Environment and the “Unteachable” Child

Coming face to face with difficult behaviors is an intrinsic and inescapable aspect of working with children. Defiance, bullying, hyperactivity, disinterest, recklessness, destructive tendencies, and lack of volume control are just a few of the practical realities in the life of a preschool teacher. Working alongside students with developmental delays, learning disabilities, or complex home lives can make matters even more difficult. Although our ability to identify, observe, treat and/or mitigate difficult behaviors has vastly improved in recent years, they are an unyielding part of the classroom that has been, and most likely always will be, a challenge in cultivating strong, safe, and vibrant learning communities.

And as daunting as that sounds, as teachers we nonetheless have the awesome responsibility of helping students work through or work with the complex ways in which they process their formative lives. Just because there have and always will be students that create conflict in the classroom does not mean that teachers should just resign themselves to that fact. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Malaise is the only course of action guaranteed not to make a difference in the lives of students that need help. Teachers, especially those who work in Early Childhood Education, are uniquely suited to make the greatest difference in the lives of students that others might deem “unteachable.” ECEs are often the first to notice the problems students have and we are perfectly situated to identify the onset and cause of challenging behaviors. Most of all, we have the bond of trust required to begin conversations with students and parents about what we’ve observed and what steps can be taken to ensure a child’s success.

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For Reggio-inspired educators like myself, the environment is the first place to start and often where the greatest strides can be made. When faced with challenging behaviors in the classroom, it is tantamount to remember that most behaviors, whether positive or negative, are a conscious or subconscious reaction to something. Hyperactive students may be reacting to a lack of space for big-body movement. Disinterested students may be responding to a lack of color in the classroom. Children who have a tendency to bully others may be doing so because they see cliques developing in the classroom and they do not feel included. In other words, the manipulation of a classroom environment provides an alternative model to attempting to control challenging behaviors. Using control, specifically authority-driven discipline, can have the opposite effect. It may damage bonds of trust between students and teachers as well as potentially establish an image of that child as “bad” or “mean” in the eyes of peers. Some teachers have the misconception that unbridled children need to be tamed. What they really need is to be considered exactly as they are, understood, and treated with respect.

It is immensely valuable when working with students who exhibit challenging behaviors to remember that the classroom is not etched in stone.  As reflective educators, we each have our own personalized image of The Ideal Classroom.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, working to realize this mental image is one of many ways we motivate ourselves to improve upon our practice. For some of us the perfect classroom is a big room with thirty desks and a chalkboard. For some of us it looks more like a carnival, filled with bright colors and stimulating objects. For others (like myself) it is as simple as a front yard after a rain storm.

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And to be perfectly honest, none of us are correct. The appropriateness of the place, methods, materials, and arrangement of our classrooms is entirely derived from whether or not those factors suit the needs of the agents who learn there. No matter what anyone might tell you, there is always a way to change something about the environment in which you teach. While it might require a lot of effort or tremendous support (financial or emotional), we as teachers have the power and responsibility to change whatever we have to to provide for our students. So if a hyperactive student needs more space, start spending the lion’s share of the school day outdoors or take a weekly field trip to a park. If a disinterested student needs more stimulation, let them pick a color and paint the walls of the classroom something bright and lively. If a student is being hurtful to others, convert the classroom into a space for snuggling, gathering, and spending time together as a community. Don’t be scared to be drastic. Knock out a wall. Take out all the materials in the whole room. Move all the furniture, or just get rid of it. If you ever find that what is happening inside the classroom isn’t working, never blame the students. Often, changing a behavior is as simple as changing the environment in which it happens.

Ultimately, challenging behaviors aren’t just obstacles that need to be surmounted.  They are the single greatest indicator that change needs to happen. But it is important to remember that changing a person, especially a young one, is an imprecise and extremely sensitive undertaking that can just as easily do as much harm as it does good. We cannot and should not stop any child from being who they are. Instead, we should strive to create custom-tailored spaces in which we can gently guide behaviors, engender respect and mutual understanding, and set children up for success on their own terms. Every child is profoundly different and rapidly changing, and the places they live and learn should reflect that fact. It is up to us as teachers to look beneath the things our students do and learn more intimately about who they are and what they need, then take action to transform our classrooms into the best possible place they could ever hope to learn.

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