What I Learned from Sammy and His Behavior Problems

I am so excited about the release of Caltha Crowe’s new book, Sammy and His Behavior Problems: Stories and Strategies from a Teacher’s Year! When I got my advance copy, it was a very busy time, and I thought I’d just browse it. Instead, I was so drawn into the inspirational and moving story of Caltha’s remarkable relationship with one third grader—Sammy—that I read the whole thing in one sitting!

One thing I was really struck by was Caltha’s ability to avoid power struggles with Sammy. She did this by carefully observing Sammy, learning his “triggers,” recognizing when she and Sammy were headed into a struggle, and figuring out how to point their interactions in a new direction.

Caltha’s stories about avoiding power struggles with Sammy made me think of students I’ve taught over the years and of one student in particular with whom I frequently found myself in confrontation during my fourth year of teaching. This boy hated going to ‘specials’ classes like music or art and would often get upset either going to or returning from the special. He would react to his upset feelings by walking—and I’m not exaggerating!—as slowly in line as is humanly possible.

Looking back with Caltha and Sammy’s experience in mind, I see so many things I could have done differently with my student. Here are just a few of the insights I gained:

  • Always believing in the child’s good intentions. One reason Caltha could usually handle Sammy’s defiance so calmly was her firm belief that Sammy’s misbehavior was not directed at her personally, and that whatever he was doing on the outside, deep down he wanted to and could learn. Had I read Caltha’s book back then, I would have had an easier time seeing my student’s misbehavior as an attempt to meet his basic needs, rather than as an attempt to drive me crazy! I could then have done a better job of helping him to meet his needs in a more productive way.
  • Looking for “triggers.” Through careful observation, Caltha learned to anticipate what would set Sammy off. She avoided difficult situations if she could, and if she couldn’t, she offered reminders and coaching and even practice of specific responses—along with plenty of positive recognition when Sammy did well. I realized how much more I could have done to prepare my student before we headed to a special and to help him calm down after the special if he’d had a bad time.
  • Working on root causes. Many of Sammy’s tantrums occurred in connection with writing. Caltha helped him see that he had a voice as a writer, important things to say, and some beginning skills in being able to say those things. Looking back, I wish I had tried to figure out more about what was going on with my “anti-specials” student. What insecurities might have compelled him to seek power by fussing about specials? With the knowledge and insight I gained from Caltha’s book, I know I could have found out more about when, where, and why my student felt powerless and helped him find ways to counteract those feelings.
  • Using collaborative problem-solving strategies. With Sammy, Caltha frequently used problem-solving conferences to target one specific problem Sammy could work on—like accepting a teacher’s decision even if he disagreed with it. With my student who struggled with specials, a problem-solving conference would have enabled us to work together to generate alternative ways for him to show me that he was upset when we were going to or coming from specials

I can’t say enough good things about all the useful learning you’ll find in Caltha’s book, whether you’re a new teacher or a veteran. I hope you’ll read and enjoy Sammy and His Behavior Problems as much as I did. Let me know what you think—or how you’ve succeeded with students who try to engage you in power struggles!

Tags: Challenging Behaviors