By Molly Breen
About six weeks (or less) into the school year, the bloom is off the rose. That is to say, school is no longer novel, compelling, or inspiring, and some children begin to complain that they “hate school.” Does this sound familiar? And how about when, after a school break or a family vacation, a child who was well-established in school routines and seemed to be secure and fulfilled at school suddenly switches gears to sobbing at drop-off and not participating during the day? What’s a teacher to do when a child simply doesn’t want to go to school?
I often visualize dedicated educators as emotional detectives, piecing together clues from observation, direct experience, and parent/caregiver anecdotes. Once all the pieces are in place, what seemed like a puzzle becomes a much clearer whole picture. But where do we begin? Certainly the answer is not to take the child’s behavior personally; if we did this every time a child complained, none of us would be coming back to work on Monday. Instead, we should begin our detective work by carefully considering several key features of the child’s emotional experience, with a goal of getting to the root cause.
First, determine which level of mistaken behavior the distress is coming from. Author Dan Gartrell uses the phrase “mistaken behavior” to distinguish from “misbehavior,” because “misbehavior” carries the implication that the behavior was intentional (and therefore makes punishment seem appropriate). If we think of children’s inappropriate actions as mistaken behavior, we have the opportunity to guide them toward learning and correcting. According to Gartrell, mistaken behavior has three recognizable levels:
- Experimenting—generally testing limits and trying things out; easy to correct and redirect
- Socially influenced—colluding behaviors or mimicry that are more relational and have to be dismantled from the inside out
- Strong needs—repeat behaviors that build over time and require coping strategies for development and/or addressing unmet needs
With this framework in place, we can use a more systematic and research-based approach to guiding development out of challenging behavior instead of relying on our instincts or on what worked in the past. The cornerstone of guidance practice based on mistaken behavior is context: the who, what, when, where, and how of the behavior. This will help us get to the why.
Next, observe for context. This includes checking in with parents/caregivers about any information that is being shared by children at home. Questions include: Are children reporting anything about school, friends, or teachers specifically that would have an effect on their connection to school? Children may say things like, “Teacher Macie is scary,” or “The big kids are mean and don’t let me play on the slide.” These are helpful indicators when we are piecing together the context for school avoidance. Observation should also include checking in with teachers and, quite literally, objectively observing the behavior: When is it happening and with how much frequency/intensity? Take a look at the environment: Has there been a change to the school environment or, for example, the drop-off procedures? How is the environment set up to support or not to support children and families?
Finally, create an individual behavior plan around the school aversion/avoidance. Consider the contextual factors and, if possible, get the collaboration and support of the family. This is not a time to reinvent the wheel! Use existing templates, easily searchable on the web if they aren’t in use in your setting, so that everyone (parents, teachers, school administrators, and children) have the same point of reference for the plan. Don’t be afraid to iterate! If after a week or more you don’t see any progress, try another approach and document the outcome—there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to child development and behavior guidance.
If we set our intentions on understanding children’s needs and collaborating to guide their development, if we rely upon research for our decision-making, and if we remain open to iteration, we can be the supersleuths all children deserve.
Molly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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