What can you do about the problem class?

Most schools experience a problem class at some point in time.  For obvious reasons this is not something that they broadcast to outsiders.  Often it’s a fifth or sixth grade class that has seemingly forgotten what kindness is, though problematic dynamics show up as early as second grade.  Once a class becomes “the problem class”, they often get stuck in that role.  Educators vacillate between confronting the ringleaders and forcing change (highly unsuccessful) and giving up.

There IS an alternative solution that begins with a change of mindset.  Yours!  If a pattern of bullying and disrespect has developed between students – whether across your whole campus or within a particular classroom – change the lens through which you view the problem.  Stop fixating on the individual students.  You are now dealing with a systemic phenomenon i.e. a problem that has a life of its own greater than the individual students that are participating in the phenomenon.

How do you look at a problem class systemically?  At No Bully we use our bulls-eye chart as a diagnostic tool to analyze how each of the systems contributes to the problem class dynamic and from there create systemic solutions.  Here is a five stage change process that you can adapt for your school:

1.  Call a meeting of all the adults that work with the class. Draw your own version of the No Bully bulls-eye chart (below) to methodically analyze how each system is contributing to the problem.

Ask your team of educators to record what is going on within each particular circle. Do the teachers use sarcasm or other power plays?  Are parents badmouthing and scapegoating individual students or are they forming their own cliques?  Have the administration solidified into labeling this class as “the problem class”?   (Always a bad idea – labels lead to stuck thinking.)

2.  Systemic problems call for systemic solutions.  Explore with your team of teachers how to address the influences within each circle and bring students, parents and teachers together in a different way.  Systemic solutions at the student level range from rearranging the classroom (removing all existing paper on walls, repainting the classroom, changing the seating plan) to creating a class challenge (a class play or construction project) to adopting a whole new approach to teaching (e.g. team teaching or project based learning with carefully structured teams of students).   BUT you will also need to make systemic change at the teacher level (e.g. stop thinking of them as the problem class, forswear sarcasm) and at the parent level (e.g. a mandatory parent meeting in which fathers and sons work together in one room, mothers and daughters in another room, in which parents listen and then share their experiences of getting along in school. Then bring both genders together to share their insights.)

3. Hold a non-accusatory discussion with the problem class in which you frame the problem as an external force that has taken them over.  Ask questions such as: Have any of you noticed that you are getting along differently now than in [third] grade?  What took you over?  What is its name?  How did it get so powerful?  Is it always here or do you still sometimes get along in the old way?
Wrap up the meeting by giving students the opportunity to write anonymously how they would like for things to be different and put their pieces of paper in an envelope that only you will read.

4. Hold a follow-up class meeting in which you reveal the suggestions that students made (preserving anonymity) and facilitate a conversation on what agreements they would like to make about how they treat each other.  Let them know that you will be following up on this meeting.  If particular students are still the target of bullying, run a solution team on their behalf.

5. Never forget that you are dealing with a systemic problem.  And because systems have a strong pull to stay the same (the principle of homeostasis) you will need to employ strategic interventions that SHOCK and destablize the system so that it can coalesce in a different form!  That’s why schools secretly repaint and rearrange the classroom over the weekend and then hold an unannounced classroom meeting on Monday morning.  Or they hold a mandatory parent meeting which the students attend but reward students with a “no homework” pass for the evening.  Be novel in the interventions that you choose.  And sustain the momentum of change – it takes time but you can get there.