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So you have a "classroom thief." Things come up missing--both classroom items and those belonging to other students. You believe you've found the culprit, but he or she will not admit to stealing anything. Before you pull your hair out, try out these strategies for finding peace when things go missing in your classroom.
I spoke about how to create boundaries in my post about how to create boundaries in your classroom. This might be a good place to start.
First, Remember Who You're Dealing With
You've got to remember that these people in your classroom that steal things are children. They're still mold-able and many times they steal things because they're missing something in their own lives. And that doesn't have to mean that they don't have tangible things at home. Sometimes it means that some emotional needs fulfillment and they just pick up tangible items for a momentary feeling of happiness. Either way, they're children and you can still help them through this problem.
Figure It Out--Gently
The first thing most children will do if you confront them head-on is lie. If you want to find out the truth, take the child aside and have a conversation. Make sure the conversation happens in private and in a non-confrontational way. I once had a student who stole a pencil from another child. She would not admit in class to taking it, but I went and sat with her at lunch. We chatted for a bit and then I said that sometimes we take things when they're just sitting out and no one has them, but that the person who had those things comes back to look for them only to find they're gone. I asked her if she knew how she would feel if something got taken from her. She then felt empathy for the other student and admitted to taking it. She agreed to give it back and apologize--and she did just that. This offense was minor since she committed a pretty innocent crime, but this kind of talk helps with most children. Make them feel empathy with accusation. Most children respond well to this approach.
Work on Classroom Culture
Make sure you've developed a classroom culture that requires students to accept one another and help each other out. This is important because the person in the room--the "classroom thief"--needs to know that even though he or she made a mistake, your students will still accept him/her. Labeling a student a thief helps no one. It makes the class feel insecure and it makes it almost impossible for the "thief" to feel comfortable apologizing. In other words, if your classroom doesn't feel safe to the students within your four walls, there's a low probability that you will fix the problem.
Talk to the Parents
A conversation with the parents of your "classroom thief" feels uncomfortable, but it's unavoidable. They need to know what's going on and get on board with helping solve the problem. This may include counseling for the child, a tracking system for behaviors, a reward system, and/or consequences for the behavior. Whatever happens, parent involvement in any situation where a student has struggles is the biggest determinant in the success of your student.
Praise, Praise, Praise
If your student steals to seek happiness and comfort, the best thing you can do is find ways to praise the student. You could praise the student for working quietly, for raising his/her hand, for helping others, for standing well in line, for volunteering an answer, and for many other little things. Just make sure your praise feels genuine to the student because if it's fake, he/she will pick up on it.
Patience--the Biggest Virtue
Change takes time. If someone told you to give up your soda, your coffee, your chocolate, or whatever else you currently feel you cannot live without, how long do you think it might take for your not to crave it anymore? For some people, it wouldn't take long at all. For most of us, though, the change would take some time. We may do well for a while and then lapse back into old habits when things get tough. We may have moments of weakness that feel impossible to overcome. Eventually, though, if we had to give up that thing we desire the most, we'd do it. It just takes time and patience and an acceptance of the fact that sometimes we make mistakes. You must help instill this belief into the student that even though mistakes happen, we start back over and keep working at changing our behavior.
Ask for Help
On days that you feel like you can't do anything to change the problems in your classroom, seek help from your colleagues, your friends, and, if necessary, your administration. If you can't see the forest for all the trees, sometimes an objective person will come in and give you just the solution you need. There's nothing wrong with asking for advice. A reflective teacher notices when a problem exists, analyzes the situation, and looks for the best possible solution. When the fix for the problem doesn't work, a reflective teacher either things of a new solution or goes to his/her colleagues for some insight.
If you have a "classroom thief," I imagine that you want to fix the problem yesterday. Remember that you're dealing with a student who needs help, not a criminal. Do what you can to support the 'thief" and that rest of your class while you look for a way to extinguish the behavior. It may take time, but you will do it! And really, even if you never find a solution to the problem, you've only got this child for 9 months. The parent has him/her for years beyond that. Empathy will ultimately change the student, the parents, and the other children in your classroom for the better. Do what you can while you can, but gently, and you will survive this year of school.