Tuesday, December 05, 2023

When Children are Disrespectful and Destructive

A couple days ago, I was tagged in a Facebook thread of teachers complaining about the behavior of their students. I only spent a few minutes scrolling through the comments, but most of them seemed to be coming from middle school teachers in public schools who were accusing the kids of being disrespectful and destructive. Some even provided photographic evidence of vandalism and general disregard for property.

"Uncaring" and "disconnected" parents seemed to be receiving most of the blame with the Covid pandemic coming in a close and intertwined second. Unaddressed mental health challenges were mentioned as a cause as was our namby-pamby society in which adults are no longer allowed to hit children to "teach them respect." In fairness, there were a few commenters who pointed their fingers at modern schooling itself, but they were few and far between. A huge percentage of these teachers asserted that they were quitting their jobs as soon as possible.

I clicked away after a minute or two, however, in part because I've been trying to remain conscious of my online scrolling behavior, but mostly because my personal focus is preschool-aged children, not middle schoolers.

Yesterday, however, as I was interviewing the wonderful Maggie Dent for Teacher Tom's Podcast (scheduled to debut in February) she made the off-hand comment, "Teenagers are preschoolers on steroids."

In preschool, we say that behavior is communication. If a preschooler behaves disrespectfully or destructively we would immediately assume that they were trying to tell us that they're sad, afraid, confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, or otherwise dysregulated, and it's our job, as the adults, to try to figure out what it is they are telling us. Their family life might well have something to do with it. For instance, it's quite common for a formerly single child to engage in selfish behavior while adjusting to a new baby at home. Maybe someone in the family has lost their job. Maybe there are marital problems. These kinds of things impact teenagers as well. 

In my experience, most troubling behaviors have their roots in something going on at home, but it would never occur to me as a preschool teacher to blame parents. 

When I think of the behavior of these young teenagers, most of whom are at an age that traditional cultures consider to be adults, I wonder if maybe they're the proverbial canaries in the coal mines. These teachers seemed to be insisting that this kind of behavior is relatively new, that it didn't used to be this way. These teachers seem to be reporting from all corners of the country. Now, granted, this Facebook thread, like all gripe-fests, is a self-selected group which is not inclusive of those who are not experiencing challenging behaviors or who feel on top of things, but this isn't the first time I've heard about rising disrespect and destructiveness. 

Maybe these children's behavior is the tip of a much larger iceberg. Maybe the disrespect and destructiveness isn't isolated to middle school classrooms. Indeed, it's quite clear that it isn't. Some days it feels as if the entire world is behaving like these middle schoolers.

Young children who behave disrespectfully, I've found, are the children who are treated disrespectfully by the adults in their lives. Young children who behave destructively, I've found, are the children who feel they have little choice in their lives, who feel trapped or caged or otherwise un-free to engage the world in personally meaningful ways.

One of the reasons I strive to stop scrolling is because too much of what I find there is disrespect, destruction and finger-pointing. It's not just middle schoolers, it's all of us. Perhaps not you or me, but our behavior as a culture is communicating, and what I hear it saying is "I am human, too!"

What I've found with preschoolers is that disrespect and destructiveness tends to disappear when I stop trying to control them and instead make the effort to listen to what their behavior is communicating. Often, all it takes is that, listening. When I listen, I understand that these children are only asking for the same thing all of us are asking for: to be allowed to pursue a life of meaning and purpose in a reasonably safe environment of respect. When we don't get that, we often respond with disrespect and destruction.

When I listen to young children, more often than not, I hear myself, and that is where understanding begins.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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