Sunday, May 4, 2014

Who Are Chronic Kids, and How Do They Impact a School?

Embedding effective large-group supervision protocols and implementing common rules  and four-step consequences  in each classroom can regulate the student behavior in a school very well. This basic level of school-wide discipline, if maintained by nearly every adult in the building in a consistent, fair, and empathetic manner, can transform the climate of a school.

Somewhere between 85% and 90% of your student population will respond appropriately to this system, and a school once characterized by chaos, danger, and/or hopelessness will begin to feel like a manageable and even an enjoyable place to work or learn.

Still, if even10% of the student population cannot be managed with the first level of the discipline system, the school faculty and leaders have plenty of disciplinary work left to do. If, in my building of nearly 500 children, 10% of the student population is chronic, that means 50 children are regularly hurtful or disruptive.

Fifty chronically misbehaving kids can cause havoc in a building, which is why school administrators, usually sooner than later, suspend or expel students who repeatedly flaunt the rules, bully others, disrespect teachers, and worse. A significant portion of our schools' populations of students act downright ugly.

Chronic students are those who cannot manage their own behavior. They are typically filled with anger or controlled by their own hopelessness and stay checked out of school and life. We have learned that chronic kids always have good reasons for feeling angry and out of control. In nearly every case, they have been mistreated or tragically disappointed, usually by adults who should have fed, protected, or loved them.

Sometimes, poverty alone has taken its toll on a family. Lack is a monster. Dependence on gang affiliations for survival and safety is still a real issue in many youngsters' lives where I live and work. Their parents' incarceration or deportation or addiction affect many of our students. Health problems - mental and physical - their own or a loved one's - impact lots of our students. Violence in the family or around the neighborhood - or in society (such as the murder of Trayvon Martin) is a pervasive threat for lots of kids.

Hurt people hurt people. Hurt people's behavior looks and feels evil and selfish, but these are children. Their behavior is learned or adopted to relieve unbearable pressure or for self-protection, physical and psychological. Educators must act out of compassion for hurt kids, whether we appreciate their behavior or not.

However, when chronic kids are in class, they hold the whole room hostage by demanding all the time and attention of the teacher and by oppressing their peers with their hostility. Everyone has to be on guard against their hurtful remarks or disruptive behavior. In hallways, at lunch, on the bus, and at the bus stop, these students brutalize their peers, through words or actions or both. 

Typically, the school administrator gets calls from upset parents, teachers, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers about the behavior of these students. A responsible leader cannot allow these students to destroy their school environment. After a certain number of short-term suspensions, chronic kids, in a responsive building, are long-term suspended.

School leaders who will not get disruptive students out of the classrooms or common areas abdicate their authority to do anything about their chronic students, allowing them to disrupt classes and terrorize hallways and restrooms until nearly every adult and child in the school is in fox-hole mode, thinking only about survival and their own safety. No learning occurs. Hopeless frustration develops into rage or despair among adults and children.

And yet, suspensions bring schools only temporary relief from the problem of chronically misbehaving kids. Eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old children are coming back to school at some point, largely unchanged, to repeat the cycle of disruption and suspension over and over throughout their middle and high school careers until they are finally expelled or drop out. In a district like ours, that's hundreds and hundreds of students.

Until we learn to work with and actually save our worst-acting students, we will continue to contribute to the proliferation of chronic students. Those chronic students grow up to raise chronic kids, all of whom come to our schools, and/or those chronic students take their increased rage and fight for survival into the communities in which we live and work.

We signed up to teach, to deliver instruction about approved curriculum to students who want to learn. We did not sign up to be counselors or law enforcement or even parents. Why should we have to deal with chronically hurtful and disruptive kids?

The truth is, we don't, actually. We can just keep putting our worst acting kids out. But that doesn't seem to staunch the flow of hurtful and disruptive kids into classrooms and buildings every year. We are not seeing fewer hurt, damaged, or struggling young people. We are seeing more.

So even if we didn't sign up to be social worker, mentor, or therapist, hopefully we signed up to make a difference. Helping chronically struggling kids to understand their problems and to acquire the coping skills necessary to manage their overwhelming feelings about their torn lives and aching hearts is how to make that difference. 

Some kids need us more. Can we be there for them and provide what they need without surrendering the well-being of those who can manage their behavior in school?

Making that difference is what our behavior model and our on-site intervention programs enable us to do.

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