Question of the day. WHY?

In general, we are not very good at using descriptors correctly when reporting a student’s behaviors. We just aren’t. There is a whole lot of assuming and misinterpretation going on when we talk about students. And that makes us part of the problem. We are not often asked to explain what we mean, how we have arrived at our conclusions. We are not in the practice of asking our colleagues to clarify. We don’t like to offend.

We should check ourselves and not use the following language. Temper tantrum, off task, inattentive, attention seeking, impulsive, nervous, angry, sad, happy, lazy, oppositional, power and control, avoidance…etc. These are assumptions and opinions, not clear descriptors. And think about your first inclination when you hear these descriptors. Too many of us jump right into treating these as behavioral issues needing correction. Bigger stickers, fewer points, less recess, more rewards, contracts. We become punitive as we see these behaviors as ones the students can control, that being lazy or inattentive can be corrected if the student is just motivated to be less so.

Picture in your mind what a temper tantrum looks like, what observable behaviors that includes. I can guarantee that you and I have different beliefs about what that looks like. One of us may consider stomping feet as a temper tantrum, one may think a temper tantrum is only a temper tantrum if it includes crying, screaming, whaling, whining. One of us may think temper tantrums are only for wee ones, the other might feel that adults can have temper tantrums. Some see these outbursts as brat behavior.

Now consider how often we assume the student is attention seeking. How in the world do we know with certainty that a student is doing something just for attention? And, why do we assume seeking attention is a negative thing? There is no objectivity in this term. It has a strong negative connotation. We observe a behavior and assume it as ‘just attention seeking behavior’ and stop at that. End of discussion. We then inflict withdrawal of all attention (ignoring) when the student engages in the unwanted behavior. Yeah, that’s helpful. Let’s further starve a starving kid.

Or how about ‘refused to do his work’. Do we know for sure the student is refusing? How about the student can’t do the work? It looks like won’t, but the truth is she student can’t.

Lazy? What does that mean? There is a reason our students find it difficult to exert effort. What looks like ‘lazy’ may actually be an executive functioning challenge. How can we just label what we see as lazy? How do we really know?

And there is the ever popular ‘off task’. I am never sure what that means and me being off task is certainly going to look different than you being off task. How do we know that a student looking at the teacher, pencil in hand, name on worksheet is really on task, really listening or understanding what the teacher is saying, is really on task? We don’t. Just like temper tantrums, off task can look a number of ways. Looking out the window, not doing the worksheet, not using work time, talking to peers instead of engaging in the assigned task, talking while the teacher is instructing, taking many trips to the water fountain and bathroom. Some of that also looks like avoidance. Why would a student avoid doing the task at hand? Answer that before you draw conclusions.
Remember the language we use to describe what we observe is critical to developing an effective intervention. Be mindful that we all have different life experiences, the way we learned to use language is as unique to us as where we come from.

If we describe a kiddo’s behavior as being off task, we miss the why of it? We miss the opportunity to more closely and accurately understand our student. We miss the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Using descriptive, objective language is critical and a skill every good teacher must develop.


Observed behaviors:

out of seat 3 times in 5 minutes while teacher instructing


out of seat a lot


talked out of turn 5 times in 30 minute group discussion      


 interrupted many times


dropped to floor when prompted to put coat on for recess    


temper tantrum/recess

ripped worksheet and threw pencil on floor after staring  at workseet 3 minutes                   


refused to work, destroyed worksheet


asked for help from teacher 4 times within 3 minutes of directive


attention seeking behavior


ripped peer’s project up during clean up time


seeking attention of peer


refused academic directives 5 of 5 times


wanted power and control during math instruction (20 minutes)


refused to read aloud from level C book during reading intervention time (small group)


avoided reading aloud


Do you see how important it is to use descriptive language? When you read the first descriptor you can understand more clearly. When you read vague descriptions you should have many questions.
Always, without fail, without hesitation you must ask questions about student’s presented behavior.

Ripping and throwing a worksheet on the floor without even trying tells me the student is either frustrated with what is being asked of him, or he feels overwhelmed and ill-equipped to complete the task at hand. It tells me there is something about what the teacher is asking of the student that causes upset. It does NOT tell me the student is lazy, attention seeking or being naughty. It tells me, as the teacher, I have not prepared my student to do what I am asking him to do. It tells me, this is on me, not on my student.

Refusing to read aloud tells me the student is not relating to the material or does not want to embarrass herself in front of her peers. That tells me I may have her at the wrong reading level and she requires more specific intervention support.

Interrupting is a way students let us know many things. They may interrupt to draw attention away from the fact they cannot do what is being asked. Maybe the student cannot connect to content, maybe the interruptions slow the rate of instruction down so he has time to process and internalize.

When you think about all the possibilities you can find solutions. Don’t cheat yourself out of that opportunity.

You may determine, after much thought and observation, that Joey is seeking attention. Your first question, again, is, ‘why?’.

We all need attention. We seek attention to survive, to feel better, to feel connected, to feel valued and heard. When students are seeking your attention, give it to them. It’s that simple. You will reap the benefits. Provide attention before the unwanted behaviors have a chance to occur. Feed the kiddo before he cries for food. Don’t view this as the student manipulating you. He has a need. You can easily fill it.

Should you determine a student wants control of a situation, find out why. Consider times when you most crave control. Put yourself in your student’s shoes and try to understand his limits and perception of his abilities. When you want control you are probably feeling anxious. Figure out where your student’s anxiety is coming from and fix it. This could mean foreshadowing, slowing your pace, differentiating instruction, accommodating, supporting.

When a student has trouble getting started once directives are given, ask, ‘why?’. Without exception students with the lack of ability to initiate a task are either not understanding your request or challenged by faulty executive functioning. Make sure your student understands what you mean for them to do when you direct them. Make sure the student knows how to plan the action necessary to follow your directive. Some students need step by step prompting every single time you direct them, even if they have done the task a thousand times. That’s you job to do it, not the student’s job to pay attention. It has nothing to do with paying attention. It has everything to do with planning. This is not a won’t. This is a can’t.

Describe accurately and with detail. Ask questions because doing so increases the probability of finding solutions for your students.

Mom always said, “Watch your language, young lady.”

She was right.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s