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Classroom Management and the Escalating Child
Every classroom has one, a disruptive child. This includes the non-compliant student, the combative student, the student who engages in inappropriate nonverbal communication, and the attention grabber whose behavior escalates. This last type student is the subject of this paper. I will tell you about a child I observed first, then summarize an article on classroom management, and attempt to apply the principles in the article to the problem I observed with this child.
I visited a kindergarten in a nice, clean school in a working class neighborhood. The building was old but well-kept and spacious. The children walked to school from their homes. Most of the children were white with a few black and hispanics here and there. Classes were not overcrowded. This particular kindergarten with 17 students convened all day, not the usual morning or afternoon. The room was attractive, cheerful, and well furnished. The children worked at tables in the morning, went outside for recess, ate hot lunch in the gymnasium, took a 40 minute nap after lunch, and resumed learning activities after that until time to go home. The little girl's name was Brandy. She was plump and healthy looking, with freckles, blue eyes, and short brown hair, and dressed appropriately for school. In the morning the children made winter pictures with colored construction paper and paste. Brandy immediately said she wanted to do something different instead. The teacher asked, "What do you have in mind?" Well, Brandy couldn't think of an idea. She demanded that the teacher help her get an idea. When the teacher suggested she make a winter picture like everyone else, Brandy became very unhappy, slumped in her seat, and scowled. She continued to complain, which the teacher ignored. She stuffed paste up her nose and then said she had to go to the bathroom for toilet paper to blow her nose. The teacher allowed her to go, but she didn't come back in a timely fashion. I volunteered to get Brandy from the bathroom.
When I arrived Brandy had accumulated an enormous pile of paper towels, which she had used to dig the paste out of her nose. I helped her to get cleaned up and we went back to class. Brandy sat down and announced loudly, "I can't do it." The teacher assured her that she could do it, but Brandy kept insisting she couldn't.. Finally, she pasted a piece of colored paper, then asked loudly, "Am I doing it right?" The teacher suggested she add some more to her "picture," which Brandy did and then asked, "Is this right? Is mine good?" She turned to me and said, "Look. Look at mine! Is mine good?" I smiled and admired it, which I thought at the time rather displeased the teacher. With every piece she pasted down, it was the same. When she was finished with her picture, she got up and walked around the table, looking at the other children's pictures, touching them, feeling them, and in one case pulling a piece off of one. The teacher told her she shouldn't touch other people's things and anyway, she belonged in her own seat. Brandy went back to her seat and cut her picture all up into tiny pieces most of which she threw, one at a time, on the floor.
When it came time to clean up, the teacher insisted that Brandy pick up the pieces she had thrown on the floor. Brandy said, "You can't make me!" The teacher became angry and grabbed Brandy by the arm. Brandy then threw a full-blown tantrum. A teacher's aide carried her out bodily, kicking and screaming, to the office where Brandy missed recess and stayed until lunch time. During lunch Brandy deliberately spit into another child's lunch and was again removed. Naptime was Brandy up and moving the whole time and keeping everyone from getting any rest at all. In the afternoon a man from the neighborhood came in with his wife to sing Christmas songs with the children. This Brandy seemed to enjoy; at any rate, she was out of her seat and dancing the whole time which the teacher more or less ignored. During Frosty the Snowman Brandy paraded as Frosty and seemed happy -- the only time she smiled all day. All the teacher's time and attention was eaten up by Brandy. She had no time for the other children. The only time the class had any sense of normalcy was when Brandy was down in the office. Unfortunately, the office couldn't keep her there all day, and her visits to the office didn't seem to change her behavior at all. At one point during story time when Brandy was throwing puzzle pieces, her teacher said to her, "You know better than that!" Brandy looked bewildered, and it occurred to me that maybe she didn't know better. Perhaps she came from a home where the adults had never had any time for her. It would account, perhaps, for her desperate attention-getting behavior. I decided to read some articles on classroom management, and see if I could find some constructive suggestions for dealing with a child like Brandy.
I read an article in Preventing School Failure by educational psychologist Richard W. Albin (2003) titled "Twelve Practical Strategies to Prevent Behavioral Escalation in the Classroom." The article began by defining escalation, which is not always a crisis with violence, injury, or danger to others:
... behavioral escalation is defined as an event where a group of different problem behaviors occur in a sequential pattern in which successive responses are of increasing severity or intensity. Such sequences usually begin with less severe problems (e.g., whining, complaining and arguing), many of which can be dealt with easily whereas others escalate and become more severe responses (e. g., throwing furniture, physical assault) that can even cause injury to people or damage to property" (2003).
It is better to prevent escalation than to deal with a crisis later. One way to do this is to reinforce good behavior with praise, a smile, gesture, touch, "or a pleasant comment when they display unprompted, socially appropriate behavior." Don't wait until students are disruptive to pay attention to them. When Brandy began to work on her winter picture, that would have been a good time for praise and positive attention and also when she finished her picture. The teacher also should learn what triggers the child's behavior problems. Some children start acting up when an academic request is made, as Brandy did when the teacher asked her to make a winter picture and she started to complain. Albin suggests " ... If academic task requests act as a trigger, teachers can make curricular or instructional adaptations, such as offering choices, ... Or providing assistance before the student gets frustrated ... " When Brandy asked to do something else, perhaps the teacher could have suggested that Brandy make a picture of her house, or find some winter pictures in a book. Instructional adaptations should be made before a serious problem develops.
Teachers should also be aware of their own triggers so that they can control their own behavior. This will help them to avoid a confrontation. Sometimes students come to school after a "setting event," something that has upset them. Perhaps Brandy had witnessed her parents fight or some other disturbing event had happened. When a setting event has occurred, students are more likely to act out when asked to do something difficult or something they don't want to do, like make a winter picture. Teachers need to be aware of signs -- if a student appears distraught, anxious, or preoccupied -- and offer the students other options before acting out occurs. Teachers must remain calm, especially with a child who is not -- if both lose self-control, then both will escalate, and behave inappropriately. Albin points out: "Teachers are models for socially appropriate behavior and should maintain that stature. Teachers should disengage (i.e., back off) from the confrontation."
Students use problem behavior to obtain specific outcomes (such as avoiding or escaping task requests). Offer behavioral choices with specific consequences and let the student choose. "For example, when a student is agitated or difficult to redirect, teachers might offer the choice of moving to a quiet area to work, doing an alternative but related task, or asking for help until he or she feels calmer. Making any demand that the student stay on task or behave appropriately when he or she is agitated will only serve to further escalate the situation." This happened with Brandy when the teacher insisted she pick up the papers she had thrown on the floor. Perhaps it would have been better to say, "Come on, Brandy, I'll help you. We'll do it together."
Students develop sequences of behaviors that lead to other more severe behaviors. Teachers need to spot the early sequences (complaining, whining, arguing, getting out of seat) before more serious behaviors occur.…[continue]
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