Why do some students act out while others are tight lipped? How do you make them all feel comfortable and eager to learn? Lisa Kelly discusses.
It’s the first day of the school year. My new class are sitting in front of me. Most are looking at me, listening intently as I welcome them back to school and introduce myself, tell them a little about myself, maybe make a little joke or two to put them at ease. Some of them are smiling and look delighted to be back at school. That makes me smile too. As we begin to get to know one another, I can already spot the quiet ones, the ones who don’t like to make eye contact just in case I might ask them a question and put the spotlight on them. The chatty ones are already chatting quietly, far too impatient to wait a whole hour and a half until breaktime. They don’t really care that their teacher likes a spot of tennis or knits funky hats. I’ll have to separate those chatters I think to myself. And then there’s a few who stand out for other reasons. There’s the boy who’s been sobbing since he arrived a half hour ago. Nothing I said seemed to make him feel better. I’m guessing he doesn’t like change. Maybe he really loved his teacher last year and didn’t want to leave her? Maybe there is trouble at home? Maybe he’s being bullied? My attention is dragged away from the sad boy to the girl who jumps out of her seat as if her dream is to be a Jack in the box! She keeps shouting things out while the other children are speaking. They look fed up but resigned. As a teacher, I already know that these are the children who will take up most of my time in the months ahead and I haven’t even had a one-to-one conversation with them yet.
The good news is that I’m ready for them! I’m ready to make this a great year. The other piece of good news is that I know why each child above is acting out in their own way.
The bad news is that they each suffer from a debilitating infliction.
This affliction is low self-esteem. Research tell us that low self-esteem stems from not feeling very loved nor very capable. Truly the worst combination for any child. Of course, our pupils will all be at different points on the self-esteem continuum as I like to call it, and they will continually move up and down along the continuum based on experiences from their home lives, their school lives, their friendships and so on. It’s possible however to pinpoint where a child is on the continuum at any given time.
Some students come to us with high self-esteem. These tend to be the pupils who are confident in their abilities, willing to participate and put themselves ‘out there’ in the classroom. They don’t fear the repercussions; in fact there may not be any for them. They will work hard and achieve at high levels normally, all of which will ensure they maintain their high levels of self-esteem. These are what teachers might sometimes call the ‘good’ students. They have a thirst for knowledge, they answer questions gladly and with ease, they ask insightful questions. I also know from the research that I will probably ask more questions of these students. That’s what teachers tend to do apparently. They also tend to have higher expectations of these pupils and moreover, make more eye contact with them.
Middle to low self-esteem
All well and good and healthy, unless you’re in the middle to low self-esteem groups. These students however, the one sobbing, the one shouting out, the one not paying any attention to the teacher, come to us with middle or low self-esteem. The ‘energetic’ girl is now flicking her ruler noisily off her table in the hope that it will garner a reaction. A negative reaction for her will suffice to show she is noticed, that she exists, that she is a part of the group. How can I let her know I see her? That she is valued? I know that most, if not all, of these problematic behaviours in front of me are due to middle or low self-esteem. I see the boy I have been warned about – the one who refused to even try last year. His arms are already crossed; it’s an ominous beginning to the term. I’m thinking about how I can encourage him to try, not to be afraid to try. In this classroom, mistakes are welcomed and cherished, just like him but he doesn’t know that yet. What about the crying boy? How can I help him to feel happy and secure here? These students may have lost the drive to learn, to find things out. For them, learning often equates to failure. They make mistakes which can result in humiliation and we can understand why they stop trying very hard. It’s classic avoidance where zero effort equates to zero failure.
Self-esteem is not fixed
The good news for all of these children and for us teachers is that self-esteem can and does change. It can improve (and it can worsen). It’s up to us to ensure that it doesn’t reduce on our watch. We owe it to the children we teach to send them onto the next stage of their educational journey with the highest self-esteem possible and thereby the highest chance of success and happiness. In all cases, but especially in the more challenging cases, the how we teach is as important as what we teach. In fact, the how will dictate whether or not these children achieve success this year. It’s not difficult to guide students with high self-esteem through the year but it is how we get through to the other students that can really shape us as teachers. Of course, for a teacher to improve the self-esteem of her students, she must have high self-esteem herself. If a teacher does indeed have high self-esteem, she will be in a much better position to form a close relationship based on acceptance and openness with each and every one of her pupils. This relationship is arguably the biggest factor in developing high self-esteem for a child. Every time we speak to a child, every time we use a gesture, every time we interact, the child receives a message about their worth, their capability and their ability to be loved. Naturally, this demands an awareness from teachers not to mention a huge effort when 30 or so children are involved, but the rewards make it worthwhile. Elevating the self-esteem of children on the lower end of the continuum will not only increase teaching time on a daily basis but will ensure each of our classrooms are joyous, friendly, welcoming places that will elevate children’s emotional wellbeing.
Behaviour is one of the biggest stresses in the teaching profession. If we concentrate solely on the child’s behaviour, forgetting about him or her as a person, it can breed anxiety and lower self-esteem for the child. Of course, that doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t be very clear about which behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t. Of course they should. These behaviours are best agreed with the children and appropriate punishments put in place should the agreed behaviours be violated. If a child has agreed to a rule and breaks it, they understand why they must be reprimanded and it will not break a solid, caring teacher-pupil relationship nor negatively affect self-esteem.
Day to day
When it comes to the curriculum, unrealistic demands can have a negative impact on self-esteem. Likewise, a lack of demands or low expectations can cause damage. As teachers, we need to find the optimum pressure where the child is challenged but not distressed. Naturally, it begins at the child’s current level in any given subject and progresses from there. The expectation will be different for each child as a result, but should be high in each case. Furthermore, each of our low self-esteem pupils need time alone with their teacher. I have found that having a private meeting with each child near the beginning of the year can be very beneficial to this end. I have asked for their opinions and ideas to improve the(ir) learning in the classroom or for ideas to improve inclusion and classroom atmosphere for example. These measures can make the child feel that their opinions are highly valued and push their self-esteem in the right direction on the continuum. Finally, when we need to choose a child to run an errand, we tend to choose the ‘good’ students from above, when in reality, the students with the low self-esteem really need this approbation and opportunity.
How do they do?
If all children in the class feel that they belong, they are capable, they can and do make their teacher proud and happy and that they are unique and valued, they are all on the right track towards high(er) levels of self-esteem, which is the precursor to success for the whole of their lives. If we get the how right, the what to teach becomes easy or at least easier.