We all know someone that we don’t like to deal with because they have learned that it’s OK to take their bad days/moods/experiences out on other people. A lot of times we feel that it’s easier to tolerate and coddle the overly sensitive because it seems easier than going through the growing pains of trying to teach them how to treat you or trying to correct their bad behavior that they’ve probably been learning over the course of their lifetime. As someone who interacts with young kids on a daily basis, I wonder if it’s possible to stop this cycle. Is the way I handle a student in class going to make them more likely to respect other people in the long run? If I appease them in an attempt to get them through class without throwing a fit will it just reinforce the bad behavior cycle, and only further teaching them that it’s OK to be inappropriate in order to get their way or when they feel overwhelmed?
I have a lot of experience at this point with getting new students and being “warned” about them. I’ve been taken aside by their classroom teachers and told “so-and-so is a behavior issue, has trouble focusing, and will not work well with others” only to find that they are art-classroom super stars. More often than not the “problem children” engage in the conversations about art and then work diligently to create meaningful works of art that they really love. It makes me feel like Mary Poppins and like I actually am changing the world for the better.
That being said, I recently encountered one student who was a behavior issue even in art class. I had him for an hour and a half every day during spring break camp. He frequently told me how stupid he thought all the lessons were and how pointless the class was. He was very clear that he actually hated art. During one of the class discussions, I had three or four students at each table all looking at printouts of Salvador Dali’s the Persistence of Time while I gave them discussion prompts. The boy was leaning on top of the print and hogging it all to himself and whenever I politely asked him to let the others at his table take a look he threw his hands up in the air and shouted “FINE! I just won’t even bother!” After this happened a few times he threw the paper in the air and stormed out of the classroom to go speak to one of the camp counselors who almost immediately came in to ask me what was going on because he was in the lobby shouting that he wanted to destroy things and that I was making him look at “weird pictures.” All this from a six year old!
I had a dilemma. He was a smart little boy and very talkative but there was obviously something wrong. He had moments of engaging in the activity and usually took it in his own direction when that happened (which I definitely encouraged!).
Do I punish him? Do I coddle him? This was a spring break camp and his parents were paying for him to be there as a leisurely fun time for him but honestly he was one of the most hateful children I had ever met, he was very disruptive in class, he constantly undermined me, and he upset his classmates.
Would this boy grow up to learn that people will tolerate it when he is rude and unkind because that’s just how people handle him? Will he just be the squeaky wheel that gets the most attention because he certainly makes the most noise? I could have logged his behavior and written him up, I could have ignored him, I could have sent him to stay the rest of the class time with the counselor, I could have just let him do whatever he wanted to do just to get him through the day, but what I really wanted was to understand how to interact with him. He had a partner in crime and both of them wreaked havoc on class morale. All either of them wanted to do was play with with lego toys that they had brought to class. He puzzled me and I wanted to figure out how to live with him being in my classroom.
One day he ran over to me and very excitedly told me about concealed knives and how they worked. This bothered me because he was also obsessed with war and violence and on top of it he seemed like a very angry little boy. I know this is the way little boys are but paired with his behavior towards me and other students, his obsession did not seem good natured. My response was to ask him what he wanted to be when he grows up. Without a pause he answered “fireman” and then ran off to his next class. This eased my concerns and made me feel like his hard feelings really were more situational than personal.
The next day he didn’t want to do any of the projects that I had planned and he wanted to play with his legos so I struck a deal with him. I told him he could play with his legos as long as the next day he came into my classroom and was nice to me, nice to his classmates, and at least TRIED to make art. He agreed.
The next day he came in and was of course acting rude and spiteful again. So after the class discussions were over and the art making began, I sat down next to him and reminded him of our bargain. What happened next astonished me: He actually apologized! He said “Oh I’m sorry I forgot!” And he proceeded to get to work.
I could not believe it worked! Apparently this little boy was a man of his word.
Now that was under control I next tried to target his friend who was still not trying. I asked him why he came to school today. He told me that he didn’t want to. He had asked his mom to sign him up for a roller hockey camp but she said no and put him here instead. I asked him if he’d had any fun whatsoever. He said barely any and never in class. I told him that maybe if he tried to have fun it would help. At which point the other boy jumped in and confirmed that he was trying and was finally enjoying art class. I just left it at that. Transformation complete.
I believe that every child starts out selfish, thoughtless, and rude because they haven’t learned that other people are hurt by their actions. Kids cry when they have to share something, or when they don’t get the pink scissors, and they throw fits when recess is over. They also deliberately try to hurt each other because that is their conception of what is fair. During this learning process adults are very understanding of children because it’s clear this is just the way kids are. They haven’t learned otherwise yet or aren’t sophisticated enough to understand otherwise. But then sometimes it seems these lessons never get learned and I wonder if it’s because people are too understanding for too long and it makes the child grow into a hurtful and spiteful person. One of my main goals in dealing with this child was to let him know it wasn’t OK to be so hateful in class or towards me. I spent a lot of energy trying to come up with ways to explain that even though you’re upset and mad you cannot take it out on other people. It’s not ok.
I only had this kid in my class for a week since it was just a spring break camp but it got me re-examining the role I play in the lives of these kids. As an art educator I really want to impress upon them that they are creative geniuses and that they have the power to understand and interpret anything they see. I want them to feel empowered by art and comfortable with it and capable. But I also want them to treat people well and I certainly want them to learn how I expect them to treat me.
There are a lot of unique circumstances that went into my experience. For instance I had this student for only one week, the class size was just 10 students which made it easier to really focus on my interactions with him, this took place at a spring break art camp designed for kids to have fun, and I had a support group of other employees who were able to give the student one-on-one attention when he needed a break. I also had very little background information on this student and there were no real consequences for his behavior.
Either way, I feel like not allowing people to get away with acting badly is a service to society just as growing creative and thoughtful people through my art classes is. It’s made me re-evaluate the way I handle the squeaky wheels that I have in my own personal life. Is backing down and letting them win and have their space the best way to handle them just to keep the peace and not have to deal these situations? I decided it’s not OK and in the very least I can teach people how to act towards me. I don’t let kids get away with being rude to me why should I let adults get away with bad behavior when they for sure should know better.
I’d like to know other people’s experiences in effectively dealing with bad behavior from both kids and adults.