Mindsets for Teachers of Children with Emotional and Behavior Disorders: #4 Creativity is Vital to Survival

Creativity is vital to survival.

It’s easy to get upset when an administrator suspended our students or assigns them to alternative education placements. I would go as far as to say that it offends me. I take it personally because I feel there’s something that we could have done something better. We could have intervened quicker, provided better support for the student, or come up with a consequence that would have a more lasting positive effect than letting them get to stay home or in any other way allow them to escape the problem.

Talk to my students daily about the goal of coming to school. The main goal obviously is to learn right? Therefore every behavior they engage in must be in some way related to accomplishing that goal. As the teacher it is my duty to make sure I help them learn the necessary skills so they can attain that goal every day. My function is not to make them do it, it’s to teach them how to do it for themselves. But these kids don’t want to stay in school, right? So how do we do this? Often times, creativity in the moment is the key to survival.

Let’s think of this scenario. Michael is a third grade student who detests math. Every day during math, he yells out, talks to other students, and taps his pencil loudly. The teacher in her frustration calls for the assistant principal, who comes down and takes Michael to the office, talks to him for a while, then sends him back to class an hour later. The next day, as math class begins, Michael starts his routine of yelling out and acting a compete fool. This time Michael is escorted to the office and is told to sit on a bench until he can be seen by the assistant principal and is given work assignments to complete while he waits. Two hours later, the assistant principal calls Michael into the office. Not only has Michael not completed any assignments, he hasn’t started a single one. When the AP talks to him, Michael comes out with every reason he couldn’t do the math work; he was sick, his head hurt, his poison ivy rash made his arm itch so much he couldn’t write, and his dog died so he couldn’t concentrate on the work. He was playing the sympathy card now and it appeared to be working. The assistant principal got Michael to admit he was disrupting the classroom, had him make an apology to the teacher and sent him back to class for time served. However, the next day it happens again, only this time Michael gets two hours away from class and in-school-suspension for the remainder of the day. The behavior continues when Michael returns the following day and this time he gets in-school-suspension for two days. Do you see a trend here? Michael kept playing the hand he’d been dealt, and it was paying off every time, each time with increased pay off. Michael was using his creativity to avoid having to do work and no one was to catching on. This is an example of a time when we need to out manipulate the manipulation. Michael has worked out the system. If he acts up he will be removed from the demand. Give everyone a diversion story and he gains sympathy, gain sympathy and he will never be held accountable.

However armed with another weapon I am determined to out manipulate this manipulation. When you rationally detach yourself from the crisis, you can begin a situation analysis of this problem. We have determined that Michael is desperately trying to get out of work and learning. Let’s try to give him the opposite of that. The opposite of avoiding the demand would be to maintain it. Eventually, Michael will reach a point when he will want something. I’m guessing that he has a strong desire to want to go home on time today. I’m also guessing that if he doesn’t go home on time today, things are going to be very inconvenient for him. You see I listen to lunch time conversation and I am aware of the new game console that he just got this past weekend, and he really wants to play it as soon as he gets home. Getting home late will really put a damper on that plan, what a bummer. I can empathize with that. Now you have a mutual problem. You both have to stay after school in order to get what you need accomplished. Being the rationally detached adult, I realize this situation can be manipulated to my advantage and the student will hopefully learn something in the end. I’m accustomed to staying after school, it’s really not an inconvenience for me. But in order for an intervention like this to work I have to be able to make a connection. I need to convey some empathy here. I want to show that I’m put out, but that I’m more than willing to make the sacrifice for this noble cause. At least that is what I want him to believe. I want him to know I can and will stick it out as long as I need to. He has the choice to minimize the damage and you still get what you want in the end. Here some creative problem-solving and collaborating can lead you down the path of crisis resolution.

Recently I was working with a 4th grader in an E/BD classroom. We were working on an assignment on measurement. He did wonderful, not only did he learn the concept he was able to expand on it and relate information from his own life. This student is not known for being loquacious, so it was cause for celebration. Earlier he had shown me a lima bean seed he had germinated in wet paper towel. He was very excited that it had grown so much and even sprouted a single leaf. He was however a little disappointed that he could not plant his lima bean sprout since he did not have any dirt. What a coincidence, I live not even a mile from the school this child attends, and it just so happens that I had an open bag of potting soil at my house. Do you see where I am going with this? I asked the teacher if it was okay to fetch a small amount of potting soil for this student to plant his sprout. After all, he was maintaining on-task behaviors, displaying appropriate manners, had good self-control, was engaged in learning and completing assignments, all at once I might add. I asked him if he would like to have some dirt to plant his sprout with and he smiled one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen. Assuming that was a yes, I told him as soon as he asked, I would go and get some soil from my house. I pretended to anxiously wait by whistling and tapping my foot. After a few seconds he asked “Can you go get me some dirt to plant my seed while I do my work?” I responded with “Since you asked so nicely and have been doing all your work and have done such a good job working with me, ABSOLUTELY, thank you so much for asking!” (I have a tendency to be a little bit of a ham in the classroom. Try it, it works.) I immediately left and was back in 15 minutes with a large zip-lock bag full of potting soil. My only regret is that I did not get the chance to stay to see him plant that seed. But I did stop by the next morning to see it. He was very proud of it, as was I.

What did I learn from this, dirt is a good reinforcer? Well no, as much as I would like to think that, I wish it were that simple. Reinforcers do not have to be limited to praise or prizes. Sometimes activity reinforcers serve as extremely powerful reinforcers as much as any prize or praise. Sometimes the spontaneity and creativity of a reinforcer can have great value, especially when it appeals to a child’s interest at that moment. What I liked the most was that he was not going into a corner and zoning out for a few minutes for a break. This was an activity that not only peaked his interest, but allowed him to engage in learning while he was doing it. Obviously, I don’t plan to drop everything and run to my house or the store every time a student does something great or asks for a reward. But I have taught this student that rewards can be learning activities. Many times you already have the materials you need for activity reinforcers, if you take a look around your classroom. They can be cheap and often times require little effort to provide. You can provide them as individual as well as group activities. When it comes to activity reinforcement, find out what your students like, be creative, and be spontaneous.


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