When a classroom environment is stressful, kids end up exhibiting all sorts of strange behaviors that make life difficult for everyone. It can be easy to think that these behaviors define the children; that Joey is just inattentive and never participates; that Elle always freaks out and hides under her desk for no apparent reason; that Claire is defiant and always tells other kids what to do. It can be easy to think that these kids are suffering from neurological or behavior dysfunctions.
I’ve come to recognize that these are really just coping behaviors.
When kids feel unsafe to share their real thoughts and feelings in front of peers who are likely to make fun of them, or teachers who may embarrass or shame them, they protect themselves by not sharing or participating. When kids get that a teacher doesn’t have clear boundaries or expectations, they try to impose their own sense of order, or they keep pushing at the teacher to try to find where that solid limit exists. When sensitive kids feel the build-up of frustration among their peers in a chaotic class, they attempt to escape the palpable negativity by hiding or running away.
By contrast, in a happy classroom, the sensitive child feels at ease and doesn’t need to escape. The strong-willed child can relax, trusting that the capable teacher has things handled. The timid child is willing to speak up and participate, trusting that their ideas will be met with acceptance and understanding. The inattentive child can focus because there aren’t a million distractions.
In a happy classroom, the “dysfunctions” shrink away and stop causing mayhem.
When kids aren’t coping, they are free to let their true selves shine. When they see that their true selves are received by others with love and acceptance, they try a little harder to rise a little higher. They lift one another up to be their best selves.
And when one occasionally has a bad day and reverts to old coping habits, the other kids understand. They remind them of who they really are, and they feel encouraged.