We recently offered the subscribers to our internet magazine, The
Problem-Kid Problem-Solver– the articles in this book first appeared
in that magazine– the chance to pose any questions they had about
working with difficult and problem youth. This article provides the
answers to our subscribers’ questions. You can become a subscriber
by visiting our web site, http://www.youthchg.com/guest.html.
Many subscribers wrote in with questions. Here are our answers
with a special focus on offering immediate solutions for their most
challenging "kid problems."
Maryann is a school counselor in Pemberton, NJ. She requested
"strategies to use for children who seek attention by acting out."
Maryann, let me give you a couple favorite ideas on this topic.
* There is an old saying: "children would rather be
praised than punished, but they'd rather be
punished than ignored." With that in mind, wait for
the acting-out student to be properly behaved, and
then offer attention. Although misbehavior compels
the adults to give attention, it starts a cycle of
misbehavior netting attention, so by acting out, a
student can extract notice. That's the exact
opposite of what you want to occur so catch your
students "doing good" and offer attention then.
You are eliminating the need to act out to be noticed.
There are even stickers you can buy for younger
students that say "Caught doing good."
* Class clowns are the classic example of students
who chronically act out. Be sure that teachers have
their class establish a recommended number of times
to talk out, then expect students to follow that
standard. Without a quantifiable standard, you are
expecting students to adhere to a standard that is
unspecified. That isn't fair or reasonable. For
class clowns, work with them to learn about
the proper frequency of comments, the correct
type of content, and appropriate duration. If you
can channel the input to be appropriate, you will
give that student lifelong skills to be beloved in
the work place for making light, well-timed, often
much-needed, humorous comments. You have
transformed acting out into a potential, major
work place asset. Everyone loves the co-worker
who can break up the staff meeting with a well-
timed, wry comment or socially acceptable joke.
Theresa, who teaches kindergarten, wants more of a focus on younger
children. She writes: "I'm not a new teacher (15 years) but, the behaviors
I have seen and dealt with the past two to three years are becoming much
more common. Out of a class of 16, 8 of them have really horrible behaviors.
One even killed a cat this year! Thanks so much...I would love to come to a
workshop if you are ever in Wichita, KS."
Thanks for asking. We may look at hosting a session in your state
sometime in the future, but to get to your question, before reading
any further, stop and consider if you already know the answer
to this query, because we have touched on the answer a lot in
The most misbehaved children may be "conduct disorders." From past
articles, you may remember that those words refer to a specific
mental health category that describes the most out of control students.
While only a counselor can diagnose, anyone can be concerned that a
child falls into this category. Theresa, here is the critical element: you
must work completely differently with these students. If you use
conventional methods, you will find "nothing works." For Theresa and
others of you with very young students, here's more bad news: the
younger the severe misbehavior begins, the worst the outlook. The good
news: if more professionals could identify and correctly work with
young conduct disorders, the better the chance of aiding that child
to avoid that otherwise grim prognosis for the future. Sadly, without
targeted intervention, conduct disorders are at high risk of violating
the law, and ending up imprisoned. Properly working with that 5 year
old conduct disorder today can have incredible impact on his future.
That is why Theresa's question is so important.
Anytime you have a young (or older) child doing the most extreme
behaviors such as animal abuse, that should be a "red flag" to alert you
to consider using the specialized methods that work with conduct
disorders. Two earlier articles in this magazine (that are also included
in this book) offered you a glimpse into this large population, and
Theresa, you use exactly the same type of methods with both older
and younger students. By using the information we have been
providing in these articles on conduct disorders, you end up with a
road map guiding you to manage unmanageable students of all ages.
Here is the email we got from Angela: "My topic suggestion is one that I do
not think is addressed enough anywhere-- self-mutilation. It is a far more
common problem than once thought."
Angela, you didn't tell us your job, or where you were from, but wherever
you are and whatever your job, you are correct. If you are a counselor, you
may have noted the increase in the amount of disturbed youngsters,
especially in the early grades. The answer we give to your query is going
to depend on your job. We are going to play the odds and guess that you
are a teacher since we have more teachers as subscribers than counselors.
Let's hope we guess right.
If you are not a mental health professional, then whenever you have specific
data to suggest active self-harm, you need to immediately notify your
administrator or counselor. Only counselors and other mental health workers
should be managing behaviors that could be-- or become-- life threatening.
I am not saying that superficial cutting of the wrist automatically indicates
a potential suicide attempt, but ensuring the child's safety must be the job
of the mental health worker, and there are no exceptions to that-- even if
your budget-crunched school lacks a counselor. You will need their
guidance, and there is no work-around that is worth risking a child's life.
Even though non-mental health workers must consult a counselor, you still
need to understand what makes these children tick, and adapt how you
work with them. Plus, other behaviors may really be, or border on self-
harm. For example, extreme tattooing or piercings, reckless driving, and
serious promiscuity are just a few examples. To understand these youngsters,
remember that distressed children don't manage their distress in
"appropriate" ways. They don't enter class and say "I feel neglected
so I would like additional interaction and nurturance today." They
manage their distress in primitive, inappropriate ways like self-mutilation.
For non-counselors, you want to adjust how you work with the child
by striking the balance between your mission and the child's distress.
That means that when the child is distressed, you may lower the
expectations. On days the child is more functional, you increase
expectations. You also observe for safety concerns and let your
mental health worker guide you on all else. Even if you lack an on-
site counselor, it is not wise to learn counseling by practicing on a
distressed youngster. Instead of counseling these students, be
nurturing, involved, alert, and available. Offer them time, and
listen to what they say-- and don't say. Ask them what they need.
Sometimes, these youngsters just want someone to notice. But
leave the counseling to those trained to do it. Even if you have
to move heaven and earth to arrange it, your energy is best
spent ensuring that each hurting child has access to a capable
counselor who knows exactly how to help.
Now, here is a difficult question for you to ponder. If a conduct
disordered child threatens self-harm, what happened? If a diagnosed
conduct disorder threatens self-harm, you are being manipulated
but– and this is the most important part– you still provide safety
no matter how sure you are that you are being manipulated and
played. When any child plays the “safety card,” you provide safety–
no “if’s, and’s or but’s.” For a diagnosed conduct disorder, you
certainly won’t be putting your arm around the youngster, like
you might do with other children. You simply provide safety but
do not offer relationship-based methods. For undiagnosed,
suspected conduct disorders, it is far more complicated. You can’t
cut off relationship approaches with undiagnosed C.D.s. It is
far easier to work with C.D.s when they are diagnosed vs.
undiagnosed. The diagnosis guides you, especially in situations
such as the child makes threats of self-harm. Working with
conduct disorders is very tricky to begin with. It can seem
particularly confusing for issues like self-harm. It is normal that
you find it to be a bit of a “magical mystery tour” with
regards to some conduct disorders’ apparent emotional issues
because manipulation can so frequently be a major factor
complicating or dominating how you should best respond. But
remember the most important point with regards to self-harm:
For all students, first, you provide safety then worry about
what to do next.