In my career of 27 years there were only two students whom I would say were unreachable due to mental illness. One was diagnosed, and the other was not.
Those were tough years.
I’ve also had my share of challenging students. We’ve all had them.
They are the ones who come to school with tons of baggage due to circumstances beyond their control. They can make teaching a classroom of students a living nightmare.
These students can however be salvaged while they are in your classroom. They will take up a lot of your mental energy, time, patience and every ounce of stamina you have, but you can make some headway with these students.
The ones with mental illness are a different story. No amount of behavior interventions can make long term differences with these students.
Each day becomes survival mode for yourself and the rest of the students in the classroom. I know this sounds negative but it’s a reality.
One of the most unnerving behaviors both these students presented was the way they tracked me around the room with their eyes. Their eye contact was a direct challenge. It was mentally exhausting trying to ignore the eye tracking and avoiding making eye contact.
The eye tracking started to permeate my whole being and I kept waiting for ‘it’ to happen. The ‘it’ could be a violent or explosive event which circumvented myself and my students being evacuated from the classroom. This was the safety plan.
After one of the evacuations, it took 15 adults 30 minutes to put my classroom back into some sort of order at the end of the day. He was 7 years old.
No one can understand the power this eye tracking has on you until you have experienced it. You try to explain it to colleagues, family, friends but you end up stopping because you can’t explain it. You begin to question your own mental health.
A teacher can ‘figure out’ most students after a certain amount of time, but students with mental illness cannot be ‘figured out’. You will be asked what their triggers are and you’ll shrug your shoulders. You will be asked what you can do to de-escalate the situation and you’ll shrug again.
All you can do is try to smile, maintain your composure and attempt to keep everyone safe through it all. To help yourself and your students get through the year, gather as many allies on your side as you can; support personnel, parents, administrators, colleagues.
Parents of the other children in your classroom need to know the situation at school. A parent can be a great advocate for you to help have this student removed from your classroom or placed on a shortened school day.
Support staff and colleagues need to understand that they are on call for any kind of SOS from yourself and your students.
Administration needs to know the severity of the problem. They need to understand that it just isn’t a matter of you not being able to ‘handle’ or ‘manage’ the student. They need to be one board with the severity of the the situation with this student.
Lastly, look after your own mental health, get plenty of rest, eat well and exercise.
You’ll need it.