The funny thing about control:
Or to gain control you have to give up control
by Karin Ford
My first year teaching was spent trying just to survive and keep my class of young children categorized as Autistic alive. During my second year, I was actively struggling to gain or regain control of my classroom. As I look back now, I have to chuckle. Control is a funny word and gaining control is kind of like catching water with your hand. You get wet but you don't really catch the water. A young man in my class sent me on a journey of learning. He taught me that in order to gain control I had to give him control of his actions. Once he was empowered I gained control of the situation. Sound confusing? Let me explain.
Stanley (pseudonym) was a bright young man. As wide as he was tall, at eight years old he was a force to be dealt with. Stanley had a complete arsenal of strategies he used to not just be non-compliant but to truly be oppositional. If I asked him to sit at the table. He would sit under it. Sit facing the table, he'd turn around. Sit correctly, he'd sit upside down. You getting the picture? Stanley never said the word yes. He never even said OK. He schemed and plotted to get his way and if that didn't work he just sat down. At close to 180 pounds he was hard to move and he knew it. I was stumped and I had absolutely no control of the situation. A great deal of class time was spent in trying to get Stanley to comply to requests. Life in my room began to center less on goals and objectives and more and more on how to get Stanley to participate. This was not how I wanted my classroom to operate. Stanley was stealing time from instruction and stealing time I could have been spending with the other students. After much talking with my support staff and talking with his mom I decided on a plan of action.
The first thing I did was bribe him. That is right. I bribed him. If he would walk to the bus and get on it his mom would get him a soda when he got home. This worked and ended the daily battle to get him on the bus. Then I put it on paper. One week he just had to walk to the bus to get the soda. Once he was doing that I upped the ante. He had to walk to the bus and keep his arms down (he flapped them like he was flying) to get his soda. This started to work. I couldn't get him to come to art. So I did the only sensible thing. I gave up trying. Next time art came around, I asked everyone to come to the table. They checked schedules and proceeded to the table. Everyone but Stanley arrived at the table. Instead of engaging in the regular battle to get him to come I told Stanley he didn't have to come and that he was welcome to stay at his desk. I proceeded with art. Everyone had a good time and I hadn't spent 15 minutes wasting everyone's time on Stanley. Next time we had art he didn't come…third time we had art he stayed at his desk. You know what? Fourth time we had art he got up and came to the table. I had taken the fun out of refusing by not paying attention to it when it was reasonable not to pay attention.
Shortly after that small victory, I offered Stanley a deal. I created a contract between us. In return for doing certain things I wanted him to do Stanley would earn something he wanted. At eight years old, Stanley wanted Burger King parties for the whole class and ice cream parties; things of that sort. The first contract I set up to make it easy for Stanley to achieve. I picked just a few things for him to focus on and made certain he was successful. Each contract got longer and harder. About two months passed and things were going much smoother in my classroom. No longer did I spend huge amounts of time trying to get Stanley to comply with requests. If he didn't want to comply he didn't get a check on his contract. He was given an alternate activity when reasonable and the class moved on. Soon he was regularly coming to art. It was never his favorite but he did it. He got through his individual work, his academics, and he put things away when asked.
I really knew I had accomplished something one day when his mom called. Her first words were "what did you do to Stanley? ". *gulp* I was panic stricken. I meekly replied "nothing I know of, what's wrong? " She burst into tears and said that when she asked Stanley to clean something up he had said "OK". Never in all his life had he ever said a simple OK when asked to do something. She couldn't get over the transformation. She was in disbelief that her son not only verbally agreed to do something without a fight but he actually got up and did what he was asked to do. She cried and then I cried. Somewhere in all the contracts and all the things I had set up to enable Stanley to stop fighting us, he had realized that it was ok to say OK.
A year later, Stanley no longer needed elaborate contracts to accomplish things in the classroom. He still had incentive systems in place but they were there because he enjoyed them not because he needed them. In giving Stanley some choices in his life and by even doing things that were viewed as bribes by some, he was given control of the situation. I was freed from fighting with him for control and he was freed from fighting with me. In the end we both ended up happier. I got to teach more, he learned it was ok to opt out on occasion and that gave him the ability to choose to opt in.
A good friend of mine has a son with a disability. Her favorite phrase is "kids out of control need to be given the most control". Seems like a strange thing. I've seen it work though. It doesn't make you a weak teacher to empower your students. It makes you a very wise teacher to know that you can control things by controlling what kinds of choices your students get to make for themselves. Engaging in power struggles with your students will rarely achieve the results you were envisioning. Creative problem solving and figuring out ways to help your students make the choices you'd like them to make is a much more efficient and effective approach. I wish every teacher could have as wise a teacher as I had in Stanley. He taught me an awful lot about gaining control of my classroom.
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