In the early 20th century, Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town said, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.”
Modern research is proving Flanagan correct. According to York University researcher Stuart Shanker, children often misbehave due to the stress that they feel. If we remove or deal effectively with the stressors, we eliminate the bad behaviour.
Effective teachers know the importance of reducing stress in the classroom. So it’s important to create a positive environment where all students feel safe. Doing so eliminates much of the negative behaviour, allowing more learning to take place.
I always start each new class expressing my intention to create this environment and then engage in dialogue with students to create rules and consequences for our time together. It’s then my job to be fair and consistent in maintaining this environment.
Reading the signs your child might be stressed out by Stuart Shanker
Over the years, I have found this highly effective but it doesn’t eliminate all bad behaviour.
One of the most important lessons I learned in teaching is to not take things personally. More often than not, misbehaviour is caused by something that has nothing to do with me. Knowing this allows me to be more objective in finding the stressors in the lives of my students. Simply treating a young person with understanding and compassion can make all the difference. Sometimes we find solutions, other times we find a way to simply make it through the day.
What is true for children is true for all of us. According to author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn, “There are only nine or 10 really bad people in the world. They just move around a lot.” In other words, the vast majority of people are very good – the problem is we don’t always behave well.
When we can objectively look at our behaviour without judgment, we can begin to understand why we act the way that we do. From there, we can begin to make changes. It could be simply, “I get cranky when I don’t get enough sleep. I don’t like acting that way. I am going to get more sleep.”
Some of our behaviours may be very complex, however, and can take years to understand, let alone eliminate. The key is to take responsibility for how we respond to the world. Regardless of what the stressors are in our lives, we control our thoughts, so we control our words and our actions.
These are the same principles we use with children in helping them to self-regulate. A child who is distracted by noise from other students, for example, may find it helpful to listen to quiet music when working on assignments. A young person dealing with difficult family issues may find it helpful to privately discuss the situation with a staff member. When students learn to recognize and accept their own responses to the stimuli around them, they can learn to deal with them effectively.
At this point in my career and life, I can say that I absolutely agree with both Flanagan and Rohn. I have never worked with a bad child and I can’t think of anyone I’ve met who is truly horrible. I have seen a fair amount of bad behaviour but behaviour is what we do, not who we are.
The key is to be aware of the stressors in our lives and accept responsibility for how we respond to them; in other words, we need to always improve our ability to self-regulate. As we do so, we find that we are able to more easily tap into the amazing potential that lies within each of us, and this makes life better for everyone.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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