In my first few years of teaching, before I had children, I spent the first week after school ended sleeping and reading. I needed to catch up on both those things. (When my children are grown I plan to return to this. Sleeping and reading are precious.) Most of what I read that week each summer was light, fun. After about a week sleeping and reading would bore me. I needed more. So I began to read the professional books I’d been eyeing all year but hadn’t been able to tackle as I tried to keep my head above water as a new teacher. Then it would get ugly. I’d read these books and reflect on the previous year(s) and I’d fall into a funk. All I could see were the ways in which I’d failed my students by not doing this, that, and the other.
Now, as I am wrapping up my 19th year in the classroom, I am having a bit of a flashback. For the past fifteen years or so I’ve done a better job of reading professional books during the school year (my summers aren’t quite as open and free as they once were, a result of a variety of choices I’ve made). I no longer hit the summer and beat myself up for not being the teacher I want to be. I can read professional books, reflect on them, try things, reflect some more, try some more, and so on. But I just finished reading Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How we Can Help Them by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. And I’m doing a bit of berating myself for not reading it sooner. (It was published in 2008.)
The big idea of the book is kids do well if they can (also the title of the second chapter). Greene’s premise is that children aren’t challenging because they’re lazy, or seeking attention, or trying to manipulate us. They are challenging because they lack certain skills that would help them do well. Their behavior is maladaptive because they do not have the skills for adaptive behaviors. As a result, rewards and punishments are not going to help these challenging students. If they just needed the right motivation or consequences then their behavior would change. For some students we’ve been trying rewards and punishments for years without success. And yet we continue.
I’m having a flashback because reading this book makes me feel the way all those professional books did when I was a new teacher. It shined a spotlight on how I have failed students. I got rid of any sort of structured reward or punishment system from my classroom years ago. I knew I didn’t believe in that. But that didn’t mean I had a better plan. For the majority of my students, the ones who have strong skills that allow them to be successful, having or not having a reward system doesn’t matter. For my challenging students, having such a system would just be a constant reminder of all they can’t do. Yet.
Lost at School is structured in an interesting way. In each chapter Greene lays out or reinforces the philosophical beliefs behind his ideas. He then explains how to implement them. There’s a Q & A section that is informative, as well as sometimes humorous. Finally, each chapter ends with The Story Continues… In the very beginning Greene starts a story with a specific student, teacher, and administration. Throughout the book that story continues, widening to include more of the people in the school. I found it quite helpful to have all of these pieces woven together.
I’m sorry I read this book in the last month of school. I’m sorry I waited almost ten years to read it. (Full disclosure, Greene also wrote a book titled, The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. It was originally published in 1998, the year I began teaching. I wish I had read it then. I’m reading it now.) But I’m glad I’ve read it now. I will reread it, maybe many times. I’m starting to try some of the ideas. Even without that, I’m finding myself responding to students differently. The kicker is, the way I’m responding now? It fits my beliefs about children. The way I’ve been responding for years didn’t. I’ve only begun this journey but I’m looking forward to next year and continuing to problem solve with my students.