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Digging Deeper into Behavior Challenges

by David Farbman, Senior Director of Education (Former), Gateways

Time and again we are approached by educators with the same question: “can you help me with a student’s behavior?” Students who are disruptive during class make learning difficult, not just for themselves, but for all their fellow students. Many times, they behave inappropriately to gain the attention of the teacher or peers and are deliberately trying to disrupt the class. There are other times when a child suffers a chemical imbalance or other psychological condition that makes sitting still physically difficult, or a psychological challenge limits a child’s ability to process instructions or find comfort in a formal learning setting. 

Regardless of the reason behind the child’s seemingly uncontrolled or defiant behavior, the challenge to a teacher who has such students in his or her classroom can be intense. We probably all have experienced or heard of disruptions that have become so frequent or so serious that school administrators feel they have no choice but to arrange for that student to leave the school. For Gateways, an organization with a mission to ensure that all students have access to a quality Jewish education, the removal of any child from a Jewish school—for whatever reason—is nothing short of heartbreaking.

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In reality, however, teachers might have opportunities within the classroom to manage the disruptive behavior effectively. All that teacher needs is the know-how to channel a student’s acting-out into more productive displays of energy.

To harness those opportunities, Gateways coaches tend to begin by guiding teachers to shift their focus away from the child’s behavior and examine instead whether the classroom setting might be structured in ways that fail to account for the student’s psychological or physical state. The first step in promoting this mind shift is to help teachers examine the immediate causes of the misbehavior to see if there may be patterns in the circumstances when the child’s behavior is negatively stimulated (e.g., during transitions, when s/he is struggling academically, when interacting socially, etc.). With such data in hand, we then try to help teachers embed specific instructional strategies in their classroom that might help to mitigate these immediate causes. 

For example, for students who are anxious and might experience moments in school of feeling of out control—a feeling which, in turn, leads them to act out—we look for ways to increase predictability in the classroom. Integrating techniques like visual schedules helps to communicate what students should expect.  And once students gain clarity about what is to come, they are less likely to be anxious.

Beyond specific strategies, we also press educators to understand that challenging behavior can often have deep roots. In other words, dismissing any instance of acting out as a child’s “resistance” or simply being “bad,” might miss other more complex causes that make it difficult for the student to be in control. Consequently, helping students regulate such outbursts typically extends well beyond telling the student to “shape up.” Instead, teachers can view themselves and, in turn, position themselves as partners with each student in finding those conditions that are optimal for learning. Simply put, just as each student must become responsible for his or her own learning, teachers, too, must structure their classrooms in ways that help students succeed.

The Torah teaches us not to “put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). Perhaps when it comes to behavior in school, we can take this commandment to mean that we, as educators, are obligated to help our students—no matter how they may be blind to the negative consequences of their behavior—to avert those stumbling blocks that lay in their path.