Children Left Behind

Every class has at least one.

Some of them have perpetual chips on their shoulders. They bristle at every perceived offense, whether it comes from a peer or the teacher. "Bristle" isn't the right word, because often the bristling turns into an explosion: shouting, a tirade that cannot be turned off no matter what the likely consequence will be. At times, the shouting may give way to outright violence: hitting, kicking, battery with some convenient object. In the music room, those objects are mallets and xylophone bars; in regular classrooms, they may include pencils. The eruption can only be stilled when the child leaves the room, hopefully voluntarily, but sometimes only with the help of a staff member summoned with an emergency call to the office.

Some of them are simply curious. They wander around the room, picking up and manipulating anything that catches their eye, and nothing short of restraints will still them from this activity. Again, consequences are useless: the drum must be hit, the recorder blown, the keyboard turned on and played.

At the other end of the spectrum are the moody ones: withdrawn, their faces clouded with sadness or with weepy anger. They refuse to participate, communicating only by snapping at anyone who tries to draw them out. They may hide under tables, sit in corners, curl up in a sitting or supine fetal position. If they're wearing hoodies, they may cinch up the hood around their heads until there's only a small air hole.

And then there are the mischief makers. Share an expectation with the class, and these children will knowingly, intentionally, blatantly defy it. The more the teacher emphasizes the rule, the more attractive its violation. Their misbehavior spans both the material and the interpersonal realms: remove them from the peers they will not leave alone, and they turn immediately to playing with forbidden objects. Whatever or whoever they are interacting with, the goal is simply to disrupt.

As any teacher can tell you, there's at least one in every class. Chances are, that one is an amalgam of all these types, manifesting a constant cycle of fury, depression, withdrawal, hyperactivity, and mischief. Some can be wooed with simply extrinsic behavior plans: earning points toward rewards with a clipboard, agreeing to swap good behavior for a cherished leadership role in the classroom. The hardest cases, though, don't respond to such superficial strategies. Something is deeply, traumatically broken inside these children, and mainstreaming is a detriment to both their education and that of their peers.

Today I had a fourth grade class that behaved better than they have since changing teachers two months ago. The reason seemed clear to me: the two most troubled children were absent, and the other two were moderating their behavior. On the other hand, I had a fifth grade class that was hijacked by outrageously defiant behavior from a child who's never given me trouble before. I think the latter case was an exception--most likely, there's something going on at home that I don't know about--but in the former, when their classroom teacher came to pick them up, I saw by the smile on her face that she, too, was having a lovely day without those children in her room.

The Reynolds School District has a facility for children whose behavior is so violently disruptive that they cannot be mainstreamed. It's called Four Corners, and it has a staff-to-student ratio that is at least 1:1. Only the most extreme cases go to Four Corners for the simple reason that the district can't afford to expand the criteria. This means that students like the fourth grade girl who will not rest until she is sent to the office, where she'd rather be than in any educational activity, remain in classes where their behavior holds back the learning of all their peers. If it weren't for the 2-3% of students at Margaret Scott who are like her, I'd be much farther along with my music curriculum. I expect test scores would be up school-wide, as well.

But we do have them, more of them than I've encountered at any other school. I suspect poverty has a lot to do with that: as the administrator I work with on music budgeting told me, trauma is a part of the daily life of many of our students. In an ideal world, we'd be able to provide these kids with the support they--and their teachers--need: aids in the classroom, space in the school where they can "de-escalate" from the multiplicitous stimuli of crowded classrooms, raucous lunchrooms, hectic playgrounds, mental health specialists who can counsel them through the uncontrollable passions that so often end in referrals for them and injuries for their classmates.

As you know from the preceding paragraphs, though, I do not teach in an ideal world. Far from it: I'm lucky to be in a classroom that I share with a computer lab, the presence of which is forcing me for the last two months of the school year to teach afternoon classes in the gym while students occupy my space to take Smarter Balance tests. Next year, it will become even less ideal, as an influx of more children leads to more classes, I'm forced back into the gym full time, and PE is taught outdoors on nice days, in the cafeteria when there's rain, and in classrooms when the cafeteria's in use. There's just no room for these children to be pulled out of the activities they find unbearably stressful, and so both they and their classmates suffer.

You may think, at this point, that I'm discouraged, and to some extent, I am. I will readily admit that, when I learned today that one of the fourth grade high flyers who has been a constant thorn in my side will not be coming to music anymore, the feeling that overwhelmed me was relief. And then came the sadness: I really do want to teach music to all the students of this school, to win over those who don't like it, convince them that singing, playing, and dancing are some of the most wonderful things human beings can do. But I've lost this one, and I don't know if she'll ever come back. Her parents are simply fed up with the referrals, and can't think of anything that will make her behave, so they're giving up on her.

This doesn't happen often, though I hear teachers threaten it to students who often have trouble controlling their impulses when they're in the music room. I wish it didn't happen at all; but again, the child who is made to sit in the classroom doing homework rather than being in the music room has a history of derailing lessons, and I have to admit class is easier without him or her there.

Knowing that, feeling it, I quickly move to guilt, and to a sense that I've failed this child. But really, the failure, if there is any, is at a much higher level: this district has not given any of us the resources to truly individualize education, to be creative with the squirrely kids, the morose kids, the traumatized hiding-under-the-desk kids. And so all of us--high flyers, their classmates, and we their teachers--suffer.

Someday, I hope this will change. Perhaps artificial intelligence will progress to the point at which every child can have a constant companion in his or her pocket, an aide to turn to when reading the worksheet is too difficult, when the presence of a particular child at the next desk is more interesting than the lesson, when fidgety arms and legs cannot be contained. Where the Reynolds School District can't afford aides, it has certainly demonstrated it can find the funds for iPads and laptops. When every child has an app that can listen to all that's troubling and, more than that, diagnose a child's emotional condition, then maybe we'll finally have peace in the classroom, and start making up that huge achievement gap between our education system and that of almost every other democracy in the world.

In the meantime, all I can do is what our principal throws around a bit too liberally when asked about how to deal with a class that contains four or five high flyers: "Just love them." And I do. Some of my favorite children at this school have been struggling in the last few months, as I've documented again and again through referrals and "corral cards" (Minor referrals that go home with the child). I do love my students, even the most challenging ones, and I want every one of them to succeed in music, to become a lifelong musician.

I won't succeed at that. Oh, some of them will be inspired, others will outgrow their developmental issues, still others will finally experience stability in their parents' relationships or their home address. I've seen some children who were high flyers in 2013, or even just earlier this school year, clean up their acts in huge ways. Mostly, though, I've just got to keep loving them, and letting them know that I do through my presence wih them. And when you stop to think about it--how many of these behaviors are things over which the child has no control, that are most likely caused by something going wrong at home--perhaps you can begin to feel the empathy I do for them, even as they're derailing yet another lesson that could rock their worlds if they could just sit still for a minute.


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