Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Resisting Resignation

I often find myself teaching explosive children who are as lethal as they are insecure. After a full day of constantly de-escalating explosive behavior, I am often physically and psychologically exhausted.

Despite my dedication to working with children, I am not immune to feelings of frustration and resignation. To fight off these thoughts of despair and hopelessness, I often have to remind myself over and over again that:
The children who are hardest to like are often the ones who need us the most.
My friend Sean Grainger reminds me that Hurt people, hurt people. Rather than indicting them for their actions, we are better off asking them:
What has made you feel so bad in your life that you feel someone has to share your pain?
Grainger explains:
Behind every bully is first a victim, and we need to learn victim's stories if we are to understand their victim - turned - bully behavior. Once we have this insight we can begin to help victims heal; to deal with their pain so they aren't inclined to inflict pain on others. 
We spend too much time dealing with bullies, and not enough time supporting victims. I have yet to meet even one child who entered the world wanting to hurt people. 
Behind every bully is a victim with a story. If you want to break the bullying cycle, learn this story.
I also find refuge in Marilyn Watson's book Learning to Trust:
As adults, we believe that others like us when they joke with us, give us a soft nudge, tell us they care, do helpful things for us, ask about our lives and tell us about theirs, and make an effort to spend time with us. If it turns out that someone did any of these things in order to get us to do something for them, then we feel manipulated and mistrustful of them. The same is true for children. If we want our children to trust that we care for them, then we need to display our affection without demanding that they behave or perform in certain ways in return. It’s not that we don’t want and expect certain behavior; we do. But our concern or affection does not depend on it....
Martin Haberman calls this "conscious, premeditated caring", and he reports that it is characteristic of teachers who are successful in teaching children in poverty. "Such caring," he argues, "is not predicated on children always doing the right thing. On the contrary, it assumes they frequently will not. At that point, the professional caring springs into action and demonstrates to the child that he is worthy and capable - even at the lowest and worst moment of his offense". Others have called such caring unconditional love or unconditional regard. And it is this kind of caring that meets our students' basic need for belonging...  
Knowing that all children want and need to belong - to be loved and protected by caring adults and to fit in with their peer group - can help us look through their troublesome behavior to see the vulnerable child behind the bothersome or menacing exterior. 
It’s not easy to think of children who are misbehaving, particularly children who misbehave frequently, as vulnerable and needy; they often seem so powerful and defiant...  
Children with history of insecure attachment to their caregivers build “working models” of relationships as coercive and of themselves as unworthy of care. These children are apt to withdraw from social relationships or become focused on satisfying their own needs through dependency, control or aggression. They look for ways to test our caring, often by refusing to comply with our most reasonable requests, and they fully expect us to fail their tests. They fail to appropriately receive our care and to believe in our care, and we frequently feel at a loss how to achieve a mutual or cooperative relationship with them.  
If we try to teach children to want to be cooperative and prosocial by rewarding their good behavior and punishing or controlling their unacceptable behavior, we will only succeed in confirming their view of relationships as coercive and encourage their tendency to be self-focused. If we become angry and withdraw our affections or acceptance, we will further alienate them and reinforce their negative view of themselves. If, instead, we do nothing and simply let them withdraw from learning activities or behave inappropriately, we will likely grow to resent or dislike them and fail to help them develop cognitively, socially, or ethically. To help these children, we need to find a way to keep their negative working models of themselves and of relationships from becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. 
From the perspective of attachment theory, to build the desire of these children to be cooperative and prosocial, we need to build a responsive and nurturing relationship with them; by so doing, we help them change their working models of themselves and relationships. The building of caring and trusting relationships becomes the most important goal in the socialization of these children. Of course, while we are building these relationships, we must find non-punitive ways to prevent the children who are aggressive and controlling from harming others and to encourage self-reliance and confidence in those who are withdrawn or dependent. 
Might there be students who do not necessarily love me or my teaching?


Might there be students who I do not necessarily love?


Am I able to teach students who I might not love or might not love me?

Of course.

Do I allow my likes and dislikes to determine which children I dedicate my efforts?

Absolutely not.

I may not love all children, but I dedicate myself to respecting every one of them unconditionally. It's a lot harder to respect all children than it is to claim that you love them all, and it's even harder to maintain that unconditional respect and acceptance for children who spend most of their day behaving in disrespectful and unacceptable ways.

And yet this is precisely what the best educators do.

I'll finish with another gem from Sean Grainger:
As much as we need to prepare victims for a world that will hurt them, we need to prepare bullies for a world that will love them.
On my good days, I don't need to remind myself of these things, but on my bad days, it's sometimes what gets me through.


  1. Joe, I've been where you are; I've been where that kid was. I want everyone to read this. Please cross-post.


  2. Hi Joe, This is an awesome post that is at the heart of teaching, or should be at the heart of teaching: professional caring. It should be a part of the "profession" but isn't.

    Won't you put this up at the COOP too?

    With admiration and respect,


  3. Was reflecting on these ideas today as I was being kicked by a 4 year old who is in pain himself. It's so hard to see such fury in such a little face. Thank you for your post. Pain is pain, no matter what the age.

  4. Thanks for the comments Chad and Kirsten. I will cross post this soon.

    Freya, trying to remember that the children who hurt others the most tend to be those who are in the most pain. In the heat of the moment or when we are their target, it's not easy to remember this. Thank you for the comment.


  5. Thank you for this post. I struggle with this on a regular basis. I find myself teaching amid a general mistrust of the education system in the community and teaching French first language in an area where English is the predominant language, I sometimes feel like I'm caught up in the undertow. I learned early on that it wouldn't do to be authoritarian. I do love and respect my students, no matter how difficult (which is not to say that I don't get exasperated with them)and I think that has made a difference.

    I wish I were able to stop the bullying that goes on. Sometimes the bullying is even passed down from one generation to another. I just try to treat everyone fairly and let them know that I care about them. I don't think I've ever successfully intervened (not directly anyway), though I wish I could


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