It’s hard to admit this but many teachers and speech pathologists do have favorite students. And there are groups that we dread, too. But it’s not always who you would expect. Oftentimes, my favorite students are not the same as the teachers’ favorite ones.
For example, I loved working with this one student who had behavioral issues, but his teacher did not care for him. It was obvious to me, and I’m sure to the kid, that the teacher did not like him very much. I don’t know what it was, but I just liked that kid. I think it was because underneath it all, I could just tell he was a great little guy.
In that same classroom, there was a student who also had behavioral problems, but the teacher loved him. He was as cute as a button and he knew it. At first, I didn’t like working with that student very much. I wished the student would be absent when I came to get him, but he never was. But then I found a way to change my perception of him and it changed everything. In fact, I started really liking the student and sessions improved dramatically. Here’s what worked:
1. Monitor the tension in your body
When you walk to get that student, are you stooped over slightly? Do you have tension in your shoulder carriage and upper arms? Is your jaw clenched? When I walk to get students that can be challenging, I do arm exercises in the hallway to help relax my shoulders. I want to feel calm, assertive energy in my body, not nervous tension.
2. Assume positive intent
When a kid acts up in speech class, the first reaction is often “you little…” Instead, think to yourself, “Johnny is doing this because he’s had a tough day already and he can’t control himself,” or “Johnny needs a sensory break,” or “Johnny’s behavior is attention-seeking,” or “The whole day is long and challenging for Johnny: he probably feels comfortable in speech and knows it’s a safe place to be himself.” Whatever you think to yourself, make sure it is positive – because it probably is. They are only kids after all!
3. Don’t be scared
It’s a pretty common occurrence that when I need to pick up students, teachers say something to the effect of: “Please take him. Are there any other ones you want? Take ‘em all.” Yep, lots of students with speech problems, also have concomitant behavioral or learning problems, which make them challenging to have in the classroom. I’ve gone to the classroom and found my students sitting on the floor crying, in a corner, sleeping on the floor, or literally trying to climb the walls. Sometimes a fear gets into me when I have to get a student who’s in crisis and acting out. I think, “How in the world will I manage this behavior?” I’ve learned to dismiss this fear because whatever is happening in the classroom, is not happening in the speech room. The classroom and the speech room are very different for students. Most students can sense fear so enter situations like this with confidence. You definitely can do it!
4. Watch how you look at the student
When I turned around the dynamic I had with that tough student, I started by thinking about how I looked at him. I looked him out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t a thoughtful eye contact that I made with him, but more of a “what are you going to do next?” So I started making purposeful eye contact with a smile on my face. I looked at the student like he mattered and that I really liked him. This alone changed his behavior – because he started caring and he felt warmth from me because of my purposeful eye contact.
5. Fake it, ‘til you make it
I pretended that my “problem” student was a gift to my caseload and classroom. I pretended that I really liked him – as much as I liked his classmate, who I legitimately liked as a person. The “problem” student got the new vibe from me and started liking me. His behavior improved and then he grew on me. By the end of the year, I genuinely liked him — an the feeling was mutual.
Do you have any other suggestions for working with challenging students? I’d love to hear all about them!