Handcuffing a kindergartner for a tantrum, which happened in Georgia, is teaching the ABCs of aggression. It promotes a “might is right” logic rather than using the child’s tantrum as a tool to teach necessary skills to prepare the disruptive child to learn. More alarming, this heartbreaking reaction highlights the fact that many educators have a limited repertoire of constructive responses when confronted by belligerent students who don’t follow the rules. These students (in the astute words of a principal) go from “zero to one hundred in a split second,” and can derail the best lesson plan.

Teacher surveys show that coping with disruptive students is teachers’ number one problem. About 10 percent of the school population — 9 to 13 million children — struggles with mental health problems. In a typical classroom of 20, chances are good that one or two students are dealing with serious stressors, relating to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, trauma, or a psychiatric disorder. These children represent the most challenging students in our classrooms today. From my experience working in schools, I have learned that teachers need a new approach to clearly understand what drives student behavior, as some of these students can be inflexible and have outbursts for no apparent reason. Teachers need a variety of strategies that allow them to intervene effectively before the behavior is entrenched. Otherwise teachers can become exhausted, feel like they are walking on eggshells, or resort to suspensions, which have been shown to only further alienate these students and often cause them to fall further behind academically. Too often, this is when schools blame the parents for not effectively preparing their children to learn.

Lost in this battle is the recognition that children would behave if they could. When a student is displaying problematic, maladaptive behavior, it is a symptom of an underdeveloped skill. When students blow up or act out, it is a sign that they are stuck and can’t cope with the situation. Some may be oversensitive to stress and have an overactive fight-or-flight response. Others may lack the basic social skills that are needed to navigate an interaction with a peer, the flexibility to follow a demand like “come in from recess,” or the self-regulation to withstand an anxiety-producing task like reading. It is possible that by better understanding critical concepts about behavior and mental health, teachers can more effectively change students’ problematic behavior.

If schools can invest the time and resources, they can design more enduring solutions. Of course, it is key to establish safety first for staff and students. Over twenty years, I have worked with many students identified by schools as “aggressive” who have an underlying psychiatric diagnosis and need both appropriate accommodations in the classroom and help accessing critical mental health care. Yet teachers can also play a big role in helping these students by deciphering what the student’s behavior is communicating and using this knowledge to respond in a systematic, productive way. In the heat of the conflict, the school lens is usually focused on the disruptive incident (the child talking back, racing out of the classroom). What is not highlighted — and is critical information — is what happened before the incident and the consequences of the misbehavior, which may inadvertently reinforce it. For example, if a child wants to escape a difficult task and is disruptive, a trip to the principal’s office may increase the probability that the student will act up in class again. As teachers begin to decipher the incorrect behavior, they should reinforce desired behaviors (“catch” students being good) to teach as a replacement behavior. For example, as a replacement behavior for throwing her books off the desk when asked to read, a student can be taught to ask politely, “Can I have a break, please?” Teaching students underdeveloped skills eventually eliminates the need for the replacement behavior. Schools need to ramp up their preventative approach by giving teachers the knowledge they need to make sure these children are not banished, but are embraced with the conviction that we can cultivate their confidence so that they can thrive in school.

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Education Publishing blog.

About the Author

Nancy Rappaport

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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