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How High Is the Wall?

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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An illustration of a man standing, flexing his arms. His shadow is projected on a wall and is about 6 times bigger than him, looking similar to the Hulk.

It's hard for children to pay attention to classroom activities when they are worried. Sometimes the things they worry about seem trivial to adults who have learned how to measure significance with so many more years of experience in perspective.

Perception and Reality

Children see things like children, not adults. I remember when I was five years old, there was a huge wall on my street that was too high to climb. I fell the first time that I tried to climb it, and it took a month before I tried again. Eventually I overcame the wall and conquered it.

I returned to that street many years later as an adult. The wall that I feared so much was so small that it barely reached my waist. I laughed, but also took note of the differences in perception between children and adults. Children cannot behave as adults because they are not adults.

That wall is a great metaphor for the differences in how we perceive problems. Adults often see a problem as waist-high while a child sees an insurmountable barrier. To children, especially younger ones, very small issues may seem like life-altering problems. Worry over these problems interferes with their classroom attention and, ultimately, their learning. Time resolves many of these problems, but occasionally the worry that a child is experiencing is a lot bigger for them than we realize. In these cases, a caring teacher might help.

The types of problems that children worry about vary greatly, but they tend to focus on issues related to how they feel physically, how others perceive them, something that might get them in trouble, or doing poorly academically. Perhaps their biggest worry is being embarrassed.

Recognizing the Real Issues

Most times, it's very obvious when a student requires attention. For example, consider the child who needs medical attention, who is being bullied or harassed, or who isn't learning. Non-school issues might include a divorce or a death in the family.

Children face other issues that most teachers simply don't have the time to address. With a curriculum to finish and the relentless pressure of testing, as well as more pressing behavior issues in the classroom, we can't stop to deal with every concern that is bothering every child.

The problem is that while these issues seem small to us, they may be symptoms or signs of a much bigger problem that your student might be unable to express or recognize in a more direct manner. Here are a few examples:

  1. A child who excessively complains about a small bruise or scrape might be telling you that she feels ignored. She might be saying, "Please care about me."
  2. A child who says, "My friend called me a bad name," might be expressing a larger fear of abandonment or that no one in class likes him.
  3. A child who loses a small, unimportant item could be expressing a larger fear that she may get in trouble at home because she frequently loses things.
  4. A child who missed one question on a test may fear disappointment or even shame from parents who expect perfection.
  5. A child who appears to be unusually withdrawn might have recently felt or might currently fear embarrassment.
  6. A child who gets his shirt dirty might fear an angry mother who said, "I just bought you that shirt. You'd better take good care of it.”

On the surface, these fears might be too minor for us to spend too much time resolving. However, if they reflect a possible greater danger in your student's mind, their significance is greatly magnified. The problem is recognizing which incidents are precisely as they seem and those that are worth more consideration.

Observing and Asking

The question here is, "How do teachers differentiate a minor incident that requires no further inquiry from one that is a symptom of a more serious problem?" Here are some suggestions that can help you figure it out.

  1. Talk to the student's parents to see if there's a family issue that might be the underlying cause, or if there's been a change in the student's medication.
  2. Notice if there has been a sudden change in the student's behavior.
  3. Watch for unusual isolation from other students.
  4. Notice if the student seems to demand more of your time than usual.
  5. Notice whether other students are teasing him or her more than usual.
  6. Watch for a change in classroom participation.
  7. Pay attention to sudden bursts of anger, sadness, or crying over nothing.

If you notice any of these symptoms over small issues, take few minutes to ask your student a few questions about these issues, including:

  1. What do you think will happen because of _______?
  2. Has this ever happened before? How did it turn out?
  3. What do you usually do to feel better when you feel this way?
  4. How long do you think that it will take you to start focusing on your schoolwork?

Sometimes further inquiry leads nowhere. Other times, you might find that the wall is bigger than it first appeared. Help if you can, but it may be that just by understanding and caring, you might be giving your student all that he or she needs.

Do you have any strategies for helping students when this happens to you?

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Amber Willett's picture

I really like the idea of asking those simple questions to get to the bottom of how a specific student is acting or the behavior they are displaying. This is only my first year teaching, but I have already figured out how to watch a child's behavior and be able to tell if there are problems with them. Some children take family problems a lot different than others. The main strategy that I use is to just observe a student whose behavior has changed and if I notice anything then I talk to them. My students are pretty honest with me.

McKenzie's picture

Seeing things through the perspective of a child is a wonderful thing. It helps educators to gain understanding of the child and their circumstances. I found these guiding questions to be very helpful in having discussions with the child that will lead to their openness and own reflection on misbehavior. I would like to learn more about techniques that can be used to help the child after you know that they have troubled circumstances at home to better focus at school.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi McKenzie,

You just gave me a great idea for my next post. Thanks a lot.

Margaret Shafer's picture
Margaret Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

As I read this post I immediately thought of a recent experience I had with a student. This child is a strong student but since break had been extremely inattentive, no matter what time of day or what activity. I frequently had to tell him to put his book away and tune in to the work we were currently doing. I decided to call his mother and enlist her help in motivating him. As I dialed the phone I paused and changed my strategy. I described his behavior and, instead of complaining about the number of times I call his attention back, I asked if there was anything going on at home that might be bothering him. It turned out that he had lost a beloved grandparent in the last few months. Both the holidays and a history project we were doing in class had made his grief fresh. Knowing the situation didn't immediately solve his problems of inattention, but did give me a fresh perspective and patience with him, as well as creating the opportunity for me to involve our school social worker to give him extra opportunities to talk.

Samyers's picture

This is something I experience on a daily basis in my first grade classroom. From day one I make sure that I come off as present and caring to each student. This allows my first graders to open up and share their feelings when they feel they are facing a huge wall. When we are racing to get our academics in during the day, it is sometimes hard to stop and think from the perspective of a child and really hear what they are telling you. Most of the time it deals with an issue at home, but there have been times where students have felt embarrassed, bullied, or are having issues with peers. I think the idea of asking them simple questions is a great strategy to help these students overcome their problem. Last week I had a student who refused to come out of the bathroom. For the last month he has been emotional and refusing to do work in the classroom. He has a lot of home issues so I assumed it had something to do with that since he was unable to tell me why he was in the bathroom. After observing the situation and talking with another teacher, I was able to hear what had truly happened. Once he was back in the classroom and calmed down, I had a talk with him and ask him questions about what happened right before he ran into the bathroom. He told me he was just embarrassed about what happened and wanted to get away. After he was able to jump over that wall we came up with a plan for the next time. Not even a minute later he was back to his energetic self and had one of his best days yet. I know it takes time to ask the questions but in the end it makes a world of a difference for students and let's them know someone cares. After reading this blog I am going to try to pay attention to comments I hear from a student and use those strategies above. I am very fortunate to have a guidance counselor and a emotional support team across the hallway from me. I have learned a lot of techniques on how to handle issues that arise in the classroom. I look forward to reading your next blog about techniques that can be used to help a child who has a troubled home life and focusing at school.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

McKenzie, depending on what is going on for the student, the answer is different, but here are a few tips for supporting a student who has experienced or is experiencing trauma at home:

I think the main strategies, though, are communication and compassion. Find compassion for the student, even when they are "misbehaving," and communicate with those who also care about the student - parents/guardians, guidance counselors, other teachers. Share ideas and strategies to help support the student as a team.

abigail_pollak's picture
Marketing Assistant

There are studies identified the importance that 'perceptions' play in navigating student transitions.

Charlotte Kingston's picture

I agree with the Dr. Curwin, children cannot behave as adults because they are not adults, however, so many adults do expect for children to behave in a manner that's normally much greater than their age. As a child I had a "GAINT" wall to conquer, so as adults it is advisable to take a step back and look at the situation with a different perspective. The symptoms or signs could be hiding a much bigger problem.

vcrunnfe's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. It is so true that students come with so many worries that we as teachers often overlook or minimize due to our perspective as adults. For most teachers I believe this is unintentional, nonetheless, it can make the child feel as though their teacher doesn't truly care about them. This topic is something that could be shared with teachers frequently to help them to remember to consciously think about how their perspective is different than their students, and how they can best support them.

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