“kids do well if they can”

Summer vacation officially begins in just over a week and I have to admit I’ve already started initial preparations.  The first ‘cottage mix’ is ready to go (heavy on the chill out tunes of Ron Sexsmith, Hayden, Jim Bryson, Brett Dennen, etc…) and my summer reading list is coming together, thanks to suggestions from friends and colleagues.  Actually, the title of this post is taken from a book recommended to me by the social worker attached to our school.  In fact, when I got my hands on a copy, I couldn’t wait for summer to crack it open and have a look.  And, as it turns out, it struck a chord with me and pulled me in.

Lost at School

Lost at School:  Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Ross Greene, PhD, addresses an issue that has been on my mind for quite some time.   Working with an incredible group of educators over the past few years I have seen and experienced the rewards of finding the keys to supporting struggling students who begin to meet with success.  I have also worked closely with staff who grapple earnestly with how to support students for whom the keys to success seem lost.  We meet around student work, share observations, offer support to one another, try different approaches, and then repeat yet sometimes we are left feeling confused and stuck.  As difficult as these moments are, I am always awed and inspired by the relentless determination of my colleagues.  I figure if you’ve shed tears of frustration, as well as tears of joy for your students, you are truly a teacher who believes in your students.

Greene suggests that when we work with students whose behaviour is challenging, we are too often working from a misguided philosophy of kids.  According to Greene, this flawed philosophy starts with the assumption that “kids would do better if they wanted to”(10).  Instead of viewing the problem as a lack of motivation to be remedied with the right incentive program, Greene suggests shifting perspectives:
Bt contrast, the “kids who do well if they can” philosophy carries the assumption that if a kid could do well he would do well.  If he’s not doing well, he must be lacking the skills needed to respond to life’s challenges in an adaptive way.  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 thinking skills he’s lacking so you know what thinking skills to teach.“(11)
Greene suggests, and I agree, that reframing behaviour challenges as a lack of thinking skills give us a more positive starting point.  Just as we might determine what reading skills are lacking with a student who struggles academically in order to teach and model those skills, we ought to ascertain what thinking skills are lacking in students whose behaviour interferes with their learning.
diagnoses aren’t especially useful
Greene goes on to explore several common behaviour issues that surface in the classroom, including difficulty with transitions, difficulty managing emotions, and difficulty empathizing with others.
His focus is on exploring the specific skills the student needs to develop, rather than determining a diagnosis to explain the challenging behaviour.  Greene’s focus on what the student needs resonates well with my own philosophy.  We meet student needs, regardless of official diagnosis or determination.  It seems to me that in the past the tendency to pathologize the challenges our students face allowed us to distance ourselves from an ethical responsibility and commitment to those students.  Greene discusses the pitfall of seeking a diagnosis, rather than looking for skills that are lacking:
… diagnoses don’t give us any information about the cognitive skills a kid may be lacking.  In other words, “bipolar disorder” provides no information about the specific skills a kid is lacking.  Nor does “fetal alcohol syndrome” or “lead poisoned” or “brain injured” or “Asperger’s disorder” or “ADHD” or “oppositional defiant disorder” or “antisocial” or “sociopath”.  All too often adults get caught up in the quest for the right diagnosis, assuming that a diagnosis will help them to know what to do next.  The reality is that diagnoses aren’t especially useful for understanding kids with behavioral challenges or for helping adults know what to do next.”(15)
This is what drew me in to this book.  I like the shift of focus from seeking a diagnosis to participating in a collaborative inquiry into what specific skills were needed.  I think this gives us a more productive and compassionate lens through which to view students with challenging behaviours.  It affirms my belief that a committed team of concerned adults is the best support for these students.  I’m looking forward to making my way through the rest of the book and sharing my reflections.  As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences too!

One thought on ““kids do well if they can”

  1. My child does not like to attend classes because he has virtually no pals as well as our son feels as though other kids can’t stand him. We have made an effort to show our son good social skills by just talking to our son in regards to this along with describe the best way he may better relate to some other children. He generally seems to know what We’re saying and may actually show the suitable behaviour with me. Nonetheless this approach does not seem to increase our boy’s social skills. HIs Dr. claims he has Aspergers Syndrome and maybe ADHD..

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