Praise the Best, Ignore the Rest (#128)

Early in my teaching career, I encountered a student of a type familiar to many teachers; I’ll refer to him as discipulus difficilis or DD. That’s Latin for “difficult student,” which is not to mean said student is malus–“bad”–but a bit more of a challenge from a pedagogical standpoint. I was a young Latin teacher in the Midwest; DD was bright, engaging, eager for attention, and got my attention through various antics. Now I would put such behavior “on extinction,” to use a behavior analysis term, from day one.

Most of all, I would only give the student attention for what he was doing well (and his academic skills were good and could have been stronger with more focus); I would have otherwise shrugged off any of the student’s silly pranks and gotten on with the business of the class. For DD was “difficult” for only a small percentage of the time, but–and I don’t think I’m alone among teachers in this–me the inexperienced teacher put more emphasis on that small percentage of “misbehaving,” while DD was rather a discipulus bonus, a “good student,” most of the time.

Now when I have a student who reminds me even faintly of DD, I quickly catch myself, ignore any unnecessary antics during class, and speak to the student individually as soon as possible. My experience teaching DD and students like him has often led to me to reflect about how we tend to emphasive the negative things a student or anyone does, even if, in reality, that student is “good” for the majority of the time. And it has made me very aware about how, for the past few years, we have all focused much to much on what Charlie “ought not” to do rather than all the good–the biking, the swimming, the dogged attempts to listen, the spontaneous sounds that he means to be words–that he does everyday.
I am thinking in particular of Charlie’s head-banging behavior, but I could as easily be writing about any “inappropriate” behavior that any 8-year-old kid finds himself doing: Speaking out of turn in class, hopping out of his seat in the middle of a lesson, kicking the kid in front of him. There was a time, not too far away, that we found ourselves thinking “so long as he does not hit his head, it is a good day.” This has not been a good way to proceed, for a variety of reasons. First, we are defining “a good day” for Charlie negatively, that is, by him not not doing something. Second, we are only thinking about Charlie in terms of his worst moments rather than in terms of all the lovely things he fills our lives with, from his sunshine-like smile to his willingness to sit for long periods and match word cards this afternoon to the companionship he provides Jim and me with each and every day. Think about you at your worst moment today–what mean remark did you snap at a colleague? what pointless dispute did you get into with someone close to you over some inconsequential matter?–and consider: If that was how you were judged by and talked about, what kind of a person would you be thought to be?

Yes, Charlie was giddy with smiles as he ran to the indoor swimming pool this evening; he grabbed a fun noodle, jumped into the water, swam almost the full length of the pool on his back with powerful strokes of his arms. Yes, Charlie said “care-wot” and “I want geen apple” and “I want liss-enn Oh Susannah, Mommy!” clear as a bell. Yes, Charlie got his blanket and boomwhackers and went upstairs at 9.30pm as I requested and was soon asleep. Yes, Charlie hit his head at school and, out of the blue, tossed his snack all over the kitchen and had to be hung onto by Danielle for fifteen minutes. Yes, Charlie was smiling big at his afterschool program. Yes, Charlie walked out the door this morning with a waffle in one hand and, in the other, a toy wooden sword that had been meant to be part of a Halloween costume two years ago, courtesy of my mom (he was a king). Yes, Charlie loves his new big blue pillow–I think of it as a variant of Miss Muffet’s tuffet–and loved listening to songs and arias and lullabies while sprawled across it. Yes, Charlie is the boy I’ll always love and I have always wanted.

If we think of Charlie as the sum of everything that happened to him today, the “tough part”–when he was being DD–is a small percentage of his day. The rest of the time, which is to say most of the time, Charlie is an engaging kid, trying out his burgeoning language skills, enjoying sinking to the bottom of the pool’s end and floating back up, requesting a hot dog when we returned from the pool and putting it into the pot by himself. If we further–as we must–take into account the fact of Charlie’s neurological–neurodevelopmental–neurobiological–disability, we must factor in the reality that things that are easy for many of us (listening and looking and doing simultaneously) are a pure challenge for Charlie, for whom only one sense seems to work at a time.

Charlie has had a lot of changes in his life of late, as I explained to Danielle. We were standing in the front yard; I had just driven up and Charlie was running on the grass. And with limited words, that emotion is going to come out in other ways. Of course we cannot help worrying over Charlie’s tougher behaviors but too often the tendency has been to think of Charlie as the sum of these only, without regard to the rest of what this boy can do. Many things that come easily to many of us–speech, talking in full sentences, sitting in a chair, reading–are difficult for Charlie.

And one of the most difficult things of all for me to learn–swimming–I have acquired only as a gift from Charlie, who showed me the way in the water two years ago. And this gift alone, this teaching on the part of Charlie, cancels out any and all negatives incurred over the course of any day.

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