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The George Collins Book Club – Lost At School

When you’re so desperate for book recommendations that you turn to a bald twenty-something burnout for help. Gods above help you.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. – Lost At School

“…consider whether your expectations for each kid are truly realistic. We often place expectations on kids that we know they can’t meet, and then punish them when they handle our expectations as poorly as we suspected they would. An unrealistic expectation is a challenging behavior waiting to happen.”

Passion for a better future drives all of us regardless of political persuasion. In the short term we think of ourselves, but in the mid and long term we think of our children. Disagreements arise in how to achieve that future, the values that shape it, and how to raise our children to become the best citizens for that new world. Raising our kids becomes the cornerstone issue of that dream.

We all anticipate parenting as the job we’re never ready for no matter how much we prep. Entrepreneur and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang described it as being similar to running a startup company: “everyone’s got an opinion but no one knows what they’re doing, the first two years are brutal, there will be a thousand small tasks you never imagined…” For some parents with children who exhibit challenging and maladaptive behavior, the usual curveballs of parenting come at lightning speed. British documentarian Louis Theroux’s film America’s Medicated Kids explored the ways parents turn to medication to help manage their children’s behavior. What’s particularly striking is the desperation of the people interviewed; pills were not a quick fix sought by lazy parents but were instead a last resort after every other solution went bust.

Clinical child psychologist Ross Greene, PhD, explored challenging behavior in children and published a landmark book to help parents address these dilemmas. The Explosive Child approached challenging behavior not as an ultimate problem but as a symptom of a deeper issue usually borne from a child’s difficulty meeting an expectation.

Parents aren’t alone in confronting the challenges of childbearing. It takes a village to raise a child, as the old saying goes, and there’s another group we entrust with handling those difficulties almost every day: educators.

Kids exhibiting challenging behavior at home is one thing, but that same behavior showing up in the classroom can be a whole different ballgame. Whereas challenging episodes in your living room can be handled in the safety of your own pad away from prying eyes, school settings aren’t so private. A challenging student’s behavior affects the learning experience of their classmates and influences their relationships with peers, teachers, disciplinarians, and the system at large. Without the natural connection parents have with their kids, how are teachers to connect with these students and navigate this added batch of obstacles?

Ten years after his seminal work for parents, Greene published Lost at School, a new guide for teachers addressing the unique considerations of connecting with challenging kids in the classroom.

The book details the problems with how we view challenging kids’ behavior in educational institutions and offers an alternative perspective.

At present, the philosophy behind child success in US American education is “kids do well when they want to.” This idea seeps down from the larger myth of meritocracy, that successful people are totally a result of hard work and good character and those who struggles do so because of some kind of moral failing or character flaw. It’s no shocker that this mentality applies to our kids. When a child has difficulty adjusting to the standard educational model, conventional wisdom says that child has no desire to learn and it’s a waste of time to expend energy convincing them to see the value of school. Many parents and teachers alike know that frustration of trying to help their kids understand the value of education and effort only to feel like they’re slamming their fist into a brick wall.

Greene examines several flaws in this logic. For starters, why would a child not want to do well? What benefits would they see from pitching their studies and losing the support of their teachers and peers?

Another popular myth is that these kids are just seeking attention when they aren’t scoring enough of that at home. But here’s a hot take: everyone wants attention, even adults. And as with the first explanation, the social costs of gaining a taste of the spotlight for a few minutes far outweigh the benefits, and most kids recognize that.

Tossing these vapid explanations out the window, Greene presents a different idea: kids do well when they can. Apathy isn’t a viable explanation for the kinds of social losses challenging kids often experience. Fact is, almost every kid in a classroom does want to excel. They do understand the value of effort and education. The struggle for challenging kids is meeting an expectation or a set of them that is unrealistic for the way they approach the world. If provided the proper support, environment, and tools, kids can reach their full potential and beyond regardless of challenges they may face. Most children do not need extra accommodations to achieve this, but others do. That latter group are the challenging kids in the classroom, and their outbursts, behavioral issues, and maladaptive episodes are symptoms of a deeper difficulty meeting the expectations of the classroom.

How does an educator implement such an approach? By treating the child as a collaborator to help solve a problem, not as a problem themselves.

This method is what Greene details in the book. He calls it Plan B. If Plan A is strict discipline and enforcement of rules to punish challenging kids for maladaptive behavior, Plan B is a collaborative process with the child that involves building rapport through empathy, learning the nature of their struggles and hearing their concerns, and crafting a solution together.

A fictional story accompanies this explanation to demonstrate how this could be implemented in practical terms. A sixth-grade student named Joey often does not complete assignments and disrupts class when he’s called on it by his teacher. This has been a trend with Joey for several years to the point where the school district’s disciplinarians have given up trying to help Joey resolve these problems. They might as well install a revolving door in the principal’s office for he and his single mother to cycle through every week.

His teacher is approached by the new school psychologist who introduces her to Plan B. She expresses skepticism at first but decides it’s a better shot than what they’ve been trying. Through her conversations with Joey, his teacher learns that Joey doesn’t always understand assignments and feels embarrassed when this happens. Being publicly flogged for it only increases the humiliation until he blows a gasket. The two spend several afternoon sessions together and create a plan to help Joey better handle these episodes where Joey can signal to her that he’s having difficulty, and she’ll give him the OK to work on an easier assignment until they can revisit the challenging assignment together. Joey’s mother is roped into the plan as well, and by the end of the book he is excelling in school and interacting with his peers in a way his previous mentors never thought would be possible.

It may be a bit of an Aesop, but the story helps address many concerns teachers reading the book may be thinking about when envisioning how they could implement Plan B in their own classrooms. They wonder how they’ll find the time to work with challenging kids one-on-one when so many other students demand their attention, especially in an age of growing classroom sizes amidst dwindling public school funding. What if the child clams up on the first few attempts to build trust and no progress takes place for weeks? How is this kind of incremental problem-solving different from just ignoring the problem? These concerns are all valid, and Greene laves no stone unturned in the Q&A sessions that conclude each chapter.

There’s more to Plan B than can be expressed in a book review, but the core tenets revolve around treating children as equals rather than something to be controlled. So many adults are conditioned to see their own concerns and solutions as more important than those of the children they care for because they view children as inferior thinkers. Challenging kids become challenging when their concerns are dismissed by every adult they encounter over several years. These kids can shine as bright as their peers when taken seriously and treated as capable problem solvers who just need some coaching.

Rethinking this paternalistic relationship with children is necessary for parents and teachers alike. It fosters better relationships with the children they care about and results in better development even for the most challenging among them. As I’ve discussed on the Ungagged podcast, children are citizens now, not citizens in waiting. When we treat them as such, we help craft that better world we all want to see for them.

By George Collins

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