An acquaintance of mine (who works in education) recently commented that she once thought about studying school psychology but changed her mind – she didn’t want to work only with the “problem kids.” I cringed at the description, but am unfortunately familiar with the stereotype. Students who cannot sit still, who argue with teachers, who don’t finish homework, who hit, who fall asleep in class, who get angry easily, who cry too often, who talk too much or too little, who skip class, are often swiftly labeled “problems.”
My work at MSPP and my field sites has taught me just how complex human development is, and how many factors can play a role in defining students’ behavior and academic performance. Trauma/abuse, poor sleep hygiene, stress, low expectations, misfiring neurological connections in the brain (e.g. ADHD), lack of social or emotional regulation skills, depression, anxieties, learning disabilities, irrelevant curriculum content, and many other challenges may be impacting a child’s ability to participate fully in school – and usually more than one of these obstacles are present, with one exacerbating the other.
School psychology teaches us that while we can help students gain self-regulation, concentration, and study skills, we also must look at the classroom and school environment of the student. What can the school do differently to better accommodate this “difficult” child or adolescent? How might a change in routine or instructional methods or curriculum or classroom furniture or leadership opportunities improve a student’s success at school? These are the questions we wrestle with as mental health professionals who straddle the line with education. But our most daunting task is most likely not the explosively angry first grader, the hyperactive middle-school student, or the frustrated sophomore, but rather altering the perception that these students present insurmountable “problems.” Reframing problems and mitigating these entrenched stereotypes may be our career-long marathon, but little by little, poco a poco, we can. Got a problem with that?