This is a response to the awful, pooooor aduuuuuuults Cracked article about working with "troubled children". I worked in a classroom for kindergarten-4th graders with an educational classification of Behavior Disorder/Emotionally Disturbed. I loved them all, each and every one. Most of them had been through more by age 7 than anyone should be ever. This post is dedicated to them. I hope they are all safe & healing now.
Many adults who work in schools, particularly in special education settings, aren't there for the reason I was there. I was there because of a love of children, even (especially) difficult children. I was there because I remembered struggling and I wanted to be the adult who wasn't around when I was a student. I tried. But the system is set up to fail. Here are the things about teaching my "emotionally disturbed" students that ultimately broke my heart.
1. Their difficulties don't arise out of nowhere.
The majority of my students had spent some time in foster care--meaning they had been removed from their families of origin. Others had early onset mental illnesses. Some had both of these factors going on.
White children who are dealing with enough at home that they get removed from their parents in this part of the country? They are dealing with multiple kinds of abuse. So we had 8 year olds who were having flashbacks to being molested. I had a kindergartener who saw her mom get stabbed. A student whose stepdad took his medication for funsies, making the boy's medication levels completely unpredictable. Even the students who had never been removed were dealing with not optimal home environments. The parents just didn't have the coping skills, & things an adult gets away with? Gets you classified "emotionally disturbed" if you copy it at school.
What this meant in practicality was that we were often trying to undo what happened over the weekend, or we were trying to help a student who always felt in danger to learn and to practice emotional regulation skills they may have never seen modeled before. That's setting some students up to fail--if they've never seen emotional regulation, and they neurologically don't have a frustration tolerance, learning & "behaving" is tasking their resources to the brink.
2. Other adults are unempathetic assholes
The systems set up in these classrooms tend to run on "points" or "tokens" and they lose tokens for Behaviors. Some may call it "failing to earn" but to the students, it's losing. Keep in mind that these are fairly young people, and they often are at a distinct disadvantage in emotional regulation.
I have seen adults, multiple adults, gleefully tell students how many points they're losing. This tends to send them into a downward spiral because not getting all your points = not getting privileges (we're not talking a big cake. We're talking craft supplies here). I have seen teachers goad students who are doing the best they can to self calm into getting more upset.
If you have a young person with emotional regulation difficulties, and they are trying to talk themselves down when they had a bad start, just shush and let them talk themselves down! This is a big step for many students I know. Talking oneself down, even with a "tone", is much better than dumping a desk. (My strategy for "a desk is about to get dumped" is "jump onto the desk, Gollum pose", because being ridiculous can interrupt a downward spiral & it isn't threatening. I've never seen anyone else use this strategy).
I have seen teachers who were supposedly trained in deescalation get into the face and space of a student who has suffered severe abuse & is having a hard time. Then when the student runs or pushes them away, the adult uses this as an excuse to take them to the ground. Getting in someone's face is not deescalation. Moving away and shushing or saying soothing, validating things is deescalation.
Behavior Disorder classrooms are a place where seclusion & restraint are very popular. And never let anyone tell you for a minute that it's not punitive or retaliatory. It is punitive and retaliatory. If a kid shoves a boring book off their desk, that's disrespectful, sure. It is not something that is a risk to anyone. There is no excuse to restrain a kid for that.
My classroom had a room that was ostensibly a break room. It isn't a break room when you shut students in there, no matter how many beanbag chairs are in there. Saying something smartassed is not an excuse to lock someone in a room. It's like the adults in these settings have forgotten what it is to be small, young, and have a limited coping repertoire. And they punish the students in abusive ways for manifestations of their disability. That's not ok. That's not helping.
3. You will have to call CPS. They will blow off your call.
As I said in point 1, most of my students had been in foster care. Most of them had dealt with abuse or neglect. Some of them were still dealing with abuse and neglect.
As an educator, I was a mandated reporter. As the person who would jump on a desk, raise my eyebrows, & set off a giggle fit instead of encouraging rage, I was the Trusted Adult. They knew I was on their side.
Being Trusted Adult sucks sometimes, because a small child will tell you the very gory details of what started happening when he moved from his mom's house to his dad's. And you will think you can help, you have to report to CPS, and CPS isn't perfect but they can do something.
And then CPS will tell you that the kid is lying, don't you teach behavior disorder? Those kids lie. That is what they will tell you.
This is the hill I chose to die on. A student confided in me, things I'm pretty sure most young people wouldn't think of out of their imagination. I called CPS. CPS told me my student was lying. I said he wasn't. They said they'd believe me if the lead teacher in the room called. The lead teacher in the room elected not to call.
And I walked out. I couldn't help this young person through the accepted channels, but damned if I was going to sit there and pretend it was ok to call him a liar. I could do more good not in that classroom, & that's sad.
Many many students in these classrooms are in them because abused children act out as their only way of asking for help--and then their being in these classrooms is used as an excuse to not help them. It isn't ok. It will break your heart into a million tiny pieces.
4. Your students will be blamed for anything that goes wrong within a half mile radius.
A goal of our class was to prepare our students to go back into the mainstream classrooms. They were mostly academically on grade level in at least a couple areas. They could mostly comprehend the work, it was dealing with the behavioral demands of the classroom or the amount of busywork that made things a problem for them in the regular ed classrooms.
Part of the least restrictive environment, then, was that they would go to music and PE with the other students at their grade level (with or without a teacher, depending on how they were doing that day) and had recess and lunch at the same time as their age peers. In theory this is a start, right?
In practice, the other students learned very quickly that if you do something obnoxious on the playground, you won't get in trouble if you blame one of my students. Even if it was obviously not something they would do (the other adults didn't really care what my students would or wouldn't do, they were Those Kids). I had students be blamed for throwing sand when they were in a swing on the complete opposite side of the school yard.
And heaven help the student if they're going to academic classes with their typical peers and someone can't find her book or pencil. Obviously it was my student. Those Kids Steal/Hit/Draw On The Walls. Except...no they really didn't. My students did act out sometimes but they didn't do a quarter of the things they were blamed for.
And the PE teacher, music teacher, regular ed teachers? They were nearly as bad as my coworkers in terms of nitpicking at their behavior. A frustrated sigh is age appropriate. Crumpling up a bad drawing is pretty normal. That is not call to demand that I take them back to the self contained classroom. I see typical kids on the other side of the room throwing their crappy drawings at each other, what on earth is this double standard?
5. You will fall in love with your students, & you may not be able to save them, & failing will never. stop. hurting.
The thing in point 3? Actually happened. For reals. The student in question was about to go back to his home school district, his regular ed classroom with resource room time if he needed a break, when everything went to hell. He went from reading to me and discussing the stories to all sorts of not ideal stuff that I won't discuss because our worst days deserve to be at least a bit obscured. It was a fast downward spiral.
And another student? Really only needed sensory accomodations probably and only ended up in my class because he was defending his right to them. But because he had been placed in our classroom had to work his way back into typical classes and was always considered a Bad Kid because one of his teachers had refused to work with his needs. If you don't get out of the emotionally disturbed self contained classroom by high school you're stuck forever.
Another? Ended up going to the special day school for kids with severe emotional challenges. Another got pulled out of school entirely because his parents didn't want other adults able to observe him. That's frightening.
I couldn't save them from their families, couldn't heal their coping mechanisms. But I loved them to bits, and I know it was mutual. A big hug and "I love you" made it pretty clear. "I wish you were my mom".
"I made you this necklace to play with so you don't break your pretty one".
I have had this necklace for over 10 years. One of my students from that classroom made it for me. Of all the things he could have chosen to do with the craft supplies, he chose to help me not break things, because breaking things loses points whether you meant to or not. That's a lot of thinking outside himself, huh?
But I couldn't save them. Too many adults who work with young people think only about themselves, act as though their students are having difficulties just to piss them off. And it isn't the case at all.
Maybe you won't fall in love with them, which is something I'm sad about. Love is a thing my students needed, instead of being made into monsters and adversaries. They had enough adversaries.
I loved them, they loved me, & it breaks my heart that so few other people saw what I saw.