I always enjoy the beginning of the school year. Fresh pencils, blank books, shiny shoes, to me it signifies new beginnings and fun challenges ahead. Getting to know new students, observing relationships form and seeing how students are fitting in and getting along with teachers is very important to me. While it is normal for it to take some time for children to adjust to the routines and expectations of their environment, it can be more difficult for some. Adhering to the rules of the classroom can prove to be quite challenging, especially for those in the younger grades. Most children don’t like rules but some children actually don’t follow rules. Raise your hand, stay seated, walk, don’t run, work quietly, play nicely, it can be overwhelming. Working as a Behaviour Technician in the public school system I have seen my fair share of students that just don’t follow the rules. These are the students that make teachers want to pull their hair out. However, they are also the students that give teachers funny stories to tell for years to come and that inspire them in ways they never even thought of. I have been so inspired by some of my students that it helped me to write my first children’s book.

In my professional career I have always been drawn to the little rule breakers. Challenging students are what drive me to stretch my imagination and explore new ways to reach many different types of learners. I do not believe that there is one clear definition of what constitutes a challenging learner but for the purpose of this article I will identify certain behaviours that may be present. A student with challenging behaviour will often show reluctance or defiance to follow the rules, refuse to join in with the group, constantly call out without raising his or her hand, refuse to follow class routines, may not cooperate to work or follow directions, leave the classroom without permission, argue with authority, can be aggressive with peers or adults and could be very insistent and demanding. While the behaviours are difficult to manage there is also another side to consider. Challenging students can also be incredibly creative, extremely bright and most importantly not afraid to be themselves and to be lead by their emotions. On the one hand you want to celebrate that this child is not inhibited to express him or herself. You almost want to laugh when they make unbelievably smart (but totally inappropriate) comments. And you may even admire when a student is so strong willed that even the school principal cannot make him or her come in from recess. The challenge for adults lies in figuring out how to foster these wonderful traits while teaching students to adhere to the rules of the classroom and the school. These children are truly full of life, color and excitement…unfortunately this spirit does not transfer well to the structured school environment.

So, what do we when children don’t want to follow the rules? The first step is to do all that we can to understand the child. If we can’t understand why a child acts a certain way then we cannot know how to help the child. For any intervention plan to work we must make it meaningful and unique to the child. It is imperative that anyone working with the child (parent, teacher, tutor) be involved in learning about the child. We can do this through observation and communication. Observe when the challenging moments arise as well as the successful ones. Record what you observe, share and compare with others to see if you notice any patterns or triggers. For example, one may notice that whenever it is time for math Johnny shuts off and refuses to work but he is keen and cooperative for art class. Once we have some leads we can begin to form some hypotheses. Perhaps the expectations are too high, the work is too difficult or too easy. There are so many different possibilities as to why a child may act out, but the more attention you put in the more likely the answers will come.

Once we begin to understand why a child acts a certain way, we can step towards acceptance. Many parents and teachers go through the motions without taking the time to walk in the child’s shoes, to understand how it feels to be faced with certain challenges. Without proper communication often times negative feelings and thoughts get passed between parents and school staff. Parents may have difficulty accepting that their child has some struggles and may place too much responsibility on the school or the teachers. Teachers may have difficulty accepting that their student has needs that require more patience and attention than the others, often focusing solely on the behavior and looking for ways to put more responsibility back onto the parents. It is so crucial that the home and school influences come together to share what they have learned, accept it and support one another in moving forward. A school intervention will prove meaningless if it is not followed through at home and vice versa. When a child sees that both parents and teachers are on the same team he or she can begin to make strides toward more balanced behaviour at home and school. The old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” could not be truer than in the case of a child with challenging behaviour.

Now that we understand where the behaviour is coming from, we accept what we have learned and we have come together as a team, a plan can begin to take form. Some parents may wonder if their child needs to be seen by a psychologist and tested or diagnosed before a plan can be created. While it is crucial that any student facing challenges be seen by a psychologist, it can be a long process and I see no need in waiting for it to be complete before trying to help. The results and recommendations obtained through testing are extremely important and will help to guide the plan, nonetheless a plan should still be started in the interim. Public testing for children has extremely long waiting lists, and I do not accept this as an excuse not to address impending issues. The fact is when an undesirable behaviour presents itself it should be addressed immediately.

An intervention plan does not need to be complicated or complex. It does need to be specific to the child directed toward his or her needs. The most important components in any plan are structure, consistency and positive relationships. The structure is important because a student must have a clear understanding of the rules and expectations. Put it in kid terms (i.e. less wording and more visuals). Consistency is key because the child must know that the plan is to be followed at all times and only when that happens will he or she have rewards. Positive relationships are essential as a plan will carry much more meaning if the child feels that those involved truly care and support him or her. When creating a plan, school staff and parents should discuss realistic goals for the classroom and how they can be reinforced in the home. Parents need to consider the limitations of the school (i.e. limited support staff and individual attention). Maintaining positive relationships, keeping consistency and structure and focusing on attainable goals are great steps towards a positive plan. It is also important to keep in mind that when we introduce change it takes time to see results, sometimes things will have to get worse before they can get better, patience is key.

Finally, once we have our plan and have developed some positive routines and structure we can focus on possibly the most valuable lesson of all; celebrating all the successful moments and positive qualities. Immerse yourself in the child’s creativity. Every now and then do something unexpected and relish in their joy. Join in rather than scold. Listen to their crazy ideas, share some of your own. Find a way to bottle their wild dreams and save them to remind them when they’re older. Run with them, laugh out loud, share silly jokes, watch junky TV, paint on the walls, splash in the puddles and just simply enjoy their unique qualities.

About the Author

Stephanie Gliksman M.Ed. works as a Behaviour Technician at the English Montreal School Board. She is also an author of children’s books, using the pen name Stephanie Gee. Stephanie has written and published two books under the series title Misfit Academy. The books are entitled; When Kids Rule the School and Squished Bananas and Other Homework Battles.

Stephanie also conducts workshops for children where she incorporates her book readings and creative writing activities.

If you would like to contact Stephanie you can reach her at; stephaniegee@misfitacademybooks.com