03/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Children in Pain

It's not easy for most teachers to tolerate a student who does anything that interferes with her delivery of the lesson. She takes it as a personal attack and then gets defensive, frustrated, and hurt and is unable to see or believe that the child could be in emotional pain. No teacher would be insensitive to a child who was in obvious physical pain.

Unfortunately, the same student in emotional pain often goes unrecognized and does not get a sympathetic or empathetic response. Why? Why do teachers ignore, confront, or attack a student in emotional pain?

It took a mindset change as I began to see a child in emotional pain. With this attitude I didn't respond in the ways the child expected. After all, if one of my children were in pain I wouldn't scream at, hit, or punish her. I would try to understand what was causing her pain and do something to alleviate it.

Teachers told me that they didn't have time to waste. They had a curriculum to teach and there wasn't time to deal with every child's problem. I understood their concerns, but I proved them wrong.

As I attended to most of those in pain the result were fewer discipline problems, more efficient teaching, and much more time to personalize and individualize my teaching.

I discovered that most students believed that their emotions just happened to them. At first they were uncertain what they were feeling. Few understood that they had control over what they felt and most believed that they had the right, the freedom to express their emotion, no matter who or what were affected.

I had to teach them to recognize, admit, and then feel all their emotions. It meant them discovering that their thoughts were not bad nor were their feelings. They were given opportunities to share and discuss these to understand them better, but they learned that they always had the choice not to act on them if someone or something was going to be hurt. They knew that if they made a bad choice that I would follow it by insuring that after due process they paid a fair, reasonable penalty.

While I took attendance I placed a card or in some way gave each child the opportunity to let me know his state of mind. He let me know whether he was happy, sad, angry, or scared. Most were happy and I'd give each a smile and a touch on the shoulder.

If he checked anything else I'd let him know I was aware of his pain and would get to him ASAP. Usually, unless I knew it would embarrass him, I would tell the class that he was upset and if anyone confronted him, she'd have to face the consequences. Most of the children would honor this and always a few would try to help him before I did. They were taught how to do this and much of the time they solved his problem.

I'd approach a child with a chronic problem this way. I would ask whether he knew in advance when he was about to do something bad. He'd smile. I'd tell him that I knew acting bad was satisfying at the moment, but it was hurtful to others and to him in the long run. I wanted him to know I would take the time to talk to him about his problems if he would not act out.

I asked where in his body he felt something before he acted out. He would tell me and for most it was in their fists, arms, shoulders, stomach, or chest. With that as his cue I'd tell him when he felt it that he was to raise his hand with four fingers and wave. I would nod and he then would do something that we had prearranged. He chose from a series of things such as putting his head down, going in another part of the room and drawing, reading, listening to music, or using a computer.

When I had time to speak to him while the class was engaged in seatwork or he had calmed himself down, then he would return to his regular activities. In most cases this worked well. He had learned that I cared about him, that he could recognize and prevent himself from acting out, and that he and I had developed a plan that changed his life in a positive manner. He was not hurting others and he was more liked and accepted by his peers.

I called this mutual respect. It was mutual because when I was upset I would tell them, give them an assignment, and they would give me time to get myself together. They respected my right to feel badly and so they could accept their bad moments and those of their classmates. I taught them that we all have bad thoughts and feelings and we shouldn't fear having them, but that we also didn't have to and shouldn't act on them. They learned ways to deal with their emotional pain that transferred into the rest of their lives. Parents commented favorably on their changes. This worked with most students.

This is not to excuse any bad and especially dangerous behavior directed at other children, the teacher, or to himself. Rather it is to give the teacher time to educate and train the class and the problem students in ways so they can understand and cope with their feelings. They are trained to feel, recognize, and rationally deal with their thoughts and feelings. It can and should be done.

Some students' pain is so severe, subtle, or exceeds most teacher's experiences or professional capabilities that they cannot cope with them. In these cases they shouldn't be expected to keep them in class. However, their job would be to carefully observe and document his behavior so another professional could have important data to diagnose and treat the child. This should not be seen as failure, but the best way to help him.