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59 DECEMBER 2003
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The perspectives of “difficult” students on belonging and inclusion in the classroom

Julia Ellis, Susan Hart, and Jan Small-McGinley

"I think everyone should have a friend to lean on when you're sad" – Megan G. Aged 9, a fourth grader at Lennox, South Dakota.

Students with a history of behavioral problems helped produce a videotape program on best practices for teaching this challenging population. In a series of interviews, these students from an alternative junior high school provided a range of viewpoints on issues related to inclusion, time-out, and prevailing discipline practices. What we learn is that difficult students have great needs for belonging but typically feel much less included than their well-behaving peers.

What makes the child difficult in my world is often the strength the child needs to deal with his or her daily world. – H. Pepneck-Joyce, an inclusive education teacher, personal communication, April 1997

Although the discipline policies of schools and the classroom management practices of teachers are adequate for the large majority of students, school programs clearly are not helping the students who repeatedly find themselves disciplined through detentions, use of time-out, and suspensions. Many of these students are eventually transferred to alternative educational programs. If excluded even from these settings, the last place these young people end up may be prison.

Our society has become increasingly concerned about and frustrated by youth violence. Lindquist and Molnar (1995) offered a list of factors that contribute to youth violence: poverty, disintegrating home environments, child abuse, the romanticization of violence in our culture, the materialistic nature of our culture, and pressures to achieve. Understanding youth violence as a cultural problem suggests that adults should take collective responsibility for all children rather than focusing on punishment and holding only one view–that individuals should take responsibility for their actions. In a discussion of the many roots of violence, Brendtro and Long (1995) noted the following:

  1. Broken social bonds that produce adult-detached children;

  2. Unmanageable levels of stress and conflict in families, neighborhoods, or schools;

  3. Pro-violence messages in our culture; and

  4. Brain-based problems (e.g., neurological problems or impairment by substance abuse) that trigger aggression.

They described many of these youth as “psychological orphans, children of rage and rebellion who are forever biting the hand that didn’t feed them” (p. 52).

Given the complexity and breadth of social and biological issues that can be entailed in students' behavior, it is little wonder that teachers and school administrators may sometimes feel at a loss as to what to do or where to begin in order to make any real difference. Further, because school programs are not the apparent “cause” of problem behaviors, it may not seem that changes in school practices are likely to provide any substantial solution. Nevertheless, in this study we endeavored to learn students' views about how classroom practices could better support students in whom behavioral difficulties develop.

Researching the perspectives of difficult students
In our research we worked with junior high students in an alternative education program for young people with a history of behavioral difficulties in school. The program was housed in its own self-contained school and served a small suburban school district on the outskirts of a major city in Alberta, Canada. We invited all 33 students in the program to work with us to make a video program that would convey their ideas about how teachers can make classrooms more supportive places. Of the 33 students, 23 were interested; however, only 10 (7 boys and 3 girls) submitted all required consent forms. One student was 13 years old, seven were 14, and two were 15.

Each of the 10 students was interviewed three times. All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. First and last interviews with each student were also videotaped. Excerpts from these videotapes were used in the video program Listen Up! Kids Talk About Good Teaching (1997).

The interviews
The student interviews were unstructured and open-ended. At the beginning of the first interviews, students were asked to reflect back on elementary school experiences and to formulate advice they would offer to student teachers or beginning teachers about how to make the classroom a more supportive place for all students. When students ran out of ideas, they were prompted to think about memories from specific grade levels or teachers they had, particularly admired or appreciated. In follow-up interviews, students were asked to clarify or expand on points they had made in previous interviews and to offer any further ideas that they could think of. Through this open-ended approach and through following the students' lead in terms of topics, we hoped to avoid introducing language or terminology and ideas that did not come from the students' own perspectives.

The video program
In the video program we endeavored to include a representative cross-section of all the students' ideas. The majority of these ideas are presented by the students themselves through their own stories.

Overall, the students shared many ideas and stories about both helpful and unhelpful ways to respond to misbehavior. They were at a loss, however, as to what to do if a student persists in “goofing off,” given that the shock value of being sent to the principal’s office soon wears off. Their best solutions seemed to be offered in the preventative practices of “winning over” the problem student. The majority of the students spoke strongly and articulately about the importance of feeling respected by the teacher. A teacher who respects students is respected in return and thereby gains much more cooperation and goodwill from students. Conversely, students said that if they didn’t feel respected by the teacher, they wouldn’t do anything for him or her. The teacher’s caring was also seen as positive, especially in the form of efforts by the teacher to provide encouragement, support learning needs, make learning enjoyable, and provide treats or gifts to all students on special occasions. One student talked about the relationship between caring and respect in the following way:

Like, if a kid thinks a teacher cares about him, it’s kind of like how you treat your mother. Some of the ways you treat your mother might start rubbing off on your teacher. Without even thinking, you’d start treating the teacher with more respect. Just because the teacher was nice to you that one time would make the kid feel like there is someone who does care out there and someone who does care where you’re going in life.

Analysis of interview transcripts
In studying the interview transcripts, we studied the students' stories, but we also tried to discern some of the dynamics that had brought these young people to the alternative education program. Although some adults might dismiss the student’s point of view, we believe that understanding how young people experience events can provide insight into the significance of practices and policies in classrooms and schools. We identified two main themes in the students' stories:

  1. Students with particularly high needs for belonging and inclusion in the classroom were more likely to get less of it than their more advantaged peers; and

  2. Students with particularly high needs for encouragement and affirmation were more likely to get less of it than their more advantaged classmates. In this article, we discuss the first theme

Less inclusion and belongingness
Having a feeling of belongingness in the classroom is understandably important to students. Two students talked about this in the following dialogue:

Student 1: If they [students] don’t feel like they belong inside the classroom, they’re not going to want to learn inside the classroom. If they do feel like they belong in the classroom, they probably feel like the teacher is nice and they've got a lot of friends in there. They’re gonna want to do a lot of work.

Student 2: If they [students] feel that they’re part of the class, then they feel wanted; they’re not somebody on the side like a piece of dirt. If they don’t feel like they’re part of the class, then they go home and tell their parents, “Oh, I don’t want to go back to school. I don’t like school any more.”

Interviewer: You have said if a teacher cares, you feel really wanted. How important are those things?

Student 2: It’s kind of mainly feeling part of the class.

If students do not experience a secure sense of belongingness and affiliation in their life outside of the school, they can have particularly high needs for connection, inclusion, and belongingness in the classroom itself. Sadly, their lack of emotional nurturance outside of school can lead to troubled behavior in the classroom that may in fact diminish their opportunities for experiencing inclusion there.

The consequences of being scolded publicly
One student said that when a teacher yells at you, “It makes you feel like everyone else in the class is better than you.” As a result, he would carry his anger home and act on it, and – before the day was done – everyone else in his family would also be angry and yelling. It is easy to imagine how the cycle can keep repeating itself.

One student related that when the teacher yelled at her, it made her feel as if she “wasn’t part of the class,” it embarrassed her, and she lost friendships because students then began to ridicule her for getting into trouble. This is a strong story about the way a teacher’s publicly expressed negative judgment of a child can give other students permission to also marginalize their peer. Confronting, accusing, or criticizing a student in front of the class can easily start a “fire” of taunting and jeering.

Because adults usually feel the same way about public scoldings, they should understand and empathize with young people. Being reprimanded in front of one’s colleagues or fellow staff members is very different from having something brought privately to one’s attention.

On a “bad day” it can be difficult for teachers to refrain from public reprimands. These students knew all about bad days and spoke with admiration of teachers who were good at diffusing tension rather than exacerbating it. Students suggested that on bad days the teacher should interject an activity (a game, song, or silent reading) to change the moods of the class members and the teacher. One student told contrasting stories of two teachers' responses to his own favorite “stress response” of throwing crumpled paper into the wastepaper basket from where he was sitting. To his great anger and humiliation, his third-grade teacher made him stay in at lunch hour and vacuum the entire classroom floor while she and the custodian watched. His seventh-grade teacher responded by asking “Who threw that?” and then “pegging” both him and his desk partner with crumpled pieces of paper, which started the whole class throwing crumpled paper. After 5 minutes, the teacher called out: “Two points for every ball in the basket!” The classroom was clean in 3 more minutes and the mood was settled.

Kids needing help finding a “place” in the classroom
Until children know what is expected of them in the classroom and find these expectations sensible, it can be difficult for them to experience a “rightful place" (Bettelheim, 1994). In the meantime, some young people may try out a variety of attention-seeking behaviors in their efforts to secure a place for themselves. Although existing theories and folk wisdom suggest that such behaviors should be ignored, several of our students suggested otherwise:

If kids act up, they probably want a lot of attention. Ways the teacher can settle them down during class time would be by doing something that’s not expected of a teacher to do, like letting the child know that they realize that they [sic] want attention. If you give them what they want for attention, then they’ll probably get back to work. If you don’t give them their attention, then they’re going to want to keep on going and get carried away and get in trouble.

The main thing about class clowns is teachers don’t like them, and I don’t see why. I’ve talked to some good friends that are really smart, and they say, “I respect a class clown. They add entertainment to a class. They make it entertaining – not a dull, boring routine.” A lot of teachers don’t like it, but I’ve had a lot of teachers who laugh when I’m being a class clown. Class clowns are important, but they just need to know when to do it, and teachers can help with that. If they’re being a goof at the wrong time, you just come over to them quietly and say, “These are the times you should do it, and these are the times you shouldn't.” And also laugh at their jokes a few times just to make them feel good.

These students' comments show that they want the teacher’s help and support in finding belongingness and a sense of place in the classroom. Bettelheim (1994) has argued that a “rightful place” cannot be granted but can only be earned by contributing in a real way to the welfare of the community. He pointed out that in classrooms, most of the work students do is for the purpose of being a contributing member of society at some future time. To have a rightful place in the classroom now, students need to contribute in some important way to the operation and well-being of that classroom. Many teachers have shared stories about how they have “turned around” a difficult student by inventing a special way in which the student could support the work and activities of the classroom.

How young children can experience time-out
When young children feel abandoned in their life outside of school, their troubled behavior in the classroom can lead to even more of a sense of disconnection when timeouts are used without care or thoughtfulness. The following excerpts are from an interview with a student who talked about how the use of time-out exacerbated her feelings of alienation and isolation. She talked about how teachers could be more helpful and why some students may really need that kind of help:

Interviewer: Do you think time-outs work for kids?

Student: Time-out rooms I don’t believe work for kids because for me, when I was in grade school, the time-out room felt like I was in jail, and I felt quite alone.

Interviewer: If teachers aren’t going to use time-outs what should they do instead?

Student: If a kid is misbehaving in class, it might be a good idea to send them to the back of the room. ... When a child is angry or in timeout, it’s important for a teacher to ask them [sic] how they’re feeling because the children can get their anger out a lot easier without getting into trouble, and they feel a lot better.

Interviewer: How important is that for most kids?

Student: For me, it would be very important. When I lived in one of my foster homes, my foster mom never used to give me a chance to talk about anything, so I’d always have tantrums. Other places you don’t always get a chance to express yourself. School is different ... A lot of children come from abusive families where they don’t care much about the kids. A lot of kids come to school looking forward to having a better time. When a child knows that a teacher cares, it makes them have a lot better life.

Interviewer: How can teachers show that kind of care?

Student: Talking to them and asking them how they feel when they’re upset, giving them attention, being nice. When I was in Grade 1, my teacher had a kid [be] principal 1 day each week. If the kids did something wrong, the kid principal would tell them what to do, but they couldn’t send them on a timeout. The kid principal could choose when reading time and break time was. It made me feel like the teacher cared because the teacher took her own time to let us have some fun time.

This student was able to articulate the value of having teacher support for expressing feelings, telling one’s troubles, and securing empathy. She understood that without such an outlet or support for calming down, she got into more trouble. In other parts of her interviews, she suggested that even if teachers can’t relate to a child's experiences, they should still say to the child that they understand how the child is feeling. This student did not expect the teacher to “fix” her outside-of-school life, but she did want the teacher to listen to her troubles and help her have a better time at school. Some teachers in special classes (e.g., resource room, adaptation) have developed cueing signals that either students or teachers can use to ask each other for a private conversation about the student’s troubles or behavior (Ellis, 1998).

The poor get poorer with out-of-school suspensions
Students also talked about out-of-school suspensions:

Interviewer: Do you think suspensions work for kids?

Student: It depends what their parents are like, because if they don’t get grounded or anything, it’s nothing. In-school is better than out-of-school because then they’re going to have to smarten up and do their work. Then you can’t do really bad stuff – vandalism or whatever.

It is obvious from these observations that students with the least available supervision outside of school will suffer the most from extreme exclusionary practices such as out-of-school suspensions. As Brendtro and Long (1995) articulated, every child needs to be somewhere, and if we send students away from our classrooms on out-of-school suspensions, prison may become their last “somewhere.”

As adult members of a culture and a community, we have to find more constructive and humane ways to collectively respond to and take responsibility for helping our children and youth. As one of the students in our study said about punishment, “We can learn from it, but it doesn’t help us out much.” And if, as was the case in our research, those students who need the most in terms of inclusion and belongingness are actually getting less than their well-behaving peers, it is imperative that we search for ways to remedy the situation. The students are telling us that what teachers and schools do or don’t do makes a vital difference.

Bettelheim, B. (1994). Seeking a rightful place. The NAMTA Journal, 19(2), 101–118.

Brendtro, L., & Long, N. (1995). Breaking the cycle of conflict. Educational Leadership, 52(5), 52–56.

Ellis, 1. (1998). Teachers establishing mentoring relationships with students. Unpublished manuscript.

Lindquist, B., & Molnar, A. (1995). Children learn what they live. Educational Leadership, 52(5), 50–51.

Listen up! Kids talk about good teaching [videotape]. (1997). Calgary, Canada: Mighty Motion Pictures.

This feature: Ellis, J.; Hart, S. & Small-McGrinley, J. (1998). The perspectives of “difficult” students on belonging and inclusion in the classroom. Reclaiming Child and Youth. Vol.7 No.3 pp.142-146

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