The ‘Problem Child’ Is a Child, Not a Problem

Joshua Lott for The New York Times

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

Matt Hannon was in preschool when he started getting into trouble. Teachers quickly labeled his mischievous behavior — like cutting his hair under the table — problematic. His kindergarten teacher warned that if Matt didn’t stop using “potty words,” she would make him do his work in the bathroom. His first-grade teacher forced Matt to copy the phrase “I will not blurt out in circle” 100 times. Matt began to dread school and developed serious separation anxiety. His acting-out got worse.

“I would bring him into the school nurse in the morning, and she would restrain him so I could run out and get to work,” said his mother, Jessica, through tears. “I didn’t know any better.” (Names of children and parents in this article have been changed to protect privacy.) At age 8, he was expelled from an after-school program and, later, from school. Jessica reduced her work hours to deal with frequent calls from the school. When Matt had a psychiatric evaluation in fourth grade, a therapist said he presented like a child who had been traumatized. She believed it was because of how his behavior had been handled early on in school.

Early childhood education can be an invaluable opportunity for learning social and emotional skills. But when teachers repeatedly punish young children, their efforts can cause lifelong harm. Unfortunately, Matt’s story is not exceptional. Nearly 1 in 10 preschoolers is suspended or expelled for behavior problems. Their infractions — generally hitting, throwing things or swearing — need to be addressed, but educators are recognizing that removing 3- and 4-year-olds from classrooms is not the answer. It doesn’t teach children how to behave differently, and it often makes matters worse.

Young children who are suspended are often the ones who need the most social and academic support — and they end up missing opportunities to get it. Early suspension predicts disengagement from school and dropping-out. And the fact that African-American preschoolers are far more likely than white children to be suspended raises serious issues of equity and access to educational opportunity. As states like Illinois and Connecticut pass legislation prohibiting or restricting expulsion from state-funded preschools, teachers desperately need better options for handling misbehavior.

Matt’s behavior started to turn around in fifth grade, after his parents began using Collaborative Problem Solving (C.P.S.), a technique designed to buildself-regulation skills. Many children are lagging in skills like impulse control, managing frustration and understanding social cues that are the foundation of self-control. Suspension does nothing to build those skills. Collaborative Problem Solving, in contrast, recognizes that behavior is not simply a function of motivation; it’s a function of skills and practice. C.P.S. replaces a traditional philosophy of “children do well when they want to” with one that “children do well when they can.”

After practicing C.P.S. at home for a few months, with help from a therapist, Jessica gradually saw Matt get calmer and more in control. But at school, where teachers refused to use the strategies, Matt was often sent to in-school suspension. One day he was escorted to a tiny, windowless room with “calming down tools,” where Jessica says a teacher’s aide blocked the door. “It freaked him out, so he threw a yoga ball. Then another aide came to help block the door.” Terrified, Matt became even more aggressive. After that incident, Jessica found another school that uses C.P.S.

C.P.S. was developed in the late 1990s by Dr. Ross Greene, now the director of a nonprofit called Lives in the Balance, and later expanded upon by Stuart Ablon, a psychologist who runs the Think:Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital. (The two organizations now use separate but similar models.) An adult and child collaborate to understand why the child is struggling and what to do about it, using a strategy called “Plan B.” Plan B starts with the child stating a concern. Next the adult does the same. They then brainstorm realistic solutions that address both parties’ concerns. That method diverges from more typical responses, like when an adult tries to exert her will by applying consequences (“Plan A”) or lets go of the expectation for a specific behavior (“Plan C”).

I watched a teacher do Plan B with a student around 6 years old, whom I’ll call Jayden. He fidgeted and ran around during morning meeting — behavior that would get him sent to the principal’s office in many schools. But through C.P.S., Jayden was able to explain that sitting still caused him intense discomfort (a symptom consistent with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). The teacher shared her concern that he was distracting others. They came up with a plan for Jayden to sit in a chair behind his classmates, where he could move around as long as he paid attention. Jayden’s whole demeanor changed: He calmed down, looked his teacher in the eye for the first time, and willingly returned to class.

Approaching misbehavior this way runs counter to many educators’ instincts. Deciding to share power rather than impose it requires a mind-set shift. One might see that as “giving in to the child.” But what would be the point of punishing a child who literally could not sit still? The C.P.S. conversation taught Jayden that his perspective mattered and that using calm problem solving pays off. It also kept him and his classmates learning.

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