Recently, I heard from a former student of mine, Ashley. Sixteen years have passed since I last talked to Ashley. She was one of my most challenging students. As a new teacher, you will have students who exhibit a variety of behaviors. Some students will display externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, outbursts) while others will show internalizing behaviors (e.g., helplessness, withdrawal). Students with externalizing behaviors are more obvious and disruptive, while students with internalizing behaviors are less noticeable. Ashley exhibited both external and internal behaviors.
When Ashley was eight years old, she was labeled as a student with a behavior disorder. Ashley was the troublemaker. I read her message as fast as I could.
Blast From the Past
As I read her message, for one split second, I went back in time. I visualized the first day I met Ashley. I was a first year teacher at a junior high school. Ashley was a seventh grader. I remembered the first time she looked at me. Her eyes screamed, “You think you can teach me? I dare you to try.” For days she refused to participate in any of her seven classes, even in Physical Education class.
Ashley transferred to my junior high school in order to live with her aunt because her mother was recently placed in jail for drug related charges. Ashley was unpredictable. One day she would talk back to her teachers, and the next, she would sit at her desk, unmotivated to engage in any activity proposed to her.
As the new kid on the block, Ashley was getting into more and more trouble and falling further and further behind day after day. She seemed happy that the student body thought of her as “the troublemaker.” As a special educator, I was helping her academically and behaviorally. She did not like reading or math and as time went by, I noticed more and more negative behaviors transpire.
In teaching Ashley, I attempted every accommodation possible and available for students with a behavior disorder. I asked for help from the district, researched new techniques, and purchased the latest and greatest academic and behavior curriculums. Still, nothing seemed to help Ashley.
My Own Worst Enemy
One day after school, Ashley meandered into my classroom to pick up something she had left behind. My radio was on since it was Friday and school was dismissed. When Ashley walked in, the radio was softly playing a Top 20 song by the singer “Pink.” Ashley looked up and said, “I love Pink.” I asked why and she stated, “She’s cool, and the song she’s singin’ reminds me of me. I wish I had this CD.”
As she said this, I noticed that she was looking at her progress report. I asked, “How do you feel about your scores?” She quickly replied, “I don’t care, I never pass my classes and I never will.” I said, “I’ll buy you Pink’s CD if you raise those scores to passing grades by the end of the term.” She was walking out of my room with her back to me as I made the offer. She didn’t respond.
When Ashley was gone, I immediately looked up the lyrics to Pink’s song. Over and over in the chorus, Pink stated that she was her own worst enemy. In fact, the majority of the words described her failures and how she wished she could be somebody else. Ashley was connecting to Pink’s lyrics. I realized then that Ashley was suffering from learned helplessness. She was hurting inside and did not have confidence in herself or others. There was not much I could do about Ashley’s home life, but I could create opportunities for her to succeed and learn to believe in herself despite the challenges she has at home.
Students with challenging behaviors often become victims of learned helplessness (Lavoie, 2007). They would rather look “bad” than “stupid.” Students who have learned helplessness see failure as permanent. They feel that failure will continue in challenging events in which they have previously failed. In working with these students, teachers need to create successful opportunities. In other words, success breeds success. When students feel capable of displaying the components of a task, they are often motivated to try a new task (Bandura, 1997). Students who experience learned helplessness need to be provided opportunities and tools to succeed.
I did not know what Ashley was interested in until she commented on loving the singer Pink. In fact, I had neglected to ask her valuable questions that would have explained her inappropriate behaviors. I was so busy trying to teach Ashley, I forgot to listen to her. I did not realize how much she struggled with learned helplessness until I listened to Pink’s lyrics.
The Turn Around
The next day, Ashley brought homework to study skills class. I didn’t ask her why. I realized that she did hear my offer and said “yes” to my challenge in her own way. Ashley suddenly had reason to work hard. I analyzed Ashley’s homework, broke up the tasks into small sections, and let her choose what she would like to finish first. This allowed Ashley to select tasks that she preferred, in which she felt more confident, before she tackled the challenging ones.
Slowly, Ashley began to trust me, and, most importantly, listen. When Ashley listened, the latest and greatest curriculums worked. Through explicit, systematic instruction Ashley learned that with hard work and dedication, she could succeed. As she experienced success, her grades began to improve. Ashley gained more confidence and teachers were amazed at the shift. Ashley was no longer the “troublemaker.” Six weeks later, she passed all of her classes for the first time in her life and I quickly rewarded her with Pink’s latest CD.
After that small blast from the past, I continued to read Ashley’s message.
“My mom has been clean for about 7 years now, she is doing really good. I graduated from college (beauty school) a couple months ago and I graduated from high school. It’s not something I really plan to do on a daily basis but it’s good to have something to fall back on if anything ever happened to my job. I have been married for 5 years now and we have two daughters. You really did a lot for me when I was in school. You were the only teacher who I felt like I could talk to and back then, I needed that. I really appreciate everything you did. I was a stupid kid in jr. high, with all the problems I had at home, I thought I could get away with anything. I was so mean to a lot of people. I hurt a lot of people because I was hurting and I thought it would make me feel better, but at the end of the day I still had to go back to my home life and hurting other people didn’t change that. I am glad to hear you are still teaching, you are an amazing teacher and you made a big impact in my life. It’s good to know you are still teaching because that means you are still making a big impact on other peoples’ lives as well, some people need that, I know I did. Thank you for everything you have done, you made a bigger impact on my life than you will ever know. I always wanted to tell you that.”
In tears, I thought, “This is exactly why I am a teacher.” We do make a difference. Students with challenging behaviors would like us to leave them alone and let them do what they want, but don’t! Thanks to students like Ashley, I learned the secrets to teaching the troublemaker. I learned that it is important to investigate their interests and needs and take the time to discover what motivates them or what is bothering them. Once I understood what motivated Ashley to succeed, and once I learned more about her emotional needs, I could implement a successful academic and behavioral curriculum.
When I was working with Ashley, I never could tell if Ashley appreciated the attention I gave her, but I pressed on. I’m grateful for that one quiet Friday afternoon; I found a small spark in Ashley’s eyes when she heard Pink singing on the radio. A song that helped me learn more about Ashley.
I quickly responded to Ashley’s message. I told her that she impacted my life more than she will ever know. Students with challenging behaviors are often the students who will look you up ten years later and say, “Thanks for everything you did for me.” In Ashley’s case, she was the one that deserved a thank you. I gained an unbelievable amount of confidence as a teacher the day she passed all of her classes. I told her, “Thanks for everything you did for me and thank you for helping me become a better teacher.”
Author; Nichole Wangsgard, Southern Utah University