Differentiating Behavioral Practices: Austin’s Story

By Sherwanda Chism, Ed.D., elementary gifted language arts teacher in Shelby County Schools

I remember the day that I met Austin*. He was far from a bright-eyed, eager learner receptive to the welcoming voices that greeted him. He was not interested in reading or math. Academics took a back seat to his home life characterized by stressful and traumatic events.

It was two weeks into the school year. My routines had been set, and procedures had become second nature. We were well on our way to an amazing school year until my administrator came to my room and asked me to take on another student. On top of our student numbers being astoundingly large, this student, because of life’s happenings, needed extra support requiring assistance from several stakeholders and services from outside agencies.

Dr. Chism reflects on work with her students.

When I first met Austin, I greeted him with my happy teacher voice, and his eyes told me that he was not interested in my high-pitched voice “hug.” My cheerful teacher demeanor was met with reluctance and anger. Austin’s response was new for me because I had the reputation of being a fun- loving teacher, and students liked me. Initially, I did not realize his refusal to accept my welcome was his way of managing his emotions and protecting himself. For several weeks, I tried hard to prove to Austin that I was a likeable person, that he could trust me, and that my classroom was a safe space. Nothing seemed to work; traditional behavior reinforcement practices were not yielding results, and behavior deterrence charts only made Austin angrier. His anger and lack of trust impeded his learning, and he was content with being left alone. I knew I had I had to put my pride away, reevaluate my practices, and think of nontraditional ways to reach Austin.

I knew that Austin was living with his grandparents who were local pastors, and a great deal of his time outside of school was spent at church. One Monday I decided to ask Austin about his Sunday. He did not offer verbal answers- only a cut of his eyes, showing me that he was bothered by my interest. Nevertheless, every Monday for about a month, I made it a point to ask Austin about his weekend. Austin still would not budge. After believing that my inquiries were unfruitful, I decided to table my questioning. My interest in Austin’s weekend seemed to be another failed attempt, and it was time to find another method of connecting with him.

Dr. Chism and some of her students

Then, the day came when Austin came to me and said, “You didn’t ask me about my Sunday School lesson.” At that moment, I realized Austin looked forward to me asking him about the happenings in his life. He was listening, and I had found a connection. This was the beginning of many victories. I realized I could not control what had happened in Austin’s life, but I could ensure that for the time he was in my classroom, he would know school was a haven, a magical place of escape where he was free to learn and play.    

It is imperative that educators differentiate behavioral practices to meet the affective needs of individual students. Doing so will ensure that all students have access to learning. From Austin, I learned three important lessons that have impacted my classroom.

  • Show genuine interest in students’ lives outside school to build positive relationships and connections
  • Learn about and use restorative practices to ensure that all students’ social and emotional needs are met so that they can learn.
  • Reflect critically often and be willing to change your practices to meet individual student needs

As I think about the implications of Austin’s story, I am confident that the sound of the school bell can bring about hope for all students. His story taught me to consider my practices daily and recognize the humanity of all children. Austin helped me make my classroom a place of refuge for all students.

*I’ve changed the student’s name in this article to ensure his anonymity.