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Leah Thomas

No student should be thought of as a challenge rather than a person, but there’s no denying that we’ve all heard and used the phrase before. It’s a convenient and almost inoffensive shorthand way of describing a difficult classroom situation. Often we’ve used it to describe children with notable behavioral problems, a disinterest in classroom procedures or sometimes even a learning disability or hindrance. At least these days we aren’t actively referring to students as “problem children.”

Even so, the label strikes me as detrimental. The trouble with the term “challenging” is in all that it implies: these are students to be conquered or defeated. The word “challenging” implies there needs to be some taming or reining in, and sometimes these students excel when the opposite occurs. I’ve witnessed this through CoTA.

During my last semester placement with CoTA this past Spring, my mentor artist and I were placed in a kindergarten class full of diverse personalities. To say that some of these personalities clashed would be an understatement. There were days when it felt like leaving the classroom at the end of the session was akin to fleeing a crime scene, days followed up by a meeting during which the classroom teacher was frequently tearful and apologetic. It wasn’t her fault; the feeling was mutual. The feeling was frustration. I doubted our efficacy in that classroom more than once.

One student in particular initially seemed a poor fit for arts integration. More than once her behavior meant she could not take part in our projects – the excitement most students feel when we bring art in was exacerbated by her tendency to associate excitement with aggression. She was cruel to other students and oppositional to adults in the extreme, and during our first few visits was physically pulled out of activities by her classroom teacher, an intrepid educator who had been trying to help this student acclimate all year and was finally reaching breaking point.

In our meetings, this student was often the subject of long conversations. Learning her circumstances helped us all better integrate her into activities. This was a student who’d been part of the foster system, who’d not known the stability of a single home in her six years of life. The creative chaos that engages so many students only set her off and undermined what structure she had come to rely on: basic classroom routine, controlled rules for school-time.

But how to help her without detracting from the experiences of her peers? My mentor artist began to give structure to this student’s chaos. She assigned this girl specific roles, like doling out materials or helping tidy at the end of class. We gave her tasks that were stable and consistent, and by the end of our unit, though of course we could not remedy her behavior entirely, this girl was actively able to participate in our projects without losing to her temperament. We hadn’t conquered this challenge. We’d simply taken into account her difficulties and tried to address them at her level.

When we consider challenging students and what we should call them, I suggest this: call them by their names.