a pet?” I notice who approaches other children, and who hangs back. During my weekly recess duty, I pay attention to who plays with whom and who’s usually alone. At dismissal times, I notice who goes home with whom.

I can then help the shy children and the excluded children become a part of the group. Misbehavior and lack of academic success often grow from an unmet need to belong.

To teach students effectively, I also need to understand their learning styles, their academic strengths and weaknesses. It’s especially important to unravel this puzzle when the child is struggling. So often, children misbehave because they don’t feel academically successful. If we can figure out how to help children succeed academically, their behavior will often improve.

Careful noticing is helpful here. When I observed that Margaret, a first grader, remembered things she had seen but not things she had heard, I realized she needed a different approach to reading instruction than I had been using with her. As Margaret’s skill and confidence in reading grew, she became outgoing and friendly, and her misbehaviors decreased.

In addition to careful observation, what are other ways to learn about students?

I start getting to know students before school even starts. I read over their records. I talk with their former teachers. I learn which strategies worked and which didn’t with children who struggle socially or academically. Chloe needed a brisk walk around the classroom before the day began. Pete stayed focused if he got to record comments on the white board during lessons.

Families are a rich source of information. Before school starts I send home a questionnaire asking simple questions like “What does your child like to do at home?” and “What are your hopes for your child this year?” This tells me who loves to play outside, whose parents aren’t home much, which families report struggles over routines. Knowing all this will help with problem-solving when a child is, for example, having difficulty completing homework or learning classroom routines.

Before school starts I also reread the segments of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14 that explain the typical developmental characteristics of the age group I’ll be teaching. I plan our initial activities accordingly. If many of my third graders are still developmentally seven, with summer or fall birthdays, I plan particularly low-stress activities for the first days of school since seven-year-olds are so easily stressed. If many of my fifth graders are close to turning eleven, I plan activities that show that school will be fun and full of new learning since new challenges are so important to eleven-year-olds.

Finally, we begin the year with lots of getting-to-know-you activities, from Life Boxes, where children bring in shoe boxes containing a few items to teach the class about themselves, to Morning Meetings filled with activities that let children discover how they’re alike and how they’re different. While children are learning about each other, I’m learning about them.

Besides finding out about your students, what are some things you do during those first days of school to build a relationship with them?

It can feel pretty overwhelming to think about building an individual relationship with each of our students, but there are some fairly straightforward strategies for doing this.

First, it’s important to learn children’s names. I spend the days before school creating class lists, making job charts, writing students’ names on desk name tags and labels. The more times I write their names, the more familiar I get with them. I make a point of calling each student by name as often as I can during the first days of school to reinforce their names in my memory.

On the first day of school I teach the children to take care of lunch count, attendance, and other routine morning tasks independently. That way, as they arrive each morning, I’m freed to greet them by name and chat about some fact I’ve learned about them: “How’s your dog today?” or “Did you play outside yesterday after school?”

It’s a priority for me in the beginning of the year to show all children, especially those who struggle, that I’m on their side. So, before Morning Meeting, when I suspect that sitting in the circle listening to classmates is going to be hard for Sammy, I whisper privately to him, “How can I help you listen to the other kids?” His face wrinkles with distress. “I don’t know. It’s hard for me.” “Sit next to me and I’ll help you,” I reply.

The physical closeness is calming to Sammy, and he listens for most of the greeting. “You did it. You listened for most of the greeting,” I whisper to him afterward. In this way, I establish that I can be his ally around things that are hard.

Another way to build teacher-student relationships—an indirect but powerful way—is to establish a safe, orderly classroom environment. Children watch their teacher. They notice when we care that everyone is treated with kindness. They feel safe when mean comments aren’t tolerated. They notice our high expectations. “In this class you might not be best friends with everyone, but you need to be friendly to everyone,” I say on the first day of school. I can see the children visibly relax. It’s going to be a safe year.

What if a child shows challenging behaviors right away on the first or second day of school? How do you handle the situation so that you keep building a positive relationship?

Well, here’s an example: On the second day of school I introduced Cuisenaire® Rods to students. I walked around the circle, giving each child a small handful of rods. As I came to Sammy, I handed him a small assortment, similar to his classmates’. In a flash he darted his hand into the bin, pulling out an additional big double handful for himself. I held out my hand for him to return his double handful. “Just a few each, Sammy,” I reminded him calmly. As quickly as his hands had darted into the bin, Sammy threw the rods at my face. The look on Sammy’s face showed that he was nearly as surprised as I was. His classmates looked stunned.

In the first couple of weeks of school, before we create our classroom rules or learn about logical consequences, I let some minor misbehaviors slide with a quiet reminder. But this behavior was different. For the classroom to be safe for everyone, it’s crucial that hurting each other, either bodies or feelings, be out of bounds. It’s essential that the teacher’s authority be a solid anchor to secure everyone in a safe harbor. Throwing blocks at anyone, especially the teacher, is unacceptable.

So, what did I do? After swallowing hard and rapidly running through my limited options, I calmly called the office. The principal came immediately to get Sammy and called his mother.

When Sammy returned, he was penitent and apologetic. He and I had a brief, private conversation in a quiet corner. We both knew he hadn’t meant to throw the blocks at me— he’d lost control. I accepted his apology and stated matter-of-factly that he needed to be kind to everyone’s bodies and feelings so this classroom could be a safe place for all.

Of course being proactive with children who have difficulty is best. If we can predict out-of-control behaviors, we can usually prevent them. What are tricky are the events we haven’t predicted. When something like the incident with Sammy happens, it’s important to respond firmly and calmly. It’s also important to debrief with the child, maintaining a stance of understanding for the child’s struggles as well as reinforcing the importance of a calm learning environment for all the students.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Teachers are so busy at the beginning of the year. In the rush of events, it’s all too easy to see the children with behavioral or academic challenges as unwanted irritations.

It’s important to stay calm and remember that the energy you put into getting to know all your students, especially the ones with challenges, will ultimately make the year go more smoothly for everyone. I find that often it’s the student who’s initially a little hard to like, the one that I had to make an extra effort for, who contributes unexpectedly to our community—and the one that I become most attached to as the year progresses.
Caltha Crowe is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher and the author of Solving Thorny Behavior Problems, Sammy and His Behavior Problems, and How to Bullyproof Your Classroom.

Tags: Building Classroom Community, Challenging Behaviors