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B Conversations, dealing with the toughest kids

Teacher Mindset

Have you ever said or thought these statements?

"This behavior is because they don't have a father."
"Well, she does have ADHD. What do you expect?"
"Well of course they can't concentrate, they're homeless."
"The kid's got a psychiatric diagnosis. This behavior is never going to get better."
"He just doesn't want to do it."

I have to confess, I've both said and thought these things. I'm working to get rid of this mindset. It's an unhelpful and cruel way to look at students. It's also morally wrong. These ideas are rooted in one notion, that some students are just not reachable and therefore not worth any effort. 

Dr. Ablon's methods have been used in prisons and psychiatric
institutions. People need to improve their behavior and work
together to solve behavior problems in a variety of settings. It is
always worth the effort. 
I am a person of faith who got there via a long and winding road. I believe that God led me to teaching to help me get over my shortcomings and get closer to him. In teaching, I am constantly confronted with my own shortcomings and faced with the choice to either change them or wallow in them. Dismissing these tough students is, to say the very least, a shortcoming. 

A couple months ago, our district invited Dr. Ablon, the speaker in the above TED Talk, to give us an all-day workshop on a strategy to deal with the most difficult students. The workshop opened my eyes to my harmful mindset. Like racism or sexism, prejudice against kids who are rude and defiant is very harmful to children. 

You might say, "But wait, isn't rudeness and defiance bad? Shouldn't we shun this? Don't give me this Kumbaya crap about accepting bad behavior as the new normal!"
I'm not saying that at all. But I am asking you to stop taking the behavior personally. Stop justifying your mindset by dismissing the concerns of the child. Stop making this all about you. (This is what I have to tell myself constantly. It's actually helpful.)

Children do well if they can.
Image result for childhood schizophrenia
When I go to work, I'm not trying to help a child be better at being a victim of abuse or neglect. I'm not trying to make the kid better at being homeless or better at their thought disorder. I'm there to teach them music. If there is something standing in the way of that, we have to address that together. 

My concern is to deliver them the curriculum. But why should my concerns be their's? To solve our problem, I have to understand their concerns first. After all, I am the adult in this situation. 

Collaborative Problem Solving 

Here's a situation:

"Joey," a second grader, is an exuberant little boy. He loves to dance and play games. But sometimes, it's like a switch is flipped and he turns into a different person. He throws papers. He won't take a pencil. He becomes insulting and disrespectful to the teacher and withdraws from class. He even becomes unsafe: running around, refusing direction, and doing physical things that endanger himself or others. 

Joey was a problem in my classroom. Joey's behavior needed to be addressed. 
Image result for bossy teacher
When a child has an adverse behavior, we have three options. 

A: Authoritarian

Do it my way! I will force the child to my will. I can do this with a clip chart, choices:"You can either be with us in circle or go to the time-out desk," using the silent signal and repeating the direction, or other similar method. I'm choosing the choices. I'm in charge!

Image result for child and adult talking
FYI, don't sit this close.
Give the child space.
This is a business conversation.
Children with severe behavior struggles
often have history of trauma. This
conversation helps them learn proper
physical limits.

B: Collaborative Problem Solving

The student's concerns and my concerns are put on the table. Together, we find a solution to the problem that is mutually satisfying. 

C: Ignoring

For now, the behavior is ignored. 

I decided to use the collaborative problem solving method taught to us by Dr. Ablon. 

Just like with differentiated instruction, addressing a difficult subject begins with evaluating what the problem is. Go to Dr. Ablon's website and print out this form. Take a month to fill it out. Write down all the outrageous behaviors you see, but make sure you notice WHEN these behaviors manifest. 

B Conversation

I notified the classroom teacher, the principal, and the school adjustment counselor that I was trying this new approach with Joey. I noticed that, for the most part, these behaviors manifested with Joey when the work folders came out. I'm teaching him how to read music. His reading English hasn't been a roaring success, so maybe he's concerned about music reading too? I didn't know for sure. I had to have a conversation with him to figure that out.

To prep for our conversation, I printed out this sheet. 

Related image
"A lot of kids who don't have these skills are just waiting to grow up so they can impose their
will on other people. We live in a world where might makes right is the main example. I think
it's endlessly exciting to imagine the next generation of adults may be more skilled at arriving
at mutually satisfying solutions to problems rather than lining up and finding out whose bigger
and stronger because that person's concerns are going to carry the day."
I also reconciled myself to ignoring Joey sliding across the floor when he enters the room, making inappropriate comments when we sing, and other very troubling behaviors. I needed to put the other behaviors, so long as he was still safe, on Plan C. That's the rule. 

I arranged a time to meet with him. Go to the 11 minute mark in the video above. You'll get to the B Conversation method. 

I found out that Joey indeed was avoiding and afraid of the possibility of reading. He also wasn't trusting that I would give him the tools he needed to read music when the time came. I said that I would never give him written directions without saying the directions aloud. He agreed to treat the folder, papers, and pencils respectfully and responsibly. 


Joey is far better in music class. I still have to remind myself (and him) to read aloud and restate the directions for written activities. Since so many kids in his class have IEPs, I'm using check lists on the board to give multi-step directions. The practice has been very productive and taught me that all classes can benefit from this tool. 

Unfortunately, when I cover in his regular classroom when his teacher has her weekly team meeting, Joey is a nightmare. His behaviors are extreme. He will do anything to get out of sitting at his desk. His team of service providers is meeting in a couple weeks to discuss how to help him do better. Because I had the documentation from the B Conversation, I was able to write a letter, detailing my experiences and provide contemporaneous notes to the team for that meeting. 

My part of the problem is addressed. Joey is doing much better in music. But I am part of a larger community trying to help all our children succeed. I want him to learn to read and write English too. Pain and trauma make his journey more difficult than other students', but we can work together to address all our concerns and help him learn. 

I've done this procedure with a few students with mixed results. It takes a lot of skill to do this, so make sure you forgive yourself for not getting it just right. It may take a few tries with the same child to get improvement. You will see a marked difference in your relationship with the child though. The radical empathy required of the adult is transformative. 

Good luck!


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