Several months ago, a new junior high student enrolled at our school. It quickly became apparent that Benji (not his real name) had some behaviour challenges. He spoke quite slowly, looking off to the side while searching for the words to express what he wanted to say. In class, he often refused to do his work and could not seem to focus on a task for longer than a minute or two. He would sit and stare into space or get up and wander around the room. Benji had a difficult time interacting with his classmates. He would poke, stare intently, or make awkward comments. At lunch, he ate alone, away from the rest of the students.
We arranged for some testing to be done on him but did not get a clear diagnosis. We struggled to find ways to meet his learning needs. Then, through a colleague’s recommendation, I started reading a book by Ross Greene, Lost at School: Why Our Kids With Behaviour Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. I wondered of this book could teach me anything new about students like Benji that I hadn’t already read. Worse, would it be full of suggestions that were not practical in the classroom?
However, my thinking of how to help Benji has shifted just thirty pages into the book. Greene explains that “diagnoses don’t give us any information about the cognitive skills a kid may be lacking.” In other words, labels like ‘ADHD’, ‘oppositional defiance disorder’, ‘fetal alcohol spectrum’ do nothing to tell us what specific cognitive skills are lagging in a student. And, while the diagnoses or the labels often comes with a list of strategies of how to help the student, the strategies are usually generic or not practical in the classroom.
Instead, Greene created a list of skills that are typically lagging in behaviourally-challenged children. The list includes things like ‘difficulty in handling transitions, in maintaining focus, interpreting social skills, or handling unpredictability.’ As I read this, I realized that teachers often focus on getting the diagnosis first. Then we try come up with a plan of action based on the label rather than on the child.
Diagnoses, though, do not tell us how to deal with the behaviours of challenging students. But, when I think of a student as having ‘difficulty in maintaining focus,’ for instance, I am better able to work with the student to come up with strategies to help him focus better. By targeting the skills the student struggles with, I’ll also gain a better understanding why the student is misbehaving and in what situations. That can help me become proactive in dealing with the student rather than reactive. How much more beneficial would it be for me to know that it is during small group work Benji has the hardest time focusing? This way, I can let him know beforehand that he will be needing his focusing strategies and can practice them frequently with him.
I’m not naive enough to think that we’ll be able to slam down the ‘That Was Easy’ button as we attack this problem from a different angle. Dealing with behaviourally challenged students is always time consuming and is rarely easy. But by focusing on teaching the skills that are lagging and not on the label, we can help Benji, and others like him, prepare for a better future.
What are your thoughts on dealing with challenging students? How valuable are labels? Should we do away with them altogether?