Ready to Quit: A Teacher's Reflection on the Most Challenging Student of her Career

"It wasn't too far into the year when Cristina considered quitting her job. She loves teaching and knows that it's her passion in life. But this student had pushed so many buttons that she thought it might be time to walk away." Read more...

By Momentous Institute | Jul 03, 2017

Early in the year, Cristina Garcia recalls her student laughing as he ripped artwork off the walls. Cristina is a Pre-K teacher at Momentous School and has worked in education for 16 years. This year she had the most challenging student of her career. She remembers feeling unsure of her ability to help him; she didn’t think she had the tools and she didn’t know what else to try. One day she saw him rip artwork off the walls and she thought, “I hope he proves me wrong. I hope something we do can help him.”

Cristina is now finishing up her most challenging year as an educator to date. She smiles and says, “He did prove me wrong.” She opened up about her experiences with her challenging student and how she made it through to the other side.

This particular student was a challenge from the beginning. He started the year exhibiting all kinds of behavior – hitting, spitting, cursing, throwing. Cristina knew that a four-year-old with significant behavior issues is communicating something deeper through those behaviors. . And she knew that when he yelled at her and called her names, that it really wasn’t about her but about his inability to manage his behavior. But knowing that didn’t make it any easier. She says that when a student is happy to see tears forming in your eyes as he calls you names, it is hard not to take it personally.

It wasn’t too far into the year when Cristina considered quitting her job. She loves teaching and knows that it’s her passion in life. But this student had pushed so many buttons that she thought it might be time to walk away. In the back of her mind, she knew she couldn’t quit. She had students, colleagues and families who counted on her. Plus she couldn’t walk away from this student. As much of a challenge as he was, she didn’t want to quit on him. Then what would happen to him?

The student began receiving necessary therapeutic help for his behavior. He worked with the Momentous Institute Launch program, a therapeutic preschool for children who display major emotional dysregulation. Cristina and the therapeutic team partnered with his parents to help continue the work at home. Cristina began to see a dim light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Students in Pre-K take afternoon naps on cots. This particular student had a hard time falling asleep. At the beginning of the year, Cristina had to hold him and rock him to sleep. When that didn’t work, she had to sit or lay down next to him and rub his back. When that didn’t work, she had to model self-regulation skills. Cristina knows about using breathing as a tool for self-regulation – she teaches it to her students every year. But she had never had such a clear example of how it works until her experience with this student. Every day at nap time, Cristina sat next to his cot and practiced deep breathing. She told him, “You don’t have to sleep, but we are going to rest. I am going to take deep breaths.” She needed this time to help her calm down after a stressful morning, and sure enough within a couple of minutes, the student was asleep. He would listen to her deep breaths and this co-regulation calmed him down and allowed him to fall asleep.

With the help of his therapists, Cristina focused her efforts on strengthening her relationship with the student. At first, she didn’t really understand what that meant. She figured that he was in her room every day, that she had been to his home as part of the school home visits, and that she had given him attention when he needed it. How else could she possibly strengthen the relationship? How did he not already know that he was safe with her? His therapists suggested spending dedicated time just with him. This is difficult to do with a classroom full of students. Cristina leaned on the teacher assistant she shared with the other Pre-K class as well as school support staff and administrators. Everyone understood how critical it was that she had special time with this student and stepped in to help out as much as possible.

Cristina spent about 20 minutes of one-on-one time each morning and another 20 minutes in the afternoon. She embraced the whole experience with an open mind. She tried any recommendation that the therapists suggested. Some worked, some didn’t. Many times they would walk down the halls rolling a hula hoop. They tried building a pop-up tent to serve as a safe space for him, but he ripped it apart and destroyed it.

Cristina would stand near him but not directly in front of him. She would say, “I’m here. I can see you feel angry. I am here when you’re ready to talk.” The student slowly began to understand his own feelings. He would start to feel a big emotion and he would quietly walk over to the reflection center and bury himself under the pillow (a safe space that did work for him). He started being able to express his frustration in healthy ways, and notice the feelings before they completely took over.

The student’s mom played an important role in the process. She and Cristina were in constant communication throughout the year. His mom took parenting classes, met with the team of therapists, and was willing to try all of the recommendations.

Cristina also learned to take care of herself so that she could take care of him. Before this experience, she loved coming to work in the morning. Her classroom was a happy place for her to spend her time. As she got into this school year, she started dreading it. She used to work long days, not worrying about what time she left in the evening. But maintaining that schedule was now draining and exhausting. She was worried about her blood pressure and her mental health. She realized that she needed to leave at the end of the school day and do something else that wasn’t work related. During her students’ nap time and for a few minutes after school, she did simple mindfulness and deep breathing practices to help her calm down and focus her energy.

A combination of all of these efforts slowly worked to change this student’s behavior. Today he is a popular student in class – the other students love spending time with him and are sad when he’s absent. They now spend their time together working on academics (his choice) instead of managing behavior. He’s interested in learning; he sits down and tries his hardest. He no longer destroys school property. In fact, he asked to take home items that he broke so that he could repair them and bring them back. Cristina can’t believe the transformation. The beginning of the year feels like a hundred years ago.

There’s no magic wand that led to this outcome. It was a year of hard work, tears, frustration and failures. It was trying and trying and trying again. But there is no doubt about it – the relationship was the cornerstone of every intervention. Cristina remembers when the switch flipped around Spring Break. It was after months of focusing on the relationship that he slowly started to feel safe. It was through that secure and trusted relationship that he was able to see the world as safe. He needed that safety before he could learn to do more advanced skills like manage his emotions and behaviors. It is true that one safe relationship is all it takes to change a child’s life, and this story of Cristina’s most challenging student is a perfect example.

Cristina says there is always that one student in every teacher’s life who stands out. She knows that the kids you work the hardest with are often the ones who stick with you. She says he’ll always have a special place in her heart. And while he may not understand the transformation that happened this year, there is no doubt that she impacted him in a profound and life-changing way.