Teachers generally agree that one of their biggest challenges is discipline in the classroom — keeping kids in class under control and on task. When a classroom is disrupted, every kid in the class is negatively affected. In fact, a single disruptive child can cost an entire classroom hours of effective instruction.
As adults we often think that when kids hit the classroom door they should immediately become students and leave all outside worries at home. But we know that is not what happens.
Disruptive kids are not necessarily “bad” kids. Kids are just young humans. They have the same sorts of problems as adults plus a special set that most adults have left behind. They have divorced parents, blended families, single parent homes, absentee fathers or mothers, parents with substance abuse problems, parents who are in prison. They are too tall or too short or too skinny or too fat. Classmates make fun of them. They are bullied. Some are not smart. They are failing their classes. They are not popular. They have no friends. They are in love. Their love is unrequited. Their boy or girl friends have broken up with them. For adolescents the idea of sex is a constant companion. Some kids are poor. Poverty and hunger outweigh algebra and science.
In fact, kids have a thousand secret worries that are unknown to their parents and their teachers.
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And yet we expect them to concentrate on their classroom behavior and homework. Sometimes it’s just too much. Kids become overwhelmed and develop mental or emotional health disorders.
Some research shows that “about 10 percent of the school population ... struggle with mental health problems” (Rapport and Minahan, Breaking the Behavior Code, Child Mind Institute). Kids with these problems may habitually break rules, become hostile, defiant and disobedient and engage in bullying or risky drug, alcohol and sexual behaviors. And too often, these are the kids who drop out of school and face a life of dependency on their families or the state.
Having a mental health problem does not mean a kid is “crazy” or that inappropriate behaviors cannot be changed. But it does mean that our traditional approaches of in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension or alternative schools will not work for kids with these diagnoses. If we are truly going to reduce the incidence of disruptive behavior in schools, we have to change the way we deal with problem students.
We have a group of professionals who are taught to identify and deal with students’ mental and emotional challenges — school counselors. It would seem self-evident that the first stop for a disruptive kid should be with a school counselor. But many schools do not have counselors, and others relegate our counselors to standardized test-givers, glorified secretaries or data entry specialists. Too often disruptive kids are sent to the principal or assistant principal who simply sends them to suspension while counselors are left out of the process. We have to let counselors do the job for which they were trained.
There will always be disruptions in the classroom. But many disruptive kids have issues that teachers are not equipped to handle. Until we recognize that fact and use our counselors appropriately, teachers will continue to struggle with classroom management, and too many kids who could be helped will struggle with their own demons.
School counselors are professionals and should be treated as such. We need more of them, and they need back-up referral resources for difficult cases. In most cases, dealing with problem students is not a task for teachers. It is a job for those who are trained to do it — our school counselors.
Nancy Brown is a retired teacher. Her husband, Cecil Brown, is retired chairman of the Mississippi House Education Committee. He currently serves as the state’s Central District Public Service Commissioner.