This past Friday, I observed 10-year old Sarah for an hour in her classroom and was pleased with what I saw. Her classroom behavior was pretty much consistent with her progress in our one-on-one behavior and social skills sessions which I conducted weekly in her home. But her teacher was distraught. “This is not how she usually is,” was her reply when I asked my standard question, “Is today better than usual, worse than usual, or typical?”
In our weekly sessions, Sarah was clear that she needed to comply, be respectful, accept authority, make eye contact, be organized, have a pleasant look on her face, answer relevantly and concisely, talk only to people and not to herself, and so forth.
However, in class, Sarah argued about teacher requests such as, “Do I have to take out my math book? Well, what if I don’t?” “Why can’t I finish the project now? I don’t want to do it for homework.” Every few minutes, the teacher had to stop the class to get Sarah to either be quiet or to cooperate.
Underneath her desk was a swarm of pencils, notebooks, scissors, looseleaf binders, folders, and loose papers. This was very unlike the way I had taught her to keep her knapsack and bedroom clean and organized, behaviors which she maintained at home as well as in our sessions.
Throughout the day, Sarah would mutter and comment loudly to herself while some kids snickered and rolled their eyes. It was very hard for the teacher to teach with such ongoing running commentary, and the teacher was getting tired of having Sarah in her class.
I believe teachers when they describe their challenging students to me. I know that when I do an observation, I’m only getting a snippet of a child’s true behaviors. I also know that I may have gotten to see the best moments, the worst moments, or perhaps the average moments of the day.
Herein lies the good news: The best moments tell us a child’s potential. We need to expand those moments to fill the entire day. The worst moments evoke my deepest sympathy for the teachers that they need to deal with such rough behaviors some days or perhaps every day. But they also tell me which skills the child is lacking and needs to learn. The typical moments give me a sense of both.
After my observation, I asked the teacher to recognize and acknowledge Sarah’s potential. Yes, it’s true that Sarah behaved superbly for the entire hour because I was present and she knew I expected no less. However, this level of expectation needs to become standard in the classroom as well. If Sarah believed that the teacher had high standards just like mine, chances are strong that Sarah would behave better on an average day, even when I wasn’t at school to observe her.
We need to recognize the potential and expect that to be the norm.