Kyle is one of the most challenging second graders I work with. He makes obnoxious clicking noises throughout my mini lessons, smirks when the class behavior stoplight changes from green to yellow, crawls under desks when he's asked to come to the meeting area, and spins around in chairs that he's expressly been forbidden to sit in when he should be working independently. And because Kyle functions at a low level academically and his personality switch is set permanently to "troublemaker," the only thing I've really gotten to know about him is that he likes to draw.
The other kids in Ms. J's class are always telling me, "Kyle is making me laugh," "Kyle is bothering me," "Kyle is taking my pencil," etc. Every week, I remind them that they are responsible for their own behavior, that no one is forcing them to misbehave, that the best thing they can do is to ignore the troublemaker and worry about themselves. And yet every week, the class seems to slowly disintegrate into chaos.
Last week, Kyle was absent, and it was like I had an entirely different class. The other challenging students in the class were remarkably focused. I don't think I had to issue one reprimand.
"Isn't it beautiful?" remarked Ms. J about Kyle's absence. "If I didn't have that kid in my class..."
She trailed off. Nearly every class has "that kid," that one student about whom you think, If I didn't have to deal with that kid, my class would be perfect!
Later that day, I was discussing with another teacher the remarkable transformation of Ms. J's class and the case of stubborn, defiant Kyle. Kyle wasn't responding to all the traditional behavior management techniques, I said. He doesn't to care about receiving praise. He revels in his role as the troublemaker. I don't know how to get through to him.
"Oh, Kyle," said the other teacher, remembering. "His first grade teacher had to testify against his father in court because he came to school with a belt mark across his face. He's probably been beaten up so many times he just doesn't care anymore."
That's when I vowed that I would stop thinking about Kyle as "that kid" -- that kid who is willfully and obstinately screwing up my vision of the perfect class -- and start thinking about him as a kid with potential.
This week, Kyle was back. During independent working time, I was surprised to see that he had completed the task I had asked him to do -- and what's more, he'd done it correctly. I hesitated over his desk, wondering how far I could push him, knowing that most of my past attempts at positive reinforcement had gone over like a lead balloon; as soon as Kyle realizes he's being praised, he usually chooses to do something defiant to end the moment and show who's boss.
"Kyle," I said in a low voice, "you did exactly what I asked, and you did a good job. And since I know what a good artist you are, I'm going to let you draw."
He stared back at me for a moment, like he couldn't believe it. "I can draw?" he repeated. "Can I use markers?" he asked eagerly.
I didn't let him use the markers. But I did call on him every single time he raised his hand, and I even dared to make a point of letting everyone know that I was calling on Kyle precisely because of the way he was sitting. And one of those times, what he raised his hand to tell me was that he had an art book at home.
Maybe this weekend, I can look into picking up some art supplies as a reward for Kyle. Maybe Kyle and I can strike a deal. Maybe Kyle will turn out to be "that kid" after all -- that kid who started out as my biggest antagonizer and ended up a success.