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September 26, 2023

Struggling Students? Deal With the Cause, Not the Effect

It’s not just about discipline. Get ideas for determining why some students are struggling. This is a great read for new teachers.


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Recently, I was waiting in the main office in a school when a young girl came in with a note to see the principal. She explained to the secretary that her band teacher sent her to the office because she forgot her flute. The secretary asked her why she forgot it, and she said she didn’t really know—that she just did—for the third time. Intrigued by the conversation, I asked the student what she had to do in class when she forgot her flute, and she told me she had to copy definitions and read. I then asked, “So, you like doing that better than playing the flute?” She quickly replied, “Yes,” then she caught herself and said, “No, not really.” I asked, “Are you sure?” She seemed stunned, as if she had never thought about it or that no one had ever asked. When I spoke with her teacher and shared our conversation, she also looked puzzled, then commented she had not thought about the reason for the behavior. She was frustrated with the student’s poor behavior (not being prepared for class), and jumped to the conclusion that the student was being disrespectful. She had not taken the time to look for the cause behind the behavior.

Isn’t that typical? We are so busy and caught up in all the problems that we jump to the simplest or most expedient solution. Then, we deal with the effect (the misbehavior) rather than the cause.

Meeting Needs

Mr. Juarez told me about Mike, a student who showed no interest in reading.

A discussion with other teachers brought up a variety of excuses—he’s a boy, he doesn’t know how to read, and so on. One day, Mr. Juarez told the class about a book he was reading in a graduate children’s literature class and that he had read the same book when he was in elementary school. Mike was surprised that Mr. Juarez had ever read a book outside of those he read aloud to the class, and he expressed even more surprise that his teacher had a personal copy of the book. Mike said he didn’t have any books. Mr. Juarez probed further and discovered there were no books in Mike’s home. The only books available to Mike were those from the school.

By not jumping to conclusions, asking questions and listening, Mr. Juarez discovered that it wasn’t that Mike couldn’t read; he simply didn’t know that reading was something you were supposed to do other than when you were told to do so in class. Mr. Juarez then decided to buy him a book to help him see that reading could be a great outside activity. After another conversation, Mike admitted to watching old Western movies on television, so the teacher bought a book about cowboys for him. He also met with Mike’s grandmother, took them to the public library to get a library card, and periodically asked Mike about reading. The result? Mike is now a solid grade-level reader who enjoys reading.

We are so busy and caught up in all the problems that we jump to the simplest or most expedient solution. Then, we deal with the effect (the misbehavior) rather than the cause.

Personal Connection

A teacher in one of my graduate courses was frustrated by constant interruptions from several of her female students. No matter how busy Ms. Wolfe was, these students always demanded her attention. Most of the time, the questions they asked her were not urgent; and often, they were somewhat trivial and repetitive. However, in response to an assignment in my class, she decided to implement a stop-and-drop policy: She would drop everything and give a student five minutes when he or she needed to talk, regardless of the circumstances.

Ms. Wolfe started this policy without telling her students. On the day she began, one of the girls caught her while en route to the copy machine and insisted on talking with her. For Ms. Wolfe, this first reminded her of all the other times this girl had wanted to talk about trivial matters, but she remembered what she said she would do (stop and drop), so she walked the student back to her classroom to talk. The student confided that her boyfriend was pressuring her to have sex that afternoon after school, and she didn’t know what to do. Ms. Wolfe talked with her about the importance of not rushing into a decision, not making any decision based on pressure, and recommended that she talk to her parents. That night, the mother called to thank her for taking the time to help her daughter. The mother was stunned—she had no idea that her daughter was even thinking of this—and she appreciated that the teacher encouraged the student to discuss it with her parents and make a different decision.

A Final Note

When students are struggling, whether with instructional or discipline issues, we can find it easy to simply try to solve the problem, or take quick action.  But, especially if the struggle is part of a bigger pattern, it’s worth it to take time to look beneath the surface and determine the cause for the behavior.  When we address the root of the issue, we are more likely to help our students be successful.

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Barbara Blackburn

As a teacher, a leader and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators, Barbara Blackburn has used her knowledge and experiences to write over 30 best-selling books.

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