Just recently I had an encounter with a 14 year old special needs student who opted to spend the first 15 minutes of classroom time sulking through a project which he seemed to have no interest in. After several attempts to get him on board with what the class was doing (stencil design to create their own paper montage) I found it better for him to be the ‘color custodian’ for the evening: that meant he got to select colors for each table in keeping with the designs they chose. A task which required some color coordination skill (which he had!) and which would’ve taken extra time for me to complete. Needless to say, we were all happy in the end. (We’ll discuss ‘rules are meant for everyone’ at another time.)
As educators and youth custodians we encounter moments when a student may want to challenge your instructions and ideas and you find yourself stumped when trying to pull ‘one more strategy from the toolbox’. These are the times we just need reminders on some of the underlying messages that come from negative behavior and how we can focus on strengths then. A task that requires ample doses of patience, creativity and effort.
Let’s take defiant behavior as an example. Sometimes when a student acts up this often hides leadership potential that needs to be harnessed. In times like these you want to call on them to assume that “leadership role”. Some useful strategies you can use: let them lead a small team to brainstorm on a class project; or organize the class session by fetching water for the next art project. For the older student, we may want to challenge them to think about the difference between destructive defiance and healthy defiance. For example, defiance that disregards all guidelines, regulations, law and order can hurt communities. On the other hand, defiance that riles against injustice and inequality can be a way of raising awareness for fairness and equality. One of the key ways to help students build healthy defiance is to encourage that spirit of service to others. One good example of this is by supporting their efforts to write letters to city council leaders who neglect garbage collection in poorer communities.
Now, let’s consider the student with apathetic behavior; one who shows little or no interest in day-to-day class activities and appears bored most times. This can be quite irritating as you seldom know how to encourage or motivate since they appear not to care about anything. In fact nothing is further from the truth! On the contrary this student may be hurting deeply and may just be good at detaching themselves to cope. A great strategy is to let them know you have faith that they want to be successful and you then try to find what they care for. In fact you can even modify a lesson plan to fit their specific interest or invite professionals to speak on topics that peak their interest. For example a mandatory First Aid class module can even predict positive futures for them as an emergency planning specialist or search and rescue professionals.
The road to positive student engagement is a long and bumpy one but not without rich rewards that can benefit us all. So the next encounter you have with difficult student behavior remind yourself of that hidden message that may be lurking behind the drama!