We need to listen to what students tell us by their actions.

Several weeks ago someone tweeted the question about which students should get priority—the disruptive ones or the ones who want to learn. My response was that we’re asking the wrong questions. We need to ask, why is this student being disruptive? Is this child asking us for help in dealing with difficult situations in his or her life? Is there something we can change about our curriculum and/or instruction that would better meet the needs of this child?

Of course, sometimes the reasons a child is acting out are more complicated and involve factors outside of the school. Still, our response should then be to ask why this child is literally screaming out for our attention.   In a  blog response, Cord Jefferson shares this touching story to illustrate this point:

A kid at her school—a primarily low-income, high-minority middle school serving sixth- through eighth-graders—was acting out. His outbursts were not normal, especially considering how young he was: He was rude, aggressive, destructive, foulmouthed, so angry. I remember my mom saying she was amazed at how much rage could fit into such a tiny body.

At first, the student’s teachers tried putting him in timeout. When that didn’t work, they escalated to trips to the principal’s office. When those didn’t work, he got detention after school. And when that didn’t work either, they started sending him home. But when he’d return from a couple of days at home and immediately start tearing his classrooms apart, the suspensions grew to a week, two weeks.

Still nothing worked, and one day things got scary enough that my mom, accompanied by a police officer, felt it necessary to escort the student home to speak with his parents. When they got to his apartment about a mile away from the school, the weeks of mystery surrounding the boys’ behavior were replaced with instant clarity. His mother, his only guardian, answered the door ashamedly, and out scurried a man, her most recent john.

After some talking and crying, the truth surfaced: The reason the “problem student” behaved so badly is because he knew that if his tantrums were chronic, he’d be sent home. And that was a good thing, because when he was home, his mother couldn’t work as a prostitute. He couldn’t tell any of his teachers this, of course, because then he’d run the risk of child welfare services taking him away from his mother, and he needed to be there to protect her. The boy never hated school, he just loved his mom more. This is how you get so much rage into such a tiny body.

Students act out for reasons: boredom, pain, anger, fear of failure, fear of looking smart, mental illness, learning differences, there’s a whole range of possibilities. Before assuming students are ill-intentioned, we must discover the root cause of student behavior. This is not to say that students shouldn’t have consequences—they should. However, we must remember that students are children, and they’re often sharing information with us the only way they know how. Instead of only focusing on disciplinary action, let’s also take the time to see how we can change the origin of the problem, or change how we’re delivering our curriculum.

We need to listen.