Everyone an Iceberg: Students with Behavioral Issues
When I was thirteen I remember running into one of my school teachers at Burlington Coat Factory on the far end of Donnybrook Road. She had a tendency to be fairly cold toward us students and I didn’t care too much for her. But until that day, I didn’t fully realize that she had a life outside of school. It’s rather disorienting, isn’t it, experiencing a new side of someone outside of the conventional context? I watched her rush out of the store as she argued with her boyfriend then sped off in her car and though she didn’t notice me, the encounter opened my eyes to a previously unrecognized reality:
All of us, teachers and students alike, are just people.
People with backgrounds and histories. People with families and fears. People who are influenced and have an influence.
That brief encounter helped me to see my teacher in a more generous light. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I am still learning to see the raw humanity in all those I influence.
Especially those with behavioral issues.
Icebergs and the Thing Behind the Thing
For several years I was working in one of the poorest counties in Texas with high rates of poverty and all the brokenness that comes with it. Split families. Absent/terrible parenting. Malnutrition. Unsafe living conditions. Unmet needs of every sort.
In teaching others how to mentor students whose foundation is shaky at best, we talk about each person as an iceberg, whose top towers above the water, but whose mountain resides hidden underwater. No matter how large the iceberg looks, 90% is unseen by us. The iceberg is split into three sections: the vast majority hidden underwater is a person’s beliefs; the middle section resting between the surface and atop the beliefs is a person’s values; and breaking through the surface is a person’s behavior. Each layer builds upon the other.
It’s tempting to see a student acting up in class and go straight for the behavior. But you can chip the tip of the iceberg all you want and still not address the issue. Meaningful change in any student will only occur once you influence their heart – their beliefs about who they are and where they belong. Once a person’s beliefs are transformed, so then are their values, and finally their behavior.
This means that embarrassment of a student is rarely an advisable course of action. You’re likely to isolate them even more, making any constructive progress that much more difficult.
Behavioral issues serve one of two purposes: to get something or to avoid something. If a student wants attention, they’ll find it wherever they can, even if it’s negative attention. If a student is afraid of looking stupid in front of their friends, they may act out in order to distract from that embarrassment. Either way, you the teacher are not going to be able to effectively handle all students the same way. Your disciplinary system may work for one student and may work against you for another.
What does this mean for you, the teacher?
First it means actually caring enough about your students to see them for who they are, not just who they are in your class. It will require you to observe and discern. When do they act up? Are they around certain people when they do? How are they acting?
It may also mean that you confront the student in a caring, but firm manner in order to hear what they have to say. Pull them aside after class and let them know up front you want them to succeed but that you cannot have them acting up. Depending on the level of trust and relationship between you both, they may be straight with you about what’s going on and they may not, but at least you have the chance to clearly state your expectations and love once more.
Secondly, always keep in mind that behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. What you’re really interested in is the thing behind the thing. The man behind the curtain pulling all the levers, if you will. In other words, your goal is to understand the function of their behavior so that you can accurately and ultimately help your student succeed, not just in your class, but in life. This investment into your students may cost more time and energy up front, but will save much of the same in the long run.
It may be, like me with my students in Texas, you are the first and only person to really listen and care about who they are, where they’re coming from, and what they’re going through. I dare say teachers like that can change a student’s world and help you build a legacy of which you can be proud.
Expectations and Cries for Help
Now that you know what you’re looking for, what are some ways you can set yourself and students up for success in the classroom?
Setting clear expectations for your students up front lets them know who is in charge and what your time together will look like. Contrary to what we might think, people actually want boundaries. They need those sharp edges to keep them going in a clear direction. The students we are talking about will test those boundaries, for sure, but what they are looking for is someone to care. When it comes to your behavioral students, praising absolutely anything about the good they do will have a lasting positive effect and may even be the first fruits of change.
Depending on the age group, it may be helpful to talk about your expectations, act them out, have a visual display you can refer to in your room, or even create signs associated with your expectations in order to clearly communicate while teaching. Or maybe you find that your disciplinary system isn’t working. That’s okay. Just don’t keep doing it. Be honest about when things don’t go to plan and change to a different tactic. If your students are old enough, it may even be beneficial to collaborate and ask for their input about what fair disciplinary actions look like. However, it is your responsibility to find what works and to set the tone. You are the adult.
If you are having a lot of behavioral issues, it is fair to say you may need to sit with the question, “What am I doing wrong?” And then have the courage to change.
Expectations are the pregame. Getting help is the postgame. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help when you need it. Your humility may even gain you some friends. An outside observer, calling on another teacher, or sending a student to the counselor or principal – all have their appropriate place. Get there before you reach your wits’ end and save yourself some grief.
Sure, they may be a little terror in your classroom and yes, they will test the limits of your good graces, but remember the Burlington Coat Factory. See the thing behind the thing and recognize that your terrors may well be going through terrors of their own. They are looking to you to not play their game nor stoop to their level, no matter how much they tempt you there. Keep control of your emotions and try not to take it personally. Easier said than done, right?
Reality is, you may be the only one fighting for them.
Excellent advice, Joshua. Thank you for such an eloquent and well thought out article!