Working with Emotionally Disabled Students
by Susan Rismiller
"Why do you work with kids with emotional disabilities?"
After 14 years teaching at a public school program for children with severe behavioral and emotional disabilities, I am often asked this very question. After all, the pay is nominal, the stress is ridiculously ever-present, and the responsibilities often feel overwhelming. Why do I do it?
Bottom line, our unique students (like all students) deserve a positive learning community in which to grow. I commit myself every day so that some of them will leave my class smarter, some will leave calmer, and some will leave to get more intensive help elsewhere. With their complicated barriers to learning, I know too many leave with little to show, but that is just on the surface. We can never really know the impact that our daily dose of consistent caring, attention, and quality instruction will have on a child.
Of course, teachers of all disciplines face daunting challenges and choose to persevere for the good of their students. Still, ours is a unique culture, in part because of our daily exposure to intense hostility and violent acting-out. We have to develop a mindset that "welcomes" rather than shies away from negative behavior. As a former colleague often reminded me, if we don't see the behavior, we can't address it. We meet the learning and behavior problems head on, with an eye toward academic progress and social skills improvement. A cycle of positive change begins as students respond to our expert behavior management and therapeutic teaching strategies. Then, as students begin to develop strategies for handling their often-overwhelming feelings, their availability for learning is increased. As classroom behavior improves, specific social skills instruction focuses on areas of need, including relationships with peers and adults. This cycle continues, a complex set of higher expectations balanced against students' particular emotional/behavioral needs.
It comes down to solving the puzzle: what are the obstacles to learning faced by my students, and how can I help them overcome? Succinctly, in the words of English author Margaret Drabble: "When nothing is sure, everything is possible."
In an effort to support new ED teachers, I created this list of important goals for surviving the negativity that leads to teacher burnout.
- Keep a cool head when students are in crisis.
- Develop a thick skin so insults and sassy talk aren't personally devastating.
- Think on your feet: be ready for anything that is thrown your way (sometimes literally!).
- Weed through the advice and suggestions of colleagues to find what works for you.
- Unwind and untangle your mind and soul at days' end.
- Remember the adage "Everyone Makes Mistakes".
- Forgive yourself when you make mistakes.
- Remember that the pain a child creates is never more than the pain they are feeling.
- Keep asking for help.
- Listen…really listen to your students.
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