Saturday, November 16, 2013

How to Draw in the Student Who is Withdrawn

Retreat looks a little bit different on everybody. For some students, this appears as quiet lethargy. For others, it may look more like blatant apathy. Some students hang back from the class, hold back in social settings, or completely shut down. Often, students who withdraw appear depressed. Sometimes, our bubbliest, most energetic students withdraw in certain situations. Does this sound like anyone in your class?

When we observe a behavior, we often think A-B-Cs and functions. We use this to develop interventions that will shape or modify the behavior. But with withdrawn behavior, we need to dig a bit deeper. Common attempts to modify the withdrawn behavior causes more withdrawn behavior. I had an a-ha! moment recently.

I observed a thoughtful, fun-loving child who has a great sense of humor. She was taking a quiz. Question #4 was tricky, and she got stuck. Her head went straight down, and it stayed there for a while. Privately, I assured her that this was okay. #4 is tricky for most students! I got #4 wrong when I was in school, too! Everybody makes mistakes. That's just part of learning. I actually love mistakes, because it means I get to teach something again in a different, maybe better, way! Skip it, and try the next one. I tried everything I could to cheer her up and accept being stuck on a problem. The whole shebang. I analyzed my data. The antecedent to every "shut down" incident was a difficult problem or a mistake. The function was to escape the difficult problem or mistake. Or so I thought.

My mistake.

I decided to give her some space. I'd been trying this intervention in trying to help her cope with mistakes for weeks, and others who had worked with her had been trying it for years. It was pretty obvious that it was not working. Sure, we'd have to wait for maturity to kick in-- but still. There had to be something I could do to help her cope right now.

I asked a colleague for advice. She said, "Don't think behavior on this one. Go deeper. Think self-esteem." That's when it clicked. My attempts to help her feel better were actually salt in the wound. Here's why.

She wasn't trying to just escape the task or demand. She was trying to escape feeling worse than she already felt. I realized that I wasn't sending my message in a way that she could hear me.

My intentions: "Mistakes are okay! Here are some ideas we could use to make this better."
Her interpretation: "Not only did I make a mistake on my quiz, but now I also made a mistake in how I handled it. I didn't fix it correctly."

Salt in the wound. -2 self-esteem.

I decided to change my approach. At this point, I no longer cared about the quiz. I'll reteach common and proper nouns another time, when she's feeling better. Right now, I can't teach her to cope, either. My attempts will make her feel worse. Instead, let me try building her confidence-- but not in a patronizing way that shows she did something wrong.

I started talking to her about unrelated topics-- her likes, interests, etc. Of course, she didn't want to speak, so I started telling her a funny story about how I caused an iPad app to malfunction and was stuck in how to fix it. (I knew she knew how to fix this particular app). Finally, she looked up and said, "Duh, you just need to..." and she went on to tell me how to fix it. I thanked her profusely for her help. +2 self-esteem. She finished the test a short time later.

The next day, she made a mistake during a play break. She came in and pushed everything out of her desk, and she completely shut down. Adults tried to make her pick up everything she pushed. The problem was that she wasn't being defiant. She didn't push things off her desk or stomp on her artwork to be malicious or to bother others. She did it out of sheer defeat. If she had instead chosen to hit herself in the head, people probably would have said, "Please don't do this. You're going to hurt yourself! You're a good person. Please stop!" Her pushing those items off her desk really is the same type of reaction. Unfortunately, it elicits a different kind of adult response. She destroyed her personal belongings, things that made her feel good about herself, because in that moment she felt bad about herself. Reprimanding that never fixed the situation before. It wasn't going to work now.

I said, "I'm not upset with you. Let me help you clean this up like you helped me clean everyone's desks yesterday." She got right up and cleaned up the mess. She even kindly took the items out of my hand to show me that I didn't have to help her. I felt like my mouth was going to fall to the floor. +2 self-esteem.

I realized I had made another mistake in only talking to her about her shutting down during and after an incident. I should have instead talked to her before the incident. I forgot to plan, prepare, practice, and encourage.

Granted, we do need to stop her outward behavior-- pushing items off the desk, not attending to instruction, not completing assignments. How do we do that, though, with everything else on her plate?

It's simple. We need to treat the problem, not just the symptoms. If a doctor has a patient with a broken arm, pain killers can be prescribed to treat the symptom of pain-- but the real issue is that the broken bone must be mended.

So how do we mend a broken sense of self? How do we treat the symptoms associated with low self esteem? Here are a few ideas.
  • Talk to her when she is happy, and figure out which activities create the most stress. Make a plan for how to handle each. Practice this plan often. That's why we have fire drills so often! Prepare, practice, and encourage.
  • Time the "talk" appropriately. Have the "talk" before the incident occurs-- not during. Explain to the student that she is about to begin a task, and that she might make mistakes. In fact, she is probably going to make mistakes. Maybe even lots of them. Plan what she'll do and what you'll do when this happens.
  • Before starting a frustrating task, teach the student to envision positive outcomes. Help her to practice imagining herself getting through the problem and how she will feel after it is complete.
  • Show the students that she has worth, in a manner that is not patronizing or that shows something was done incorrectly.
  • Explicitly teach how to overcome adversity. Normalize it. Give examples of people she admires who have faced adversity. Point out when you take setbacks in stride. Reinforce when she takes even small setbacks in stride.
  • Get her involved in volunteer work. Helping others is a great way to help yourself!
  • Avoid forcing the student to engage in anxiety producing social situations. Encourage, and let the child start out by observing or playing alongside. Gradually engage the child in short doses.
  • Point out what the student does well-- academically, socially, behaviorally. Do this often, but not only when the student is upset! Encourage others to do this, too.
  • Pair the student with a preferred peer for groupwork, seating arrangements, transition buddies, etc.
  • Read books with characters who gain confidence. 
  • Try some of these ideas from Eric Jensen:
    • engaging students in community service
    • giving students activist roles
    • encouraging active hobbies
    • implementing physical activity
    • practicing personal skills
    • encouraging students to begin making contributions to family
    • enhancing positive states in class
    • giving students choices
    • providing plenty of opportunities to increase self-worth
    • utilizing confidence-building activities
    • thanking students for something they've done
    • helping students increase feelings of inclusion and ownership
    • giving specific positive praise and encouragement
Life is a lot like a tough quiz. I can teach anybody how to take a quiz... but I will teach her how to overcome the "tough stuff" so that she can lead a happier life.

What are some things you do to help students who withdraw? Please share in the comments below!

A Peach for the Teach


  1. Great post, Brandi! I just recently spoke with a parent of a student similar to the one that you referred to in your post. This information and insight will be very helpful as I work with this particular student. Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Thanks! Thanks for sharing your story! I hope you find it helpful! Please let me know if you come up with any additional ideas. You're welcome! Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks so much! I hope you find it helpful! Please keep me posted on how you and your student are doing. If you find anything that works, please feel free to share. Thanks again!

  3. Great ideas. I have issues like this in my class with similar experiences. This would help me greatly with some of my girls in class. Thank you

  4. Great insight, I never thought about self-esteem being the reason a student might become aggressive and destroy their things. I love the tips and ideas on how to help!

  5. Excellent advice here... so, thanks for that. One practice I implemented was to do a quick review of all students homework prior to going over it and ask these less confident students to share one/some of the questions/problems that they got correct. It works to build their confidence pretty well.

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  7. Thanks so much! I hope you find it helpful!

  8. hey students this your time so be withdrawn for any things. don't afford from failure take failure as a lesson not a weakness and start again and again. this is the learning process only you can over come this thing.