By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor
As most any parent, student, and teacher can tell you, one chronically difficult child can disrupt an entire classroom. Maybe you had that kid in your class growing up, or know of one in your own child's class: he or she might have been the kid who regularly disrupted class; made life difficult for school administrators; or bullied students.
The introduction to the terrific new book, The Behavior Code (Harvard Education Press, 2012) notes that some 10 percent of the school population – roughly 9 to 12 million children – struggle with mental health problems. As The Behavior Code's co-authors Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport note, these kids might be dealing with poverty, violence at home, neglect, a psychiatric disorder, trauma, or are suffering from the effects of an autism-related social deficit.
Indeed, say the co-authors of this book directed at teachers who try all the tricks in the book to help – and save – these kids "are the students teachers fear and even dread having in their classes….Despite their best efforts, school providers do not always do a good job with these students."
So what happens to these explosive kids? They don't simply slip through the cracks but plummet down into the academic abyss, spending days upon days in detention, on suspensions, and falling intractably behind in school. As The Behavior Code notes, "In 2006-2007, only 20 percent of students with emotional and behavioral disturbance (E/BD) ages 14 to 21 who exited the school system received a high school diploma. Of students with E/BD, 48 percent drop out of grades 9-12…After high school, only 30 percent of students with E/BD were employed, and what's worse, 58 percent had been arrested."
These stark statistics don't need to be the norm, insist Minahan and Rappaport. (Minahan is a district-wide behavioral analyst for the Newton, MA public school system; Rappaport is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.) They say that based on their experience counseling teachers and working with problem kids (this book is directed at teachers and parents of elementary-aged children), we can save these kids by looking at these children's behavior – and why they're doing what they're doing.
This is a rare "how-to" manual with golden nuggets of wisdom that offer tangible ways adults can effectively help problem kids. Even when schools and teachers and parents try everything – from reward (and punishment) systems and individual behavioral plans to time-outs and count-downs – their best efforts frequently fail. Why? Because the truly tough kids’ behavior isn’t predicated on the same motivators as most kids. Adults need to take a counter-intuitive approach to “breaking the code” of the most trying behaviors to be able to get through to these students. (An example of their positive discipline approach: For a student who is regularly argumentative, rather than make a direct demand – which invites opposition – leave a note on his desk. "Please stop tapping your pencil.")
It takes hard work – and time – to change their trajectory, but Minahan and Rappaport suggest that with a different approach, teachers, administrators, and parents, can get through to troubled kids. So if you were thinking of giving your favorite teacher a mug at the end of the school year, you may want to get this book instead.