What Makes an Unruly Student?
By Robert Schroeder
Thirty kids in a classroom—sometimes more. Thirty different personalities for one teacher to manage, massage and mitigate. The sheer numbers force teachers to channel the problem child or two down the same narrow behavioral path as the other students.
National Louis University's Pauline Williams, Ed.S., adjunct faculty in the National College of Education, says that approach, while understandable, may create more harm than good for students with emotional disabilities. Her doctoral dissertation, "Bartering 'ability' for social and economic status: Perceptions of individuals labeled with emotional disability regarding their high school programs and experiences," presented at a conference at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England July 1, found that high school students with emotional disabilities say they are not gaining the necessary skills to enter the post-secondary world.
"There is a sense of ambivalence with being identified with these difficulties," Williams said. "If we were to take into consideration the individuality of these students and the specific strengths that they themselves bring, maybe the programs they are put in would be a lot more supportive."
What complicates the roles of high school teachers and school psychologists is that most students with emotional disabilities do not self-identify with the label. Williams says they readily agree when other students are given the label but cannot always make the connection with their own behavior. Students with emotional disabilities tend to veer off from teachers' lesson plans, and some school psychologists spend the majority of their time trying to manage students back on track.
The solution, Williams says, is to provide an individualized approach pairing a high school's best resources with a student's unique needs. Williams says high schools can start by assigning veteran teachers with the skill sets and experience to support students with emotional disabilities, as opposed to a first or second-year teacher. Teachers may need to revise their curriculum socially and culturally to fit the needs of these students, rather than channeling these students through general curriculum.
"If you have really serious, respectful dialogue with these students, they can assist in coming up with the types of programs," William said. "Of course they need the core curriculum, but if you are going to do social-emotional learning, maybe they could be involved in that discourse."
At the administrative level, Williams says principals and deans can provide support and encouragement for teachers who may need to take requests for additional resources to school boards. School psychologists can take on the role of student advocate more often, especially in student-staff meetings. Williams says school psychologists should be willing to go the extra mile to really investigate what is taking place in students' lives.
"What is considered to be really outlandish behavior in one setting might not necessarily be considered the same in another," Williams said.
Ultimately, high school students with emotional disabilities need to leave high school with a developed sense of self-awareness, management skills and social awareness that will enable them to function successfully in higher education and the job market. Williams hopes to expand her research by launching a pilot program with a small group of students with emotional disabilities, focusing on engaging in dialogue to uncover what techniques have an impact on these students.