Why do some children find it so difficult to learn in a classroom situation? It’s a warning signal for teachers to look for the underlying psychological and social causes

In my career both as a mainstream school teacher and remedial educator, there have been times when my ability to teach has been challenged by some students, when I have lived with doubts for days about my teaching ability. I am sure, like me, there are other teachers who spend time thinking about children who find it difficult to learn in a classroom set-up — who remain in our minds long after school hours. We metaphorically “take them home”.

There are many children who defy our patience and intellect; most often than not we tend to give up on them. But, sometimes, we are lucky; we come across a professional who makes us aware of the issues that affect the ability of some children to settle into classroom learning. Marie Delaney is one such person whom I met by chance. She gave me an insight into the behaviour of such children. I wish I had met her at the start of my teaching career. I would have been happier and more confident. If all teachers made an attempt to follow what she says, then I see a ray of hope for those children who find it tough to learn in a classroom.

Marie Delaney is a teacher, teacher-trainer and an educational psychotherapist. She has authored two beautiful books to help teachers deal with challenging behaviours in the classroom. She was my co-panellist at the recent Third International Teacher Educators Conference in Hyderabad, organised by the British Council. She talked about the effects of specific types of trauma on classroom learning. Children who have not perhaps had the best start in life, or are living in difficult circumstances, may not have had opportunities to acquire emotional and social competence to become successful learners. Their minds are so filled with thoughts and worries about their life outside school that they find it difficult to focus in the classroom. Their minds may be pre-occupied with the struggle of living with domestic violence, loss, neglect, addiction, mental illness or abuse.

Let us take a peek at how specific types of trauma and loss can affect classroom behaviour and learning.

Children affected by domestic violence: Children who have witnessed or been subjected to domestic violence will have experienced conflicting emotions and feelings. They may have feelings of anger towards both parents: towards the victim for somehow ‘allowing’ the violence and towards the ‘aggressor’ for causing the abuse. This can cause a huge level of anxiety and confusion in their brains. These feelings cannot be safely expressed at home and often surface in school. Children and adolescents living with this kind of experience may unconsciously recreate violent interactions with adults in school because this is what their brains have become accustomed to. They may become aggressive or persecutory in school, seeming to empathise with the aggressor, and may despise what they see as weakness in others, causing them to bully the weaker or different children or even the teacher.

Children affected by loss: Many children in our classrooms experience loss or rejection of some kind. Loss might be due to bereavement, divorce, separation, adoption, having a family member in prison or continual moving of residence.

These children have aggressive feelings relating to unexpressed feelings of rage against a parent or loved one for leaving them. At the same time, they may also be sad about the loss. These conflicting feelings make it difficult for them to settle down in the classroom.

Children affected by addiction: Children who have lived with a parent addicted to alcohol or drugs, may not have experienced a consistent response from the adult in their early years.

The parent may have been unavailable emotionally or perhaps physically. In class, these children may not appear to respond to consistent care or be inclined to follow rules. They expect each day to be different and sometimes unconsciously provoke the staff into displaying inconsistent behaviour. They will seem difficult to teach as we cannot predict their response from one day to the next. For them inconsistency is the norm.

Children affected by parental mental illness: There are children who appear quiet and withdrawn. They may be excessively anxious but may not appear so.Children who have to cope with parental mental illness can exhibit this kind of behaviour.

They may have realised that their needs might be too overwhelming and worrisome for their parents, so they keep it to themselves, not wanting to burden their parents. This can manifest itself in the classroom in the form of withdrawal from the relationship with the teacher.

As a teacher who is part of a fast-paced, stressful and chaotic life at school, you might not have the time or the resources to know much about the background of those children who often get punished for disruptive behaviour or are ignored and never get understanding or sympathy. However, if you go beyond stereotypical thinking, then their behaviour might give you insights into their experiences outside school.

They may have lived or be living amid violent circumstances, experienced a severe loss or separation. By recognising the effect of trauma on key learning skills, we could find a starting point which allows us to stand back and observe what is actually happening. We need to reach out to these children through a step-by-step approach — through careful planning and assigning them appropriate tasks.

The writer is a Remedial Educator. Email: rajfarida@gmail.com

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