How Schools Create Students Who Just Don’t Give A Damn


Keep taking away everything they care about and expect them to comply

First, a confession

When I was a fairly new youth worker in my early 20s, I had a job working in residential treatment with teen boys. I loved that job and grew into it as I learned and matured as a professional.

One morning early on, one of the boys (we affectionately called them “the boys”, this was 15 years ago) was leaving the cafeteria. He walked past the garbage bin, tossed something toward it, but missed and kept walking.

I asked him to go back and pick it up but he did not. I then threatened him with an extra chore so he stomped back, put it in the garbage, and stomped out.

Success, right?

Wrong.

Later one of my more experienced co-workers took me aside and advised me that my approach could potentially have set everyone up for a bad day.

When we’re confrontational with the youth it sets the tone and often puts everyone in a bad mood, and that’s not what we’re there for. We’re there to support them, not control them.

She was right.

South Park created by Trey Parker — (image created by author)

Think about the worst job you’ve had, the worst boss or supervisor. If someone came in and was cranky and pushy with you, would you do your best work? Would you be happy to work for them and want to work hard and be successful there?

Not likely.

As I grew professionally, I learned the best way to support the youth was to connect and develop therapeutic relationships with them, to show that I genuinely cared. I had fun with them.

I held them to account and maintained appropriate boundaries, but did so in a way that respected their autonomy and was about helping them be successful rather than forcing them to comply.


Behaviourism is not inclusion

I’ve mentioned previously that our province’s public education system has a very out-of-date “inclusion” policy which is most decidedly not inclusive. In fact, it’s ABA (applied behaviour analysis) with a new name: PBIS.

PBIS stands for Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports and is anything but “positive”.

Screen shot provided by author — (source: edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/docs/support/school-based/index.html)

Problems with “withholding a privilege or desired activity”:

If a student doesn’t feel safe, cared for, and connected with their teacher (or other adults), they will not be able to learn effectively.

Keep taking away privileges and desired activities until they have none left, then what are your options?

This is exactly how the school system creates those students who don’t seem to care about anything, who aren’t “afraid” of any consequences or punishments (because fear of punishment is exactly the tactic being used here).

Then teachers and staff complain the student has a “bad attitude” and isn’t willing to learn from consequences.

Perhaps “consequences” (a nicer word for punishments in these cases) were never what the student needed.

What they really needed was someone to notice where they were struggling, to show they actually cared enough to look beneath the surface behaviour which had become a defense mechanism.

What they really needed was someone work with them instead of against them, to provide guidance and supports, and to show they cared more about the student themselves than about gaining compliance.


“But we do all of this and still the student is resistant”

The thing is, these confrontational and authoritative approaches begin as early as first grade (sometimes even Kindergarten, depending on the school culture, administration, and classroom teacher).

Think I’m exaggerating? My son was suspended in Kindergarten, at age 5, for having a meltdown in school. He was clearly overwhelmed, upset, and unable to self-regulate.

I wasn’t there, so I have no idea what actually happened, but I do know that he was five years old and it’s developmentally normal for a 5 year old (especially one who was later discovered to have ADHD) to lack the neurological development to be able to self-regulate.

The same pattern of responses continued through first and second grade. When my son was overwhelmed, the staff pushed and used threats of consequences rather than compassion and empathy, then wondered why he hid under his desk at age 6.

It was even worse in grade two. Much worse.

Thankfully we had the resources and knowledge to advocate for our son, protect him from further trauma and mistreatment, and moved him to a different school. He’s doing so much better now.

A different child whose parents may not understand the rights of their child, nor have the resources to fight for those rights on their behalf, may go along, thinking the school has their child’s best interests at heart — they’re supposed to be the experts, after all.

That child continues being blamed and shamed for their struggles, most of which stem from factors outside of their control. They are repeatedly punished, criticized, and rejected because of their behaviour.

Fast-forward to high school and you’ve got one bad-ass kid with a hard attitude, who’s really “difficult to reach”. They don’t trust adults, don’t trust the school system, hate school, and seem unconcerned any consequences the school can dish out.

We can’t “undo” several years of behaviourism and confrontational approaches with one week, month, or even a year of finally showing this student that someone cares more about them than about gaining compliance.

Created by author

I promise, I’m not simply blaming school staff

I know there is a lot that is outside of the control of teachers. They may have a poor administrator, unsupportive senior admin, or an unhealthy school culture. They are definitely under-funded and under-resourced by our provincial government.

These policies I’m critiquing are the exact policies under which these teachers and school staff have been trained. They are poorly prepared to support complex students with complex needs and are not being given the proper training and support to do better.

There are also underlying factors completely outside of the school’s control: the child’s genetics or health conditions, possible history of trauma or an unhealthy home environment.

When I was a young and inexperienced youth worker, my first job was in a group home that operated within a very controlling and authoritative philosophy.

My first on-the-job training and experience primed me for this style of interacting with youth, so when I came to the residential treatment facility I mentioned earlier, that was how I thought things would go.

I am thankful I learned a different way. A better way.

The current problems and the solutions are absolutely everybody’s responsibility, not just the parents, and not just the schools.

That said, students spend 30+ hours per week at school for more than 12 years. That is a significant period of time and a significant influence on the child’s development.

Think about that very carefully for a moment.

If a child is going to school and being mistreated, that’s over 18,000 hours they spend in a negative environment from Kindergarten through grade twelve.

I’m not saying every single year of their schooling will be harmful, and I’m not saying they will be mistreated for every single one of those hours. I am saying that it’s a hell of a lot of time for anyone to spend in an environment that is detrimental to their well-being.


Set the tone, set the example

I cannot fathom how we, as adults, frequently treat children with disrespect while demanding respect. We tell them “treat others how you wish to be treated” yet rarely follow this maxim ourselves.

As the adults it is our job to set the example, and that begins with how we treat children, especially when they are having a hard time. That is when they need our compassion and support the most.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB


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Behaviourism Is Not Inclusion

I Don’t Care What My Son Learns in Elementary School

Punishing Unwanted Behaviour Just Makes it Worse

Let Kids Play And Be Heard

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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