The Challenge of Teaching Troubled Youth
Great teachers are what we all want for our kids. But even the greatest teachers can be stymied by students who are beset with behavioral, mood, or social disorders that make it difficult for them to learn in standard classroom settings. It’s frustrating for the teachers who want to do a good job, it’s disruptive for the other students, and it does nothing for the students whose failing grades send them into deeper spirals of maladaptation.
School shouldn’t be punishment for anyone, teachers or students alike. No one can teach or learn effectively if the focus is on maintaining discipline instead of exploring new concepts and skills. While it can be a hard choice for parents and counselors, the best option is sometimes to take struggling kids out of the traditional classroom and place them in settings designed to deal with their issues while continuing their studies at the same time.
One Solution: Specialized School
One of these options is boarding schools for troubled youth that combine classroom education with counseling and therapy as well as recreational and group activities with peers that foster the emotional and social skills they need to realize their full potential and prepare them for successful adult lives.
Teachers at these schools are experienced in presenting information in ways that otherwise challenged or inattentive students can process and engage in. They’re practiced in motivating these troubled kids into accepting new ways of approaching school work, and opening the opportunities for them to achieve and succeed academically despite their histories of poor or failed performance.
A great benefit to the teaching in residential schools, it should be noted, is that not only are the student-to-teacher ratios low, these facilities treat the whole child beyond the classroom. The underlying problems that cause so much academic underperformance — like depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, PTSD, ODD, drug or alcohol abuse, and so on — are treated in concert with continuing education in traditional subjects, and the entire environment is designed to re-direct a troubled teen in an atmosphere that doesn’t contain the triggers for old behavior patterns.
Students in residential programs come to class with peers facing similar challenges, and while they’re studying history, for example, they’re also learning how to control their impulses, be accepting of themselves, and develop and maintain healthy relationships with other people.
Nonetheless, teaching strategies that are so effective in therapeutic settings can also be useful in standard classrooms. A few ways that these teachers are able to reach troubled kids include:
Start With a Clean Slate
Troubled kids often come from school situations where they’ve been seen as problems and treated as disciplinary cases rather than as individuals with interests and abilities. The only way they know to fight back and protect themselves is to become even more defiant and unwilling to participate in the learning process.
To calm the waters, teachers let these students know that they have no preconceived notions about them and that they’re starting with a clean slate as far as they’re concerned. Knowing that all that matters is what a student does from that point onward lifts the weight of being labeled and gives him or a fresh perspective going forward.
Use Positive Reinforcement
For students to be open to learning, they have to respect both the teacher and the learning process itself. Troubled kids often view teachers as adversaries because in crowded public school classrooms a teacher often doesn’t have the time to do anything but punish misbehavior rather than refocus a student on the reason he or she is in class to begin with.
Praise accomplishments, and compare an achievement not with others in the class but with improvement in the individual student’s progress. A kid who is not used to being praised might reject it or be embarrassed by it, so draw him or her aside for a private conversation to tell him or her you’re proud of what you’re seeing.
Encourage Students to Stretch
A great motivating force is the ability to see what’s possible. A problem student is so conditioned to believe that things are bleak that he or she doesn’t think it’s worth it to even try, and failure becomes the norm. Troubled kids need goals they can reach, and they need to believe that the future holds many more of them. They also have to believe that a false step on the way doesn’t mean doom. Stretching from one realistic goal to the next is not only the way to academic success, but it’s the way to a successful life.
For a public school teacher’s view on dealing with what he calls “tough kids,” check out this article on the George Lucas Educational Foundation website.