About Lee-Ann Meredith

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu Lee-Ann Meredith is a second grade teacher, author, Department Chairperson and education advocate who has spent the duration of her time in public education at John B. Murphy Elementary School in inner city Chicago. Often characterized as funny, dynamic, and an independent innovator, Lee-Ann cites her idol as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Fluent in a wide range in instructional strategies for the elementary level, Lee-Ann is dedicated to being an advocate for children everywhere by implementing 'cutting edge' strategies to increase student achievement. Some of the issues that she spearhead included: promoting literacy throughout the building, leading community meetings to advocate for full day kindergarten for all students and helping implement the Responsive Classroom strategies throughout the school. In addition to working closely with the curriculum, she also had the honor to supervise (and mentor into teaching positions) numerous student teachers and practicum students from various post-secondary institutions around the Chicago area such as: Erikson Institute, National Louis, DePaul. Northeaster Illinois, Roosevelt, and North Park Universities.

Sometimes it happens at the beginning of the year. Or one January or May morning, the disembodied voice on the intercom announces you have a new student coming up to join your class. Then, there he is. That child,  is usually a boy, stands at the door, assessing the class. You send up a silent prayer when you see him. He’s trouble and you know it.

I’ve had dozens of these children in my second grade class. I have learned it doesn’t pay to whine about it. No one cares that you have a tough kid or two or three. I just pulled up my “big girl” pants and dealt with it. That child needed me. My job was to create the best learning environment for him, regardless of his behavior.

Here are some steps to help incorporate that difficult child into your class.

Find out what makes him tick. Take some time, a few minutes a day is all it takes, to find out what interests him. Don’t judge, even if it shocks you, just be interested even if you have to fake it. Tell him what you like. Make it a conversation. Find out why he likes the things he does. Mention it the next day. Stick it in a lesson. This builds acceptance and he will feel you understand him. You, in fact, will begin to understand him.

Assess where he needs help as soon a possible. Frequently, children with behavior issues have learning issues that trigger outbursts. If they have changed schools often, then their knowledge may have gaping holes in it. Also, it takes time to get a child help, so if he behind, start RTI immediately. Don’t waste a minute. If he moves before he gets help, be sure everything you did, diagnostics and remediation, are included in his folder. Never take the attitude that he’s not your problem. Instead, decide to be the person who may make a difference in his life even if it is for a short while. By documenting his education gaps, you give the next teacher the tools to get started right away.

Charm the parents. This is often very hard. Their lives are usually a mess, they are distrustful, angry, or they have an attitude that school is unimportant. Start every conversation in a positive tone even if it sets your teeth on edge. Reinforce over and over that you want what is best for their child and believe that it will work best if you collaborate. I have been amazed how often this works. You may still take verbal abuse from this parent (always report this to your administration, whether they will take action or not, and document this in the child’s folder.) At least, you will know you tried to work with the family even if they didn’t accept it. Plus, you may just change their attitude.

If he is aggressive, teach the class what to do. A couple of class meetings can help everyone deal with an aggressive classmate. Kids need tools to cope but also are excellent observers. Ask the class what they can do if one of their classmates loses his temper and hits someone. Never name the child. Let him come up with some of the solutions. If you give the class permission to report a dangerous situation but not tattle, they become that tough child’s guardians. They want him to keep his cool. I have been often surprised to have a child say, for example, that Nero is drumming his fingers and he always does that before he starts a fire and I better come. This reporting is done to help Nero as much as to protect everyone else. The class is vested in a safe environment and they want everyone to succeed. They realize, better than adults, that Nero needs to be safe, too.

Assign buddies. Several buddies. If this child is stressful to you, he is probably stressful to his classmates. Don’t put all that stress on one kindhearted child. Divvy it up.

Create a cool down place in and out of the classroom. In the classroom, have a designated spot which anyone can use, with permission, to calm down. For me, it was under my desk, a place I never sat. It could be a cushion or a corner in the coat closet. It shouldn’t be for just one child but everyone. I also arranged with another teacher or two have a place for my student to go when he needed to be out of the room. It has to be clear to the child and the other teacher, that this is a place to calm down. Discuss in advance what expectations you have. In return, it was understood that I would take a child from their classroom if needed, no questions asked.

Keep your temper in check. You are expecting a child to learn to control his temper and behavior. Control yours, too. If you are losing it and can’t even look at them without wanting to yell, send them to the other classroom. (I used to tell my students that one of us needed to leave and I couldn’t, so it had to be them.) Keep something handy to help yourself calm down, and then use it. It could be a piece of gum or a lemon drop, putting on some hand cream, deep breaths, or whatever. Accept that you need to have tools to keep yourself in control.

Help him keep his temper in check. It is the same as keeping yours in check. Trial and error will be necessary here. A little stuffed animal in his desk, a yoga band tied around the base of his chair to kick against, or a self-adhesive Velcro strip under the desk to rub might work. If you can talk to his parents, find out what works at home. Don’t worry that the rest of the class will wonder why he gets something special and they don’t. Just state frankly that it helps him calm down. Children are well aware that people just need to have ways to calm down and everyone is happier when it works.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Pick two or three difficulties to work on at a time. Physical violence is first. Then, things that get in the way of education. Verbal rewards need to be immediate. I prefer a non-emotional response such as “I see you got you temper in control. I bet that felt great.” rather than “I love the way you kept calm. It makes me happy.” It was about them not me. Behavior, other than academic and physical, needs to be ignored or an easy solution found.

He needs a friend and advocate, become it. Talk to him. Find out what is good about him. Smile at him. Laugh with him. Be honest with him. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore or condone behavior that is unacceptable. If you are his friend, it means he doesn’t want to let you down. It also means you can move beyond a bad day and still like him. You are doing this for the child but also for yourself. When I remember those kids who gave me the worst time, I nearly always laugh. See the humor in it and try to love the gift they giving you.

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