293. Variations on a Theme

Children have a variety of ways to tell us that they don’t think they’re able to do what we think they’re able to do. Some come right out and tell us. That makes our job easier. But some pout, and obsess on issues that may have nothing to do with the real problem. Some get angry, and their angry words and/or actions serve to distract us. Some get silly, and try to entertain their way out of challenges (that was my way). And these variations on a theme can be effective, pushing teachers’ buttons so that children get consoled, admonished, or punished instead of taught. After all, most of us don’t want to ignore behaviors that could very well be symptoms of problems worthy of our attention for non-academic reasons.
So our sensitivity and children’s vulnerability occasionally interact in a way that works against learning – some children behave in ways that disguise their difficulties, and we react in ways that don’t do anything about the disguises, and can aggravate children’s actual problems. Angry children get angrier, silly children get sillier, sullen children get more sullen, and children learn that their behaviors effectively cancel or postpone challenges that don’t actually have to be so challenging.
As a teacher, I was quite aware of the entertainers. Having been there myself, I knew when to let them entertain, when to redirect their shenanigans, and when and how to stop it. We entertainers need audiences, and all I had to do was make sure I responded to the content, not the style, of what these children said and did, and that they didn’t get the wrong kind of attention from other children, either. This still required some fancy footwork, but at least I knew what was going on, and stood a chance of responding effectively.
Anger and sullenness were harder for me to figure out, because I hadn’t used either much as defenses. The few times I’d gotten angry, or pouted, there actually were things wrong; the behaviors that accompanied these feelings weren’t in my disguise wardrobe, or at least those disguises didn’t work well for me. So if I’m your teacher, and you want to avoid a lesson, don’t try clowning around. Pout or rage.
Knowing about this dynamic helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Children can still push my buttons. As a volunteer, I usually try to stay away from temper tantrums and tears in class. I point them out to other adults. If I know a child well enough to know that these behaviors are atypical, I may give them more attention. But when they’re typical, I try to stay out of it; I’m a clown specialist.

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