Disruptive behavior in classrooms is an extremely frustrating problem for teachers, as more and more kids with psychiatric and developmental challenges are mainstreamed into classrooms with one teacher and 25 or more youngsters. Michael Winerip, in the New York Times, reports on the unfortunate result when strapped school districts don’t give these kids the support they need to succeed: outbursts and threatening behavior that ends with the out-of-control child being sent to the emergency room. In most cases the kids aren’t admitted to the hospital—they’re just calmed down and sent back to school the next day.
In the case of one particular boy, these violent outbursts happened over and over, until he got a paraprofessional, and then a teacher, who, Winerip writes, “has shown him how to control his behavior.”
These words jumped out at me because I know, from what I’ve seen of parent and teacher training at the Child Mind Institute, that kids who seem out of control are not necessarily seriously disturbed kids or hostile kids or incorrigible kids—they’re often kids who melt down and lash out because they’re overwhelmed by other learning or social deficits that are not always immediately apparent. And they can learn better self-regulation, as well as learning more effective—less dysfunctional—ways to express themselves.
The situation in struggling schools is a very good argument for teacher-child interaction training (TCIT), a program that teaches teachers how to manage disruptive behavior that conventional teaching tricks don’t work with. Child Mind Institute clinicians are test-driving a pilot program of TCIT in several New York City schools right now. And it’s at the heart of a new book by Dr. Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan, which outlines in detail the kind of behavioral psychology-based strategies teachers can use to prevent outbursts and respond more effectively to discourage undesirable behaviors.
The approach in the book—called The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students—starts with teachers recognizing that most kids would behave well if they could, and working to understand the deficits that are causing these kids to fail to do so. We’d like to see a lot more teachers equipped with the skills Rappaport and Minahan have been teaching a few teachers at a time for decades. In the meantime, a lot of kids are losing out on learning, causing other kids to lose out, and leading teachers to lose the satisfaction they can and should get from contributing so much to better the lives of children.