Chapter 2 – Kids Do Well When They Can

It’s 12:49AM on my first Friday night school night this year… and I’m awake.

I’m more than awake. My mind is racing. There’s no point trying to sleep and so instead, I’m here. Drinking camomile tea and trying to get my thoughts out in writing, in the hope that I will be clear and articulate with my fabulous team members tomorrow. I’ve always been the kid who thinks better in writing. So here goes…

This (school) year, I have the privilege of teaching in a special program for children aged 6-8, who experience significant emotional and behavioural challenges. Last year was my first year teaching in this classroom, and what a year! Though it was my 12th year teaching, my learning curve was incredibly steep. I meant to blog regularly. I wanted to. I had posts formulating in my head all.the.time. But I didn’t. There are the usual excuses: lack of time, lack of energy and I know we all feel those more often than we should, but without “whinging”- last year I felt so profoundly drained almost all the time.  There honestly was no gas in my virtual tank. To say I felt tired doesn’t begin to explain it. I felt tired. Exhausted. To my core. It’s only now, at the end of an incredible summer, that I feel like myself again and can see just how very far I was outside of my usual self.

Last year, school felt like an emotional war zone. I had beautiful, wonderful kids in my class, but many of whom just had such overwhelming needs. Needs I worked my tail off to try to meet. But every single day I felt like a failure. I would get a couple steps forward and then feel like I had been dragged back a mile. And it wasn’t just the kids. I was expected to be a leader for a team of professionals working together to meet these kids’ complex needs. Needless to say, that wasn’t working either. I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was a skilled teacher. I thought I was a compassionate person who could inspire and motivate my colleagues. Last year, I didn’t feel like any of those things. Last year, I contemplated leaving the profession. Last year, was the worst year of my career. But the funny thing is… it was also the best.

Someone said “true learning happens outside your comfort zone.” Or something to that effect. Last year I was so far from my comfort zone. And though I didn’t blog, I did learn so much.

Another thing about me – I’m stubborn. I can be the ridiculous kind of stubborn who would bite off her nose to spite her face. And so while last year was difficult beyond measure, while I drove home from school with big, fat tears falling out of my eyes more often than I did in my first year of teaching (that’s a story for another time) and while I felt so far from what it means to be a skilled and successful teacher, my stubborn streak would not/could not let me close this chapter of my life feeling like this. And so, when I didn’t have to. When it made perfect sense to transfer out to a new class and a new school… I stayed put.

And I’m so very glad I did. Granted we’re only three days into the new school year.

This week, I picked up Dr. Ross W. Greene’s book, Lost At School: why our kids with behavioural challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. Tonight I reread chapter two and suddenly things are clicking in brain. That’s an understatement. There are fireworks going off in my brain right now!

Chapter two is titled, “Kids do well when they can.” Well of course! Isn’t this obvious? Sadly, no. Dr. Greene advocates for a complete shift in our “philosophy of kids.” We need to move away from thinking that “kids do well if they want to” (which lets face it, isn’t working for most of us who work with our most troubled and challenging kids). Instead we need to embrace the idea that “kids do well when they can.”

**Now – I remember reading this a year ago, and even writing this on a sticky and posting it on the wall next to my desk. This philosophy definitely resonated with me, but I didn’t get it the way I “get it” now. There’s a clarity I have now when I look at my students and think about what they need and how I can help support them. The next steps will be implementing these support systems**

But what pulls on my bleeding-heart-strings more than anything is this idea:

” By contrast, the “kids do well if they can” philosophy carries the assumption that if a kid could do well he would do well. Doing well is always preferable to not doing well, but only if a kid has the skills to do well in the first place. If a kid isn’t doing well, he must be lacking the skills. What’s the most important role an adult can play in the life of such a kid? First, assume he’s already motivated, already knows right from wrong, and has already been punished enough. Then figure out what skills he’s lacking so you have the clearest possible understanding of what’s getting in his way. Understanding why a kid is challenging is the first and most important part of helping him.” 

Assume he’s already been punished enough. Already been punished enough.

In my now thirteen years of teaching, I’ve known a lot of kids. I firmly believe that I have yet to meet a “bad” kid. Kids do well if they can. So if they aren’t doing well, why are we, why am I, punishing them?

Kids do well if they can. From the day kids enter some sort of school, whether it be preschool or kindergarten or what have you, I bet they’ve been hearing people like me, say things like this: “use your words” or “eyes on me” or “hands and feet to yourself” or “quiet listening” or… the list goes on and on. So if every single student I have ever met has been hearing those words for years and years and they continue to experience significant challenges at school, challenges to the extent that this child finds him or herself in my class – a class for students with significant social, emotional, and behavioural challenges – what do I think I could possibly gain by “punishing” this child further?

Tomorrow at school we are about to introduce our behaviour modification system to our new group of students. Our new group of lovely, enthusiastic kiddos whose desire to “do well” is written all over their faces. Are they motivated to do well? For sure. Do they know how we want them to behave in school? For sure.

So why are we doing this to them? Because that’s the system that was in place before I arrived? Well, that just doesn’t seem like a good enough reason anymore.

To be clear, our system is a series of “steps” from one to three. A “step one” is a minor “infraction.” For example, if during instructional time the teacher has asked the students to listen, and then thanked the students who have followed instructions, given another reminder, possibly given a quiet redirection and the student continues to be disruptive or not follow instructions, then the teacher could say “kiddo, please do a step one.” The student is expected to stop what he/she is doing, and count to 20 quietly. If the problem behaviour continues, he/she could get a step two. However, step twos are usually for more serious problems such as teasing, name calling, destroying property, being unsafe. A step two means that the student must go to the quiet step two desk in our smaller, quiet room for two minutes. After the two minutes the teacher and student debrief. As in “what happened? what could you do differently next time?” A step three is given when a student causes harm to another person or is very unsafe. The student does a step two timeout and then is on independent play for the rest of that day and possibly the next day.

I do like that the timeout attempts to shift the energy of the situation. But too often this is very confrontational and works to escalate the problem rather than diffuse it. AND, looking at this through Dr. Greene’s eyes I find myself asking how and when are we addressing WHY our students are engaging in these challenging behaviours. Obviously, we have asked more of them than they are able to achieve. And then when they fail, we punish them?

There is a better way. I have found it now. I will implement it.

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18 Responses to Chapter 2 – Kids Do Well When They Can

  1. Bea Toews says:

    Tammy, I am trying to teach teachers how to teach. This is brilliant. I love it. I would like to be back in the class room just to see if someone as authoritarian as I could implement it. Would it be possible for me to use some of this? God you are an inspiration to me these last few days. Thank you.

    • Tammy says:

      Hi Bea! Very happy to help. Of course you may use this. Are you on Twitter? I know people are usually averse to it at first, but it has been incredible for growing my professional development! Let me know if you want to know more… actually, the blog post prior to this one was about Twitter 🙂

  2. Laura Verdiel says:

    Loves this: Kids do well if they CAN, not just if they WANT to – Thanks for the thoughtful share!!! I hope you have a great year! – Laura

  3. Carol says:

    Look at you Ms.Blogger 🙂 I saw Ross Greene last year when he presented in New West. I know we have shared many conversations about teaching. Our school is all about The Leader in Me by: Stephen Covey- it’s been powerful. Even my most challenging students have “leadership” qualities and can shine 🙂

    • Tammy says:

      Thanks Carol! We had our first soccer practice tonight and were talking about how much we missed you! Thanks for the heads up on “The Leader in Me.” I like it! I completely understand that all kids need to feel like leaders, but probably none more so than the kiddos who struggle so much everyday in school. Have lots of fun in Alberta and stay warm! The snow is coming soon! 🙂

  4. K. Lirenman says:

    So happy to be able to follow your journey here. You have so much to share Tammy.

  5. Chris Wejr says:

    Hey Tammy! Dr. Ross Greene’s lens of behaviour support has changed how we view students at our school. ALthough we have not fully implemented Collaborative Problem Solving, we have completely adopted the idea that all behaviour is a skill to be learned. We don’t punish kids who can’t read well enough – so why do we punish kids who cannot behave well enough? When we look through the lens of “kids do well if they can”, we see that there are many things that need to happen throughout the day that will prevent certain behaviours. Whether it be self-regulation strategies or social skill development, we need to understand that this is a long process but well worth it in the end. Let’s keep working in schools to stop the carrots and sticks approach to behaviour “teaching” and instead focus on real teaching of skills to help behaviour.

  6. Janet says:

    Teachers do well if they can & your wonderful attitude proves it!

  7. hughblackman says:

    Tammy you are an awesomely reflective teacher and I look forward to the changes you are making to this class and at Renfrew. ” Kids do well if they can” is a great lens and I am reminded of the work of Vygotsky who developed a social development theory where community is central to the process of “making meaning”. He also developed an idea of the Zone of Proximal development and the more knowledgeable other which help us to understand the power of scaffolding kids learning. You may also look to the work of Montessori for powerful methods to continue to build on how you are restructuring the program. You have my support and your students and the team are so lucky to have you! Thanks!

    • Tammy says:

      Thanks for commenting Hugh! I know Vygotsky’s work well from my PDP days and his idea of the ZPD has always resonated me. In my “new” role I find it so intriguing that we are so open to this idea of challenging kids within an achievable range for academics – why would we teach them fifth grade math concepts if they’re not “there” yet? – but have a harder time applying this way of thinking to behaviour. I look forward to learning more about Montessori, from my new “neighbours” and applying useful methods and ideas from there, too. Thanks for your kind words. I am very thankful to be able to continue my work with the amazing kids, and bigger kids, at Renfrew.

  8. Pingback: Kids Do Well When They Can | Teachers Blog

  9. A Zummack says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience- it was like reading my own diary! I am teaching in a similar program in my school district and we were brand new last year. I went through (and continue to go through) many of the same struggles/successes you describe. I would love to connect with you and share! I’m attending Dr. Greene’s training in December in Vancouver and really looking forward to furthering my learning on his model. We’ve used it with some degree of success this past year, but the most powerful change has been using those words to remind us of our role in these young peoples’ lives.

    • Tammy says:

      Thanks A Zummack 🙂 I’m so sorry for your year last year – I feel your pain! I would LOVE to connect with you and am very envious that you’re attending the training in December. Fingers crossed I’ll see you there! I just looked up SD57 and discovered you’re in PG. I would love to continue this conversation online and meet face to face when you’re in town. Good luck as you settle in to the new year. Do you have any returning kiddos?

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